Before we dive into what the Connected Arts Network (CAN) is and what it is doing, let’s talk about Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). A PLC is a collaborative, professional network of teachers interested in improving their teaching practice and thus, student learning. An effective PLC is made up of six characteristics:
- structural conditions
- supportive relational conditions
- shared values and vision
- intentional collective learning
- peers supporting peers
- shared and supportive leadership (Hord 2004)
A PLC aims to examine both student learning and teaching practice, “there is a link between learning and teaching, and to examine only one side of the equation limits our ability as educators to take action” (Fisher et al., 2020, pg. 7).
PLC members meet regularly to engage in focused and deliberate dialogue by employing protocols, questioning techniques, inquiry, and wonder to drive a conversation that leads to individual teacher action.
The term PLC is slapped onto many team meetings, committee work, or other logistical downloads; however, a true PLC works to create personal pedagogical change, advance individual and collective growth, and support school improvement through collaboration, accountability, criticality, and continuous learning.
Developing PLCs in Theatre Education
As theatre teachers, we often work in silos. Many of our theatre educators operate their program alone or are tucked away in the school auditorium. Therefore, a PLC offers a theatre educator a community of like-minded people, a space for reflection, and a site to be seen and heard. A theatre PLC engages and supports teachers as they discuss the realities they are facing, which could have included the topic of returning to in-person learning. Other topics to discuss might include diversifying the curriculum with a lens of culturally responsive and decolonized practices, and sharing new strategies and techniques to invite and honor student voices.
This focus on professional learning recognizes the role of continual development for personal and pedagogical growth. The group’s orientation toward improvement, feed-forward (versus feedback), and equity help theatre educators continually improve their practice. Since theatre educators are spread out across the district, state, or nation, there are not many consistent gathering opportunities beyond the irregular fine arts district professional development day and once-a-year state or national convening.
With these challenges in mind, and understanding the great need to connect fine-arts educators, the National Art Education Association (NAEA), in partnership with the Educational Theater Association (EdTA), the National Association for Music Education (NAfME), and the National Dance Education Organization (NDEO) launched the Connected Arts Networks (CAN), a five-year grant initiative to create nationwide virtual PLCs with educators in visual arts, music, theater, dance, and media arts. The overarching vision for CAN is to build a sustainable professional learning model for arts educators to strengthen their pedagogy, instruction, and leadership skills to serve students better. This Office of Arts and Special Projectsproject is modeled after the successful structure of the PLC program in New York City, initiated by the (OASP), another partnering organization.
The Power of a PLC
As the individual supporting the 19 teacher leaders in theatre (who will each lead their own PLC next school year), I have a unique vantage point. I get to both learn with and from the teacher-leaders and to serve as a “think partner” with each teacher-leader as they work to deepen their individual practice.
In our first year, we attended professional learning sessions, celebrated each other’s successes and milestones, and supported our colleagues as they identified challenges in their classrooms. While almost all of the PLC work is virtual, one of the most galvanizing experiences was attending, in person, the 2022 Theatre Education Conference in Los Angeles with many of the teacher leaders from the CAN grant. My favorite experience was reflecting on the sessions and discussing ways that we will implement the work in our schools, including how I might embed the practice and techniques we learned into the Theatre Education Program at Emerson College. For example, the “Diversity in the Classroom: Black Acting Methods” and “The Work Begins with Us: Using Theatre Tools to Build Inclusive Classrooms” workshops provided me (and the teacher-leaders) reflection points that allowed us to reexamine, reimagine, and reframe our pedagogy and practice. For me, this is the power of a PLC – learning and growing together to develop and strengthen our practice, supporting our students and creating more inclusive and welcoming spaces.
In 2023, this multi-year CAN project will recruit another group of passionate and diverse educators to participate in the program. We hope you will consider joining the dynamic teacher-leaders, who will each serve as PLC facilitators to create multiple regional theatre PLCs spread out across the US. I know that you, too, will feel the inherent power of a PLC when a group of teachers gathers to reflect, connect, and support one another as we all work to enhance and evolve our pedagogy and practice. ♦
Joshua Rashon Streeter (he/him/his) is an Assistant Professor of Theatre Education at Emerson College. For the CAN grant, he serves as the Content Manager for the National Theatre PLC.