September Recap: A Powerful Month of Professional Learning Across Alabama

By Cathy Gassenheimer

It’s not often that grown-ups get to spend almost an entire month learning with and from others. But recently that’s exactly what I got to do!

In late August and September, we launched a High Poverty Schools Network in Birmingham, held the school year’s first series of Key Leaders Network meetings and Powerful Conversations Network meetings, and then concluded the month with four back-to-back regional Instructional Partners Network retreats.

abpc_jackieIt is both fun and challenging to design the professional learning for the ABPC Networks. Fortunately, our senior consultant Jackie Walsh, a truly gifted author and facilitator, did a lot of the heavy lifting!

Those of you who are involved in one or more of our Networks know that one of our driving beliefs is: The knowledge is in the room. Accordingly, each professional learning design factors in lots of discussion, reflection, and sharing among participants as we all surface the knowledge together.

The new High Poverty Schools Network

In collaboration with Dr. Boyd Rogan of UAB’s Inservice Center, and Melissa Shields, the ALSDE Regional Support Coordinator, we launched a High Poverty Schools Network for 10 schools from Birmingham City.

Relying on thought leaders like Eric Jensen, Crystal Kuykendall, Paul Bambrick-Santoyo, and Karin Chenoweth, school teams of four worked together to develop next action steps to ensure that students received the type of teaching and support needed to excel.

Instructional leaders from Birmingham sharing insights on how to effectively engage students in learning at higher levels.

The retreat began with participants identifying commonalities and expertise.

Key Leaders Network

This year, our six regional Key Leaders Networks (KLN) are using Jody Spiro’s High-Payoff Strategies: How Education Leaders Get Results as our guiding text. A summary of this informative book was featured in a previous ABPC blog entry.

Participants explored the three high-payoff strategies that emerged from the Wallace Foundation’s decade-plus study on leadership (Spiro is the director of education leadership for the Wallace Foundation). The strategies are:

  • Creating a culture supportive of teaching and learning
  • Leading instructional improvements
  • Facilitating learning communities

As Spiro notes, these strategies are—“at their heart, change strategies.” And she adds that “change is a moving target, constant and continuous” (p. 9). The KLN will investigate and act on these strategies at future meetings.

Blount County Key Leaders Network member shares the importance of shared leadership, vision, and work.

04-gcpic4dr Athens City School leaders learning at the first KLN meeting of the year.

Powerful Conversations Network

In September, the five regional sessions of the Powerful Conversations Network were held across the state, from Northwest Alabama to Southwest Alabama and points in between!

We’re beginning our third year of focus on Ron Berger’s Leaders of Their Own Learning: Tranforming Schools Through Student-Engaged Assessment.

This first meeting included a look back at key components of student-engaged assessment – learning targets and checking for understanding – using a “People Graph” for participants to literally show their progress in the use of learning targets and checks for understanding.


The major focus of this meeting was on the use of exemplars, student critique, and descriptive feedback. Secondary PCN members were able to learn about using models of exemplary student work from A+ College Ready content directors Diann Frucci and Robert Summers.


Instructional Partners Network

We brought September to a close by holding four back-to-back Instructional Partners Retreats across the state. School teams made up of the principal and instructional coach (a.k.a. instructional partner), learned together at these two-day retreats.

The focus for the opening retreat of the year was four-fold: Lesson design, coaching, developing teachers (the Four Stages of Teacher Development), and effective use of data for coaching adults.

We’ll build on these four components throughout the year, and future blog posts will go in-depth into each of these topics. Our work will also tap into the learnings from August’s Mindful Facilitator’s Institute, ably reported on by IP veteran Alyson Carpenter.

Vestavia Hills and Saraland principals considering the Four Stages of Teacher Development.

During the September retreats, principals and IPs investigated three forms of lesson design: Backwards mapping, lesson study, and conceptual design (KUDs).

Instructional Partners deepened their understand of cognitive coaching and shared insights and challenges related to coaching colleagues. And every participant spent time identifying data that could be particularly useful to teacher development and expertise.

At Camp McDowell, the weather was so beautiful we took the learning outside to discuss using data when coaching teachers.

All in all, it was a great several weeks of learning, networking, and reflection. In the months to come, Jackie and I will share more specifics on some of the key learnings from these events. Stay tuned and please share your insights with us.