Building Collaborative Communities: By teachers for teachers: Part 1 of a 2 part series

Penny Kynigou, ACS Athens Teacher, Coordinator of Professional Collaboration and Learning, NSRF National Facilitator 

David Nelson, ACS Athens Teacher, Coordinator of Professional Development & Growth, NSRF National Facilitator

This article was first published in the NSRF Connections magazine, June 2016,

Over the past five years at the American Community Schools of Athens (ACS) we have worked to create an environment of collaborative professional development with NSRF’s Critical Friends Group work at the core.  As coordinators of the initiative, we simultaneously studied the impact of the expanding CFG work among faculty through our own Action Research.  In this two part series, we’d like to share some of the steps that we took, a few snippets from our findings, some setbacks that we built upon, and most importantly the successes that our school celebrates.

At ACS Athens, a student-centered international school that embraces American educational philosophy, we have established what we call Collaborative Learning Communities (CLCs), wholly based on Critical Friends Group work. Over the past five years, these groups have become a driving force in professional development within this JK-12 International School in Athens.

The ACS community has recently completed a four year self-study through school-wide Action Research projects as part of the pioneering implementation of a freshly designed accreditation protocol through the Middle States Association, known as “Sustaining Excellence”.  Our research focused on the CLC and its impact on the faculty and led us to identify three core beliefs that underlie why teachers feel that these meetings offer something unique:

  1. the CFG processes used in the meetings inspire risk-taking, empathy and growth;
  2. the diverse makeup of the groups generate a high level of creativity;
  3. the focus on inquiry is key to successful problem solving.

CLC’s have been developed over the past five years by teachers for teachers. Participation remains voluntary and 65% of our faculty has chosen to join a CLC group during our monthly after-school meetings dedicated to professional development, despite having the option to work on individual projects. We have held four coaches trainings at the school and have a core group of 13 trained coaches who help co-facilitate the four CLC groups. While teachers frequently present classic CFG material, such as student work, instructional designs and dilemmas, at ACS Athens teachers have also used the collective power of the CLC “think tank” to refine and improve their Action Research designs. CLC’s are a thriving and vital part of professional growth at our school and their impact has gone beyond the dedicated CLC time.  As one of our trained coaches, Ginger Carlson, commented, “There is a cross-pollination of both ideas and the tools that are used and they have impacted faculty meetings, small groups, and classroom teaching.


Lessons Learned:  

So what factors have contributed to the successful growth of the CFG concept within our school? What lessons can we share with other teachers who seek to create thriving CFG communities?

Firstly, if you hope to start CFG meetings in your school, find yourself an ally: a new idea is a fragile spark and as they say, it takes one to light the candle and one to protect the flame. Share the idea with a few more like-minded people. Start it on your own time, because it brings joy and reinvigorates your teaching, because it’s a good excuse to spend time with the colleagues you really admire, talking about your shared passion for education. Let it be a sandbox. Play and have fun!

Secondly, keep it voluntary. Nothing kills fun and passion as fast as people who feel mandated to do something they don’t want to do and don’t see the value in. Start out small, but think big. Avoid using what sometimes can be seen as “off-putting jargon” that excludes the uninitiated; “protocol” sounds faintly threatening and “process” is a softer term that everyone understands. Make occasional presentations, to not only faculty but also administration, about what the group is doing and why, and use the opportunities to solicit more volunteers.

One of the least successful ventures we tried was to run a “fishbowl”, where observers sat in on a protocol, one of the most complex ones at that. A lot of people observing the Issaquah protocol, now called “Dilemma Analysis”, found the process incomprehensible, the strict format of questioning irritating, and the time constraints bizarre.

Without a doubt, we learn best by doing and in contrast we found tremendous success in using protocols in faculty meetings that directly involved everyone and modeled the processes.  We facilitated versions of “Success Analysis” in each of our respective schools, and applied “Text Rendering” and “Save the Last Word” to the school wide effort to conceptualize constructivist theories of education. Furthermore, the “Futures Protocol” helped the Elementary faculty to envisage Genius Hour/Passion Projects while also helping to more effectively communicate the potential of CLCs.  Wider involvement of CFG Coaches, who facilitated Data protocols to examine school-wide MAP scores, also broadened the CLCs’ appeal. The protocol modeled a non-threatening approach to open dialogue about sensitive material. All of these experiences were insights into the power, productivity and fun of using structured meeting processes and brought us many eager recruits.

Getting administrators on our side was critical, and not always easy, given that initially none of them had a background in CFG work. How did we get started? Just by asking, initially; the President of ACS Athens, Dr. Gialamas supported us as a sort of start-up, allowing core faculty to exchange a day of work on Saturday to attend our Critical Friends Group orientation for a professional day during the year. Perhaps we were seen as hobbyists at first, but soon our participants turned from hobbyists to lobbyists, sharing their enthusiasm for our groups with their administrators during the end of the year evaluation meetings.

We also made repeated presentations to administration, first to bring in Michele Mattoon to do the initial training, and then as David Nelson became a National Facilitator and offered more training, we lobbied to roll out CLC groups to the wider school community. As we were invited to facilitate protocols outside of the CLC meetings, during faculty and department meetings, our administrators saw and appreciated the equity the processes offered and the value of the trained facilitators’ skills– this was especially significant during the roll-out of the Action Research process.  In many ways as the administration helped us to achieve our goals, we helped them to achieve theirs.

The first time we attempted to roll out the CFG work school-wide and were granted a monthly meeting time, we found ourselves hindered as meetings were repeatedly postponed and rescheduled, and then postponed again.  However, the school was focused on the truly massive project of mapping out its own curriculum standards and benchmarks that would fit the unique nature of an international school. Somewhat baffled by the mixed messages we were receiving, we decided to put the roll-out on hold and go back to holding a core group with those who valued the process so much that they were willing to give up their own time to participate.

Proactively, we brought the dilemma of how to secure administrative support to the core group and two key ideas surfaced through the process: firstly, we should presume positive intent and recognize that with curriculum mapping as a priority for accreditation, the truth was that there was little time in the schedule; secondly, was there a way to invite our School President and the Dean of Academic Affairs to actually participate in a protocol themselves, we wondered?

Choosing the “Futures Protocol” and aligning with the school’s mission of creating a constructivist school with students as architects of their own learning, we invited the President and Dean of Academic Affairs to participate in seeing what ACS Athens might look like after five years. As David facilitated the process, ideas flowed so thick and fast that Penny’s hand hurt as she transcribed to the butcher paper– the room was electric, brimming with vision and collaboration. When, the following fall, we once again presented the school-wide roll-out of the CLC to the Academic Leadership team, we now had significant allies in the room!

With CLC meetings firmly on the agenda for the coming school year, we returned to the core group to tune the yearlong plan for the meetings: a plan which would scaffold the building of trust and agreements in the initial meetings and scaffold the development of feedback and questioning skills as we led the participants deeper into the work of the CFG.

We have found the existence of the Core Group of trained coaches essential for planning and supporting the roll-out of the school wide CLC. Working together to preview protocols, brainstorm solutions to our own dilemmas, such as soliciting presenters for sessions, helps us to norm the groups.  As coordinators we provide support with preconferences, prepare the materials, plans and even debrief sessions.

Throughout the entire process of building collaboration in the CLCs, open reflection and dialogue have been the most important elements in their creation. After the initial year of rolling out the CLC to the wider school, we decided to make the final meeting of the year an all-CLC debrief session, bringing together all the membership to reflect on the year. We sought complete transparency with the faculty, emphasizing that the CLCs are a work in progress and something that teachers are doing for teachers to collectively improve our craft. We wanted to solicit input in such a way that everyone could feel free to add suggestions for improvement for the following year. To do so, we created three large “Chalk Talks” to collect feedback on three questions:

1) What did you get out of CLCs this year?

2) Based on your needs, what do you see as the potential for CLCs next year?

3) What elements need to exist to maximize the potential of CLCs to help us to improve our work and to improve student learning?

Encouraging small groups of diverse teachers to interpret each “Chalk Talk”, we provided a method for the faculty members to reach wide consensus on the goals, outcomes and potential for CLC meetings. Specifically, participants first had time to add their voices to each “Chalk Talk” and then move into triads to observe and analyze trends in the data. These triads then reported their observations to the whole group, thus depersonalizing comments while still getting them out on the table. During the debrief, members themselves addressed the few negative comments that had emerged by urging each other to be proactive and share concerns directly with their coaches, to commit to the CLC process through regular attendance, and to present work in order to see the benefits of the process. There was a strong up swell of positive feeling shared in this CLC-wide debrief session. We were able to collect the distilled observations and Wordle all the comments collected on the “Chalk Talks” and use them as data. We then shared this with the administrative team as we planned together to continue CLC groups in the following year.


graph-3-cfg-articleWorldle based on the faculty’s observations of Chalk Talk Question #1:  What did you get out of CLCs this year?

Our willingness to be transparent, open and responsive has been key to building trust both with our membership and with the administrative team. We are fortunate that our administration has realized that just as teachers need to change their role in the classroom to become facilitators of their students’ learning, administrators too need to take that leap of faith to become facilitators, rather than directors, of teachers’ continuing professional growth. Our Dean of Academic Affairs, Steve Medeiros often uses the image of fractals when describing the ideal working relationships within schools. There’s little doubt that there has to be a fractal relationship between learners at all levels of the school, with teacher learning communities mirroring the ideal conditions for learning in the classroom.

At the recent ACS Colloquium last month where teachers shared the results of their Action Research in a conference style gathering of MSA Accreditors, visiting educators from around the world, and parents and students alike, we presented the findings of our Action Research into the impact of the CLC at ACS. We invite you to watch our presentation here.


Every school has its own unique story and we share our experience at ACS Athens as a vignette of our practice not a sole recipe for success.  As National Facilitators ourselves, sometimes participants in our trainings comment that they feel alone as the one or two faculty in their school who have taken the CFG New Coaches training.   Our process too began with the two of us and a shared idea.  David attended a Bloomington open training for New CFG Coaches with Michele Mattoon, Director of NSRF and returned to ACS Athens eager to put CFG work in place. Penny too had experienced the energizing power of collaborative groups and we pooled our ideas and enthusiasm.  Remember too, that the CFG training equipped us with numerous resources, as our initial school roll-out plan was even “tuned” with the help of the open training participants and it is still in use today.   Our facilitator’s guidance was invaluable and the “Tip Sheet” that appears on page 106 of the New Coaches Handbook came to life.  As she always said, “Trust the process” and we did!

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