Together We Are Better: The Necessity and Beauty of a Professional Learning Network for Upending the National Literacy Crisis

Note: In a session at Impact Florida’s 2019 Summit, Robin McClellan described her efforts to transform literacy instruction in public schools in Sullivan County, Tennessee. Here, she reflects on that process, and the Professional Learning Network that helped her along the way.

“Together We Are Better.” At one of our district’s elementary schools, the teachers exude this mantra in all they do: providing for the needs of their students, solving problems of practice, setting and achieving goals, and exemplifying their roles as “chief learners” in their classrooms and schools.

In the field of education, we are now hearing about de-silo-fication – breaking down the barriers that isolate us from our colleagues when we have problems to solve.

To address the literacy problems we face as a society, de-silo-fication is key – and far too often, missing. District, building, and classroom leaders must learn the science of how to teach reading and make brave decisions about selecting high-quality curriculum to build proficient readers. This challenge is daunting; however, I am on the greatest professional learning journey of my lifetime because of connection and collaboration I have found through the Curriculum Matters Professional Learning Network (PLN). I encourage educators everywhere to join in on this meaningful work.

My own experience with a PLN began when Tennessee’s focus on literacy was brought to the forefront by then-Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen. Tennessee achievement data showed that only about one-third of our students were reading proficiently by the end of third grade, and this grim picture was not changing as students progressed through high school. The literacy crisis warranted a call to action, and 15 diverse districts collaborating through the Leading Innovation for Tennessee (LIFT) initiative rose to the challenge for their kids.

Through LIFT’s partnership with the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE), educators convened to learn about the state’s most startling problem of practice: the literacy crisis. LIFT districts were challenged to take an honest look at current classroom practices and student work to determine if instruction and expectations had shifted to meet the higher demands of the recently adopted Tennessee Academic Standards for English Language Arts.

Even though teachers were bringing their “A” game to classrooms every day, they were spending an inordinate amount of time planning and grappling for resources. They were not equipped with high-quality curriculum grounded in reading science.

In Sullivan County, dedicated teacher sand leaders came together in a partnership with TNTP (formerly The New Teacher Project) and learned about the importance of strong curriculum and professional learning. LIFT helped us maintain our focus, share problems and celebrations, and rethink/reframe/release those literacy strategies of yesteryear that have never proven to be effective.

As members of our network stepped out of our comfort zone and admitted there was “unfinished learning around literacy,” I formed relationships with extremely talented, “real,” transparent, and dedicated colleagues. These relationships have, in turn, been a major force in my (and our) progress and learning. What is de-silo-fi-cation? It is hopping on the phone with Jill Ramsey and her team from Putnam County to discuss their implementation strategy, emailing Millicent Smith from Lenoir City to schedule classroom visits, or participating in Zoom meetings with several districts at once to tackle obstacles. The trajectory for students is changing in our district, and the ride has been more meaningful, impactful, and enjoyable thanks to the power of this consortium of advocates who have become more like friends and family.

As a nation, we have the opportunity now to share, collaborate, build collective efficacy, and make decisions that will impact the lifetime trajectory for kids. In my rural district in Tennessee, working in a silo is very real, very daunting, and very lonely. For talkative, extroverted, social creatures, working in silos can be strangling. With multiple platforms for conversations, we no longer have to take this journey alone.

While the LIFT effort has concluded, districts from across our vast state will forever be connected and cheering each other on because we reached out in the beginning as vulnerable, imperfect, transparent leaders to admit we don’t want to do the work alone. This remains the most important work of my career. This network gave educators like me the platform, space, training, and materials needed to make change for students, teachers, and leaders. Its leaders added such value to my own life through their friendships and support, and through facilitating and nurturing a network of trusted friends and advisors who will not settle until we set a high bar for every child. As we now know, when that bar is set, .

If you’re with me, let’s keep the connections, conversation and collaboration going that we started at the Impact Florida Education Summit. Tag me or Impact Florida on Facebook or Twitter and let us know how you want to plug in. Specifically, if you think that a curriculum PLN could elevate your work, too, please check out the community I’m involved with that’s forming around high-quality curriculum use, Curriculum Matters.

When you advocate for high quality curriculum to “pour the footers” so teachers can “build the house,” you need strength. When you think about traditional methods that need to be upended so the bar is raised for students (who will rise when given the opportunity), you need endurance. This PLN helps you discover both inside yourself.

I believe “Together We are Better.” Do you?

To learn more about the work taking place in the Sullivan County district, contact Robin McClellan at

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