Powerful Protocols

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By: Andrea Behling, High School PBL Facilitator

Columbus Signature Academy New Tech

Columbus, IN


Protocol: A code prescribing strict adherence to correct etiquette and precedence (Merriam-Webster)

Protocols within the classroom are a necessity. They help guide instruction in a way that outlines clear expectations in order to maintain structure and direction. By its definition, a protocol can be as simple as the ever so common Think, Pair, Share: “Find a partner. Discuss your answer to question number one with your partner. Be prepared to share to the class.” However, if done well, protocols can be the backbone of instructional practice. Along with providing structure to any given activity, they intentionally integrate practices that will help our students develop skills that help them find success and stretch their potential in a collaborative working environment. 

Likewise, as educators we can use protocols to structure discussion to achieve results that are aligned with our professional goals. I have found using protocols to be much more efficient than simply “having a discussion” around a certain topic. And let’s face it: sometimes adults need to brush up on those skills that lead to success by collaboration, too. School Reform Initiative is a fantastic resource to use for finding protocols appropriate for every occasion. From reading texts, to understanding learning styles, to analyzing data, there is a protocol to use to structure each activity with direction and intention. Here are four protocols that I have found most useful within my PBL instruction as well as within my working environment with other educators.

1. Affinity Mapping

There is no better way to create a set of classroom norms or agreements than by using an Affinity Map. With this protocol, students are asked a question based around the idea of a successful classroom environment. For example, “What things do YOU need for this to be a comfortable and successful learning environment?” Students use sticky notes (one thought per note) to craft their ideal learning environment for that classroom based on items that naturally go together and form clusters. From these clusters, we write our agreements for each class period. The idea of creating agreements as a class as opposed to posting a set of teacher-created classroom rules feeds buy-in and comfortability. Students are more likely to follow these agreements if they have a hand in creating them. Additionally, the silence and anonymity of the protocol allow students to safely put forth their needs. What you have at the end of the protocol is a living document that the students have the responsibility to uphold, as well as revisit and make necessary changes to it throughout the year.

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To another degree, my co-teacher and I have used Affinity Mapping in our US History/English 11 integrated course as a way for students to find themes throughout the state standards. Although it generally becomes a slight variation from the original protocol, I have students sift through our standards for the course and find themes throughout American History. They will generally find the natural categories like War and Conflict, Human Rights, Ups and Downs of the Economy, Powerful Leaders, Innovation, etc. Using this protocol is beneficial because it engages each student with those standards, and asks them to think critically about which events throughout time naturally fit together. We then use these student created clusters to drive the themes for our projects throughout the year.
Affinity Mapping also has many uses in the professional environment. Most recently, the staff at my school has used this protocol to help reevaluate our student outcomes. In our summer retreat, we were given the prompt, “What skills, attributes, or characteristics will a 2022 CSA New Tech graduate possess?” We used the protocol to identify different areas in which we would like to see our students succeed after graduation. Through this, we found clusters that aligned seamlessly with our already existing student outcomes. A school or department could use this same process to create new student outcomes that serve as goals for developing their students.

2. Chalk Talk
This protocol gives students the opportunity to have a conversation without using their voices. It 
opens up a great opportunity for those students who are not as comfortable speaking in front of their peers, but have lots of insight to add to the conversation. In particular, this protocol can be very useful to help gauge students’ prior knowledge. Whether at the beginning of a semester, a new unit, or even 
a single day’s lesson, you can use specific questions, phrases, or words to get students thinking and digging into their prior knowledge about your particular topic. For example, at the beginning of our World Religions project, I might post a piece of chart paper with the name of the major religions we will be studying to see what students already know about this topic. One thing I make sure my students do with the Chalk Talk protocol is to circulate the room multiple times, and engage with each board at least twice. This could be writing their own thought, responding to or branching off of someone else’s thought, or by simply putting a star next to an idea they really agree with. By seeing each board multiple times, they are able to engage in a real conversation around each topic through the paper. The most important rule of this protocol is that students remain silent – the conversation happens on the paper, not with their voices.

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 My favorite way to incorporate the Chalk Talk into my classroom is to use it as a reflection tool either at the end of a project or the end of a semester/year. Four pieces of chart paper, each with a different reflection question, hang around the room and prompt discussion from students. This is not only helpful for students to reflect on the work that they have done, but as a facilitator these paper conversations are invaluable to improving my classroom and practice. To reflect on a single project, I would use questions like, “If you could change one thing about this project, what would it be and why?,” “What is the one thing about this project we should keep and why?,” and “How do you see (insert history content/theme of project here) in your life?” When using this protocol to reflect on an entire semester/year, my questions are more general such as, “Which project this year had the greatest impact on you and why?,” and “Which project should we definitely ditch for next year and why?” Again, this form of conversation helps students who are not as comfortable speaking out to have their “voice” heard in the discussion. Likewise, since the comments do remain anonymous, it can help students to be more honest and open with their thoughts about the project or class. 

Professionally, our staff most recently used a Chalk Talk at our monthly staff meeting as a protocol to guide discussion around supporting students. The prompting question our administration posed for us was, “What do we do well in our classes and activities to create a caring school climate, and actively involve parents in helping their child to succeed? Where do you see gaps, or barriers?” We spent a few minutes exploring our own thoughts on this, and then had a chance to respond to other thoughts on the board and use those to inspire ideas or new questions. This discussion will help guide work that we do to build a better school culture as the year continues. As adults, it might be even more difficult for us to abide by the rules of the protocol (specifically keeping silent). However, using this protocol strictly allowed for deeper thought and contribution for all staff members as we begin to address goals for our school culture.

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3. Tuning Protocol

The tuning protocol is one that is integral to our collaboration as professionals at my school. Before launching any project, we try to make it a point to bring our project idea to a Critical Friends Group or Professional Learning Community in order to get feedback from our peers. The protocol that we use at my school (very similar to the one outlined by Edutopia in the article linked) is a short protocol that requires the presenting teacher to remain silent while others give warm and cool feedback as well as suggestions or ideas for further exploration or cross-curricular opportunities. This is the reason I always make sure to include teachers from a variety of subject areas in feedback sessions for my projects. I cannot stress the value of this process in my own personal practice as I have developed as an educator. Too often as teachers, we find ourselves in our own “bubbles” while still trying to teach collaboration to our students. This protocol offers us the opportunity for professional collaboration, and the chance to get “fresh eyes” on a project idea, whether to enhance a new project idea or to add elements to a repeat project. Plus, as they say, two heads are better than one. The more heads that are involved in tuning your project, the better the feedback will be and the more authentic and engaging your project will end up!

This protocol can also be very valuable for students as they start to hone in on a plan for a final product during the project process. Once each group has a solid idea in their head of the direction of their project, I like to have students participate in this protocol for the same reasons I like it professionally – the more ideas, the better! The timing of this protocol for students can be a little bit tricky. We want all groups to have their own ideas formed before participating in the protocol so as not to “latch onto” an idea from another group, but rather to offer and accept feedback from their peers. One part of this protocol that I love for students is that the presenter must remain silent and simply take note of the feedback from their peers. This way, they are focused on taking in all of the feedback and ideas and are not tempted to defend their work or ideas. The restrictions of this protocol, including time restraints, help build skills of both giving and receiving critical feedback. The key is making sure they follow the rules!

4. Zones of Comfort, Risk, and Danger 

Like some of the protocols I have already discussed, there are so many ways to use this one with your students. This protocol involves students listening to statements and indicating their level of comfort with that action based on concentric circles in the room (NOTE: when I use this protocol, I invert the order of the circles. The “Comfort Zone” is the outside circle and the “Danger Zone” is in the center). The way that I consistently use this protocol is at the beginning of the year to get a gauge of where my students stand with both skills and some content knowledge that is necessary to my class. We start out with easy statements such as, “What is your comfort level with: Swimming with sharks? Singing in the shower? Skydiving?” to get them warmed up, and then get into statements that are more specific to my class. These include statements such as “What is your comfort level with: Writing a one page paper? Deciding whether or not a source is credible? Identifying causes and effects through history?” This protocol not only gets students up and moving around, but also offers a safe environment for them to talk about areas that are specific to a high school history class that might make them uncomfortable, which is especially helpful for me with kids that I have never had in class before. This protocol can also be used at the beginning or end of different units as a pre- or post-assessment of content (or skills!).

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Zones of Comfort is not a protocol that we have used professionally at my school, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a use for it! I see this protocol as an opportunity for administration to get a feel for their staff at the beginning of the year for a variety of different topics. This protocol can be especially effective for a staff that has several new members or a school that is undergoing some major changes. As an administrator, these statements can be based around the idea of professional responsibilities and school culture, and can lead to a conversation about the staff as the springboard for school culture. Another way to use this protocol professionally is to explore changes happening in a school. What changes are coming? How comfortable are certain staff members with getting on board with those changes? What about executing them? Having people move in and out of their zones of comfort without having to explain or defend their position right away allows for honesty which can spark really powerful and effective conversation within a staff. 

Protocols are powerful because they provide a built-in system for students and adults alike to follow. Protocols create direction and help you more effectively meet goals. The structure of protocols can help you focus on the real purpose of your activity, whether that is in the classroom or a staff meeting. While these are four of my favorite protocols, there are so many more out there to explore. Whatever you are looking for, there is a protocol for you; so start trying these out in your classroom and/or staff meetings!

*Blog originally posted October 23, 2018.

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Andrea Behling is a social studies facilitator at CSA New Tech, a project-based learning school in Columbus, IN. She has been facilitating in a PBL classroom for four years and also facilitates PBL workshops for Magnify Learning during the summer. Her favorite part of PBL is hearing her students reflect on the meaningful work they do and the connections they make between history and their own lives.