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PATCH VOICES: The Importance of Professional Collaboration in Education

The annual School Reform Initiative Winter Meeting affords us an opportunity to learn and connect with other educators from around the country engaged in a practice known as “critical friends groups.”

Matt Underwood. FILE PHOTO
Matt Underwood. FILE PHOTO
by Matt Underwood

In just a few hours, I’ll be on a plane to Boston along with 10 other ANCS faculty members headed to the annual School Reform Initiative (SRI) Winter Meeting.  The SRI Winter Meeting affords us an opportunity to learn and connect with other educators from around the country engaged in a practice known as “critical friends groups” (CFGs).  CFGs are a central feature of professional collaboration at ANCS and reflect many of the Coalition of Essential Schools common principles, including personalization, a commitment to the entire school, and democracy and equity.
 
So what is a CFG?  In short, a CFG is a small group of educators (typically about 8-12) who come together on a regular basis guided by group norms to focus on student learning using a variety of protocols for activities such as exploring specific teaching dilemmas, looking at student work, and discussing texts.  CFGs allow for the creation of learning communities that ask us as educators to:
  • Be accountable to our colleagues to continually improve our practice for the benefit of our students and to share our actions with our colleagues;
  • Engage in public, collaborative assessment of student and adult work;
  • Work in ways that challenge each other’s assumptions about educational excellence and equity; and
  • Examine our beliefs and question how these beliefs are enacted in our practice. 
At ANCS, the entire faculty and staff meets in 16 different CFGs about once a month.  Each CFG is composed of a mix of educators of different experience levels and from each campus, allowing for collaboration and learning across the school.  While ANCS educators meet weekly (even daily) in grade level and content-specific teams on their campuses, the structure and composition of CFGs creates space to get the perspectives and ideas from people we don’t necessarily work with on a more regular basis.  
 
ANCS CFGs are coached by faculty members trained in facilitation techniques and are supported (through our Innovation Fund grant) by SRI national facilitators who work with them each month and who each summer lead a weeklong CFG institute.  You can read more from these facilitators and two of our CFG coaches in the section that follows.
 
We are especially excited to open up a summer CFG institute at ANCS to other schools who have expressed interest in learning more about CFGs, and we look forward to learning in partnership with these schools.  CFGs play an important role at ANCS, and they hold the potential to transform student and adult learning at schools that commit to the practice in a meaningful way.

Mr. Underwood is the executive director of Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School in Grant Park and Ormewood Park.

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