by Alyson Carpenter
Instructional Partner in Residence
Alabama Best Practices Center
The Alabama Instructional Partners are home this week after a learning-filled fall retreat at Children’s Harbor on beautiful Lake Martin.
Our return to the place where the Alabama Instructional Partners Pilot Project began one year ago with Cohort 1 was full of a new kind of anticipation, as we came together for our first combined retreat for Cohorts 1 and 2. We have often compared our pilot program to a journey. I agree with that analogy, but after this week I am beginning to see the journey more specifically as a "family road trip," and our most recent retreat was another exciting destination along the way.
One year ago, in a project initiated by the Alabama State Department of Education and supported by the Alabama Best Practices Center, reading coaches and instructional coaches from five Alabama districts came together to learn about serving in a new professional role: Instructional Partner. We had no idea what was in store for us in the year ahead, as you will have learned if you've had the opportunity to read our end-of-year reflections published over the summer.
The school districts involved in our first-year pilot included Tarrant City, Madison City, Attalla City, Blount County and Talladega County. This year, we grew our IP family to include additional Partners from the original districts as well as new additions from Madison County, Huntsville City, Elmore County, Mobile County, Tuscaloosa County, and Tuscaloosa City.
It seemed impossible just a few months ago that we would be able to continue to grow our IP team and remain the close family we have become. I am thrilled to say that we are definitely doing just that with the addition of our Cohort 2 partners.
Our fall retreat was full of learning and collaboration
When I think about the “ties that bind” this IP family, many things come to mind. The first is the commitment to the work at hand. Don’t get me wrong—we have a LOT of fun when our IP family comes together. However, we work hard first! We spend every available moment of our time together focusing our efforts on ways to make an impact in the schools and districts we serve.
During our retreats, we begin our learning by 8, have lunch together, then after a short afternoon break and dinner meal, we work together until 8 in the evening. You’d think we would all be exhausted and ready to crash at this point, but that is not generally the case. Partners go out for walks together, hang out in the main room and chat, or join each other on the shared porches of our cabins for a debrief of the day. We are energized by the time with each other.
During the fall retreat, our Cohort 1 IPs really paved the way for the new members of our family team. As the IP in Residence this year, I had been able to form bonds with the new Partners of Cohort 2 before our trip to Children's Harbor last week. I was delighted to see that this same bonding happened naturally for all as IPs from both cohort groups came together during the retreat.
The value of shared experience
The Cohort 1 Partners were an essential part of leading the learning. They spent a lot of time during the retreat looking back and offering their reflections on the first year of their own IP experience. Each of them facilitated a table group. Being in an observer’s role this year, I saw many mentoring relationships forming. District teams that worked together also formed strong bonds during the retreat—with the Tarrant team working with Cohort 1 veteran Kisha Tolbert-Woods even asking to be referred to collectively as “Kisha’s Crew.”
To see these friendships begin or mature during the retreat was fun to watch. The bonding of the Partners is an essential component of our success, in my opinion, because the work is so new and there is so much we can and must learn from each other. I have never worked with a more collaborative and caring group of educators. There is energy in the room when this group comes together that really does feel like family.
As the Cohort 1 Partners reflected on the year past, we looked back to a large chart from the Year 1 retreat that was labeled with the word “SHIFTS” on top and had arrows going from left to right across it. We remembered looking blankly at the chart during our own fall retreat in 2011 and never adding one thing to it. At that time, we really could not imagine the shifts that would lie ahead for us.
This year, Cohort 1 Partners were able to think back on the year, and each of us added to the chart a “SHIFT” we had made. They included:
• a shift from “fixer” to supporter
• a shift from isolation to collaboration
• a shift from an empowered leader to a leader who empowers others
• a shift from coach to partner
• a shift from "We can’t" to “Why can’t we?”
• a shift from data keeper to data collaborator, and
• a shift from a focus on Programs to a focus on People.
It was exciting to see how far we had come in a year. It was also exciting to share this with the Cohort 2 partners and give them an idea of where they could begin. They would not have to start with a “blank chart” as we did. It was comforting for all to hear how we are all in different places with the shifts and how the journey looks so different from one school to the next.
At this point in the retreat, we began sharing our mantra of “Go slow in order to go fast.” Change is a process, and it was comforting to hear that we are all in this together and all free to move at our own pace.
As we began Day 2 of the fall retreat, we were greeted by an email from our state superintendent in response to a photo of this SHIFTS chart shared through social media. Dr. Bice wanted to let us know that he was proud of the shifts we are making and especially proud of the shift in our focus from programs to people. His comments were powerful affirmation of the work we are doing. The room was immediately filled with optimism!
Shopping in the IP Marketplace
Another highlight of the fall Instructional Partners retreat was the IP Marketplace. Partners from Cohort 1 shared strategies and activities that are working in their schools. Cohort 2 IPs could come and “shop” for ideas. The offerings included:
• Creating a One Page Instructional Target,
• Building the IP/Administrator Relationship
• Peer Coaching
• Protocols for Looking at Student Work
• Building Collaborative Teams and Teacher Leaders
• Defining Our Role: Menus & Other Strategies, and
• Expanding Our Reach: Working in All Grades and Content Areas
This was another opportunity for new IPs to begin thinking about how their role might be redefined as they transition from Instructional Coach or Reading Coach to the role of Instructional Partner. It was at this point where I really began to see individual IPs light up with ideas and excitement. I am looking forward to attending their own marketplace stations in the future!
Ning at Night
Our nighttime activities usually revolve around our online Instructional Partners Learning Network (known to us affectionately as our “Ningdom”). We use a private online NING site that serves as a network where Partners share weekly private reflections with pilot coordinators and also share ideas they have with their fellow Instrucational Partners -- photos of school events, ideas they're trying out, resources of interest they've spotted. The NING site is maintained by our tech buddy Beth Sanders, a third year Social Studies teacher from Tarrant High School, who was on-hand to introduce all the new IPs to this wonderful virtual community space. The site keeps us connected between our face-to-face meetings and is an integral piece of the IP Pilot’s success.
This retreat’s nighttime fun was no different than usual, with people posting on NING for the first time, learning how to add pictures, videos, and otherwise share successes with our IP family. Beth is a ball of energy and having a young teacher among us who adds that 20-something perspective and voice is another essential piece of our IP family puzzle. The new IPs were excited and having fun as they learned together with Beth facilitating. The IPs from Cohort 1 were also in good hands on the technology front as they worked with Carmen Buchanan -- Cohort 1 IP and current Assistant Principal at Liberty Middle School in Madison City -- to learn more about creating a broader online professional learning network using Twitter.
Traveling the bright road ahead
In reading the reflections from IPs as they returned from the retreat, the common threads seemed to be the time needed to think and reflect on the information received, and the excitement that comes with the autonomy to begin where your school is and move at a just right pace to help take your school to the next level. I must say I feel exactly the same way.
The entire IP family (and that includes the ALSDE, ARI, AMSTI, & ABPC as well as our Partner Districts, Schools, Administrators, Partners, and Teachers) is invested in the success of the Instructional Partners Pilot as we move forward together. Having a bird’s-eye view this year of all the schools in the Instructional Partners Pilot is challenging, exciting, and has already proved rewarding for me.
Our collective dreams seem so much more attainable as we continue to maintain our IP family bonds and travel the journey together. I look forward to continuing this “family road trip”—knowing we will need to look in our rear-view mirror from time to time to learn from our successes and mistakes, make side trips along the way to shop at a marketplace and gain ideas from others, and take the rest stops necessary for true reflection on our own practice.
We will see many different destinations along the way, and we will never expect to “arrive,” because we know this is a lifelong journey that is focused on teacher and student success in Alabama. I look forward to every mile of the trip with this phenomenal group of educators. I definitely see a bright road ahead!
Alyson Carpenter is an instructional coach in the Madison City Schools, where she was a literacy coach prior to 2011. This school year she is helping lead the Alabama Instructional Partners Pilot as the IP-in-residence at the Alabama Best Practices Center. Read about her first year in the IP project here.