Creating a Vibrant, Collaborative Vertical Planning Event

Ideas for creating an environment for elementary and middle school teachers to collaborate

One of the highlights of my first year at West Rowan Middle School was helping organize a collaborative opportunity between our sixth grade teachers and the fifth grade teachers at our feeder schools.

This was the first meeting of its kind, so we wanted to focus on building relationships that centered on trust and non-judgmental conversations. This first meeting—and any other—couldn’t be a sit-and-get presentation. We wanted teachers to know that they were empowered to take charge of the conversations and learning direction of the evening.

With my sixth grade teachers we planned on three activities for the evening:

  1. What’s in your Day? – We divided the fifth grade teachers into small groups and had two sixth grade teachers facilitate a post-it note activity where elementary teachers shared some thoughts on what they think the day of a middle school teacher/student looks like. Great fun, lots of laughs!
  2. 5/5/5 – This was one activity I remembered from years ago as a math vertical team chair. In their groups, teachers listed 5 things we want kids to know coming into their grade level, 5 things we want them to know when they leave, and 5 things they DEFINITELY know then they leave. Be prepared—the third item is a conversation starter!
  3. Group Discussions – We ran short on time here but we wanted to start some general process conversations with questions like:
    1. What is the best way to communicate with parents?
    2. What tech skills do your fifth graders have?
    3. What interventions should we be planning for?

This was a fun evening! We knew we would have a good evening but the conversations were richer than we could have imagined. We spent longer on the first two topics than we anticipated but it was time well spent. We maximized our time building relationships and learning what each grade level does to serve our kids.

Here are several suggestions if you are planning for a similar activity:

  • Focus on students – All conversations and plans should have student needs, learning outcomes, and achievement at the forefront.
  • Empower your facilitators – For this first meeting, our sixth grade teachers did a great job of leading these discussions and activities and ensuring our language and mindsets were positive and forward thinking.
  • Invite and involve your principals – This first picture shows three of our elementary school principals in attendance but all of our elementary principals were in attendance. They were instrumental in making sure all our fifth grade teachers and assistant principals were in attendance. I’m lucky to have a great relationship with all my area principals. Everyone involved saw our fire and it became contagious!

  • Do not let conversations focus on one child!
  • Create a non-judgmental atmosphere – There is never a time to have conversations about what was or was not taught well at any level.
  • Plan for the next two meetings – This is not about setting dates—even though that is important—it’s about prioritizing the many topics that will come up as your teachers talk and plan. Make sure your teachers know this expectation because it will be up to your lead learners to plan for these things.
  • Focus on relationships – I make a point to tell my teachers to make sure to connect with someone you do not know. This will help our non face-to-face talks go smoothly. Our get-togethers will only be for a couple of hours during the year but the real work will take place between the meetings.
  • Create clear expectations for the meeting and over-communicate them!

Our schools had not had a vertical meeting like this before. The overwhelmingly positive reaction we got from everyone involved shows the undeniable need for these articulation talks. If you are the middle school lead learner, teacher, or administrator, make this happen. Understand that while teachers will grow and benefit, it’s our students who win at the end.