Many have likened teaching to art. I think there’s something to that. Both are creative, both intuitive, and both often solitary endeavors. Even though much of what we do each day as teachers is far from solitary, a lot of the creative work of lesson planning and project development is. But it needn’t always be so. After a successful collaboration with Nicole, our 11th grade Math teacher, I, the 11th grade English teacher, learned a few things about the benefits and challenges of collaboration.
In our Mystery Code Encryption Project, my and Nicole’s students wrote detective stories using math codes as clues. In my English class, our students read detective fiction by authors such as Edgar Allen Poe, Sherlock Holmes, and Dan Brown and then wrote their own stories using math codes as part of the solution to the mystery. Students were put into peer editing and revision groups and used Google Docs to give and get feedback from their peers. In math, students used backwards planning sheets and peer revision to create the codes and mathematical references for their stories, which included matrix encryption, function notation with symbols, shift ciphers, counting principles and “cryptarithmetic.” Another colleague, the art teacher, had students create cover art for their stories. The art and stories, along with hyperlinks to a “how they solved it” section showing the math work behind the codes, were published on our project website. Finally, for exhibition night, each group chose one story to record in the style of an old time radio show, complete with sound effects.
There were several things I loved about this project. First, although many students struggled to incorporate the math codes into their stories, through the extensive feedback and revision process and with the help of their peers, they all ended up with something they felt proud of. Second, students were passionate about their stories and their characters, many of them going beyond the required number of pages as their characters became real people to them, with real personalities and quirks. But what I loved the most about the project were the collaborations I had with my partner teachers and the many things I learned along the way. Here are a few:
The benefits of student collaboration are well known: continuity and connectedness, preparaton for life beyond high school, and growth in perseverance, motivation, communication and critical thinking skills. However, students also benefit from teacher collaboration. Because my colleagues and I critiqued each others’ work in pursuit of a common goal, our plans were more thoughtful and, ultimately, more effective—a direct benefit to students. And as I became more aware of what worked in collaborating with my colleagues, I was then able to transfer some of this to support more effective and helpful student collaborations, from setting up peer critique to organizing recording sessions. And similar to how Nicole and I were equally invested in our project, as our students helped each other, they also became invested in the success of every other student in their class.
Because our integrated project contained so many different elements and had many different entry points, most students were able to find something that interested them or that they were good at. At our project exhibition, one parent commented how having an integrated project like ours helped students find areas where they could excel and where they could start to build on their success. Judith Warren Little (2012) talks about how we tend to categorize students and that “collaborative groups have a way of interrupting these taken for granted ways of thinking about what students are capable of, and instead creating opportunities that really allow students to connect with each other and with ideas” (34).
Moreover, our collaboration allowed for differentiation and personalization because it provided a variety of perspectives on the same task. For example, we were both able to help students with character development and storyline, as well as with the placement of the codes and the logic of the plot, but we each offered different lenses with which to look at each task.
During my collaboration with Nicole, I never felt so supported as a teacher. She echoed that sentiment, saying that she had been happy “to find an engaging interdisciplinary project that respected both subjects and the academic content equally. It never felt as though one class was the lead—it was truly a team effort.” When things got dicey with the students, when they started pushing back due to the difficulty of the task, we supported each other and re-enforced the validity of our thinking. Nicole also mentioned that she “felt good about the fact that we respected student voice, that we scaffolded and provided supports wherever we could, and that we pushed them and challenged them at times when we could have otherwise given in.” I can’t help but think that our unified front and our willingness to listen to their suggestions created a safer space for our students to push themselves, to step out of their comfort zone—and for us to do the same. Our work on the Encryption Project created a deeper trust between us all (teachers and students) and improved the culture in both of our classes. This more collaborative classroom may challenge some of the ideas we have around what a well-managed classroom and a “good” student look like. Some great learning during our project happened in the midst of noisy and impassioned discussions as my students talked through a struggle they were having.
Psychologist Anders Ericsson has identified “Deliberate Practice” as a key to exceptional achievement. Deliberate Practice is working on “tasks or knowledge that are just out of your reach,” and this requires intense concentration, which, he says can only be achieved when alone. (Cain, 201, pg 81). This is reminiscent also of Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of “flow” as well as Pink’s (2009) argument that mastery—“the desire to get better and better at something that matters” is something that greatly motivates us. (pg 109). Even in the midst of collaboration, I realized that it was important to value and support the need for autonomy or solitude for both students and teachers, as well as distinguishing between those activities that required extended concentration and those that didn’t.
For example. writing a story demanded intense concentration. Thinking through the logic of code integration required intense concentration. Providing feedback on a story didn’t take quite as much; proofreading for spelling errors took even less. Creating a quiet work environment that allowed students to immerse themselves in their stories and really concentrate was crucial. The same can be said about the work that teachers do. Though there is much to be said for encouraging more teacher collaboration and less isolation, we cannot forget that there is great value in solitary work. Some of my best thinking during the Encryption project came when I was alone for extended periods of time. At the same time, I loved getting input and ideas from Nicole, who inevitably had thought of something I hadn’t. Both solitary work and collaboration are valuable—it’s just a matter of balancing the two.
Collaborating with Nicole, I felt more comfortable trying new technologies and new approaches to teaching because I knew that if I couldn’t figure it out on my own, Nicole and I would figure it out together. Our collaboration also challenged me to let go of the tight grip I had on my curriculum in order to grab onto another kind of learning outcome, less testable but just as valuable. Developing perseverance, cooperation, and critical thinking had always been teaching goals, but working together and integrating our curriculum pushed this to a whole new level, complete with frustration and set-backs, but ultimately culminating in the creation of something my students didn’t think was possible.
Why? Because in working together we broke down some of the artificial boundaries we create by having subjects taught only in a specific class. In life, there is constant collaboration between scientists and artists and writers and mathematicians. Pixar encourages and even insists on what they call “smooshing.” Executive Producer Darla Anderson goes so far as to say “If I don’t see lots of smooshing, I get worried” (Lehrer, 2012, pg 152). Just as in successful and innovative companies like Pixar, an integration of disciplines can be developed in schools, leading to new ideas, innovations, and creations. The key is to maintain authenticity in developing projects by reflecting real-world problems or products.
In teacher collaborations there’s a lot of negotiation, especially at first, as each partner tries to figure out how to be faithful to the subject they love and maintain a level of rigor that will most benefit their students while leaving space for a new perspective and innovative work on their subject. But in the midst of those negotiations, collaborations provide opportunities for growth. This goes for both teacher and student. My perspective about what it meant to work with another teacher, what was most beneficial for my students and what rigor looked like were all challenged in this process, and that kind of challenge is not always comfortable and can lead to resistance.
For example, writing their detective stories and incorporating math codes wasn’t obvious or easy for our students. Working through the logistics and schedule of a joint Englis/math project wasn’t always obvious or easy for me and Nicole. When given a choice between comfort and discomfort, human nature pushes us toward comfort. And when we observe discomfort in those we care about, when we are witness to the struggle, our tendency is often to try to alleviate that discomfort. But we need to be OK with the struggle. Collaborations aren’t always easy or comfortable, but they are worthwhile because they help us grow.
The trick, perhaps, is to create a space where every failure is seen as an opportunity to reflect and grow, and every student challenge is seen as an opportunity for students to find their own voice and learn to negotiate through difficulties.
They are just a different kind of work. Sure there’s a significant time investment up front since the planning process can take a while, but once the project is planned and in motion, there is a lot less work around classroom management and daily planning. Using a joint calendar allows everyone to know what each day holds and when the deadlines are, and this leaves a lot more time and mental energy for individualized instruction.
So what’s a teacher to do if she is looking to collaborate? I recognize that I still have a lot to learn, but I have taken a few lessons from my own collaborative experiences and observations. First, find a generous, dedicated, thoughtful teacher, one who is equally committed to the collaboration—it doesn’t matter what discipline—and build a project together. The rest, it seems, is all about balance and communication.
Just as collaborations should be nurtured, it’s important to respect and create time for individual work. As Fullan and Hargreaves, (1991) remind us, the contributions of individual work are sometimes undervalued, but for both teachers and students, it’s important to allow for individual creativity and reflection in the midst of collaboration. I first noticed this during Nicole and my brainstorming sessions. We would talk things out for a little while and then just naturally retreat to do our own thinking, take a few notes on our shared document, and then come back together to build on our ideas.
I noticed this also with student work especially in using Google Docs, which allowed for both autonomy and collaboration. And during class, it was supportive and productive to balance individual work time with collaborative workshop time, and then to provide time and space for reflection in order to think about what could be improved.
While collaboration can be beneficial, it is also possible to “over-collaborate.” Keeping sight of who you are and what you’re passionate about is valuable and should be protected. You have to be willing to compromise and let go of a few things certainly, but if you let go too much, fragmentation and frustration will set in. We should create and support opportunities for collaborative work but respect and nurture individual work as well. Both are valuable and should be nurtured since both are part of our human make-up. As Susan Cain (2012) observes, “Most humans have two contradictory impulses: we love and need each other, yet we crave privacy and autonomy.”
There were times when I felt uncomfortable as my students struggled (and complained), but I was reminded that the struggle was the most important part of their learning and led to their incredible sense of accomplishment. Rigor, in this case, became less about the product and more about the process, the decisions we all made together in moving forward through a difficult project. And after each small accomplishment, after each decision that resulted in forward progression or a lesson learned, there was joy. Having a partner to go through this process with kept me on track and helped me keep my eye on the end goal.
Sounds obvious, I know. But as in any healthy relationship, these two things are crucial. Trust needs to be established between partners if they are going to feel comfortable stepping out of their comfort zone and have uncomfortable discussions as they negotiate through the collaboration. This trust is built through open, honest dialogue, vulnerability, and generosity. In addition, being open to new ideas and being flexible without losing sight of your goals (or maybe even rethinking some of your goals) will allow for more innovation and creativity. By constantly checking in with each other, sharing our observations, and voicing our concerns and fears, we were able to make adjustments when they were needed.
This trust and communication is also important in creating a safe, stable structure for students to work and push their own boundaries.Though sharing their work made some feel vulnerable, in groups where members thoughtfully critiqued their classmates stories and communicated their feedback in a helpful, specific, and kind way, great trust was built and group members felt comfortable pushing each other and being pushed. And through the open conversations I had with my students, soliciting their feedback and listening to their concerns, making myself vulnerable and acknowledging mistakes, a great supportive classroom culture was developed and spilled over into their next writing project.
Change is unnerving because we like the “familiar”—but we also lose out on incredible opportunities for growth when we avoid change. Opening up our classrooms and curriculum can be scary. We’re afraid of judgment, loss of control, and failure. It’s so much safer to retreat into our classrooms and have control of our little kingdoms. Safer, perhaps, but less interesting, fulfilling, energizing, or exciting.
Letting go of some of our content can also be unnerving. We feel the pressure and the responsibility of the task before us. We want to equip our students to succeed in their future educational and career goals. And right now, our culture tells us that passing tests is the best way to do that. But reality tells us something different. Ultimately our students are better prepared for the challenges ahead if they are critical thinkers, if they are resilient, if they are innovative and if they can clearly communicate. And tests don’t measure that. Working with another teacher on an integrated project is one way to develop these qualities. So we have to be willing to let go of some (not all) of our content if we’re going to open up to less conventional ways of teaching those skills than what we may be used to.
I also found that letting go of my more conventional ideas of what it meant to teach writing opened up possibilities for increased student engagement. One student said it best: “I love that my work can’t be wrong because it’s my story.” That was a big lesson for me—letting go of one thing in order to get something so much more important.
On a related note, don’t collaborate on a project when it doesn’t make sense to you. It will lead to a lot of frustration for both you and your students. But don’t be too quick to throw an idea out. Sometimes a little tweaking or talking through an idea will lead to connections you hadn’t thought of, and something really innovative and interesting will emerge. Be willing to take a risk. When students see that we are willing to take risks and that we celebrate not just the successes but the failures for what we can learn, they are so much more willing to push themselves and take those risks themselves.
Using Google Docs for planning and critique supports the balance between autonomy and collaboration. It allows for more choice in when and how collaborations will happen. And using websites for project documentation and resources creates a coherence and an authenticity to the project. Our website created one central place for our two classes to post resources such as handouts, calendar reminders, and instruction. so that students didn’t have to go back and forth between teachers to try to find what they needed.
To create more collaborative school environments, I see the benefits of “vulnerability-based trust” (Lencioni, 2012) where teachers feel comfortable taking risks and experimenting, where collegiality is actively supported and collaboration is expected, where staff development centers on growing and supporting the whole person, providing opportunities for continued education and development as well as supporting the many other facets of the teacher’s life.
I also see the benefits of space and time in creating opportunities for collaboration—so that the physical space and schedules in our schools are changed to encourage and support more teacher interaction or “smooshing” (Lehrer, 2012, pg 152). I also see the importance of solitude in supporting “Deliberate Practice” and of autonomy in giving teachers power and confidence in their decision-making. So my dream school would honor and support both by having quiet spaces and collaborative spaces for teachers. It would provide time and structures for collaboration but also trust teachers to decide when collaboration isn’t the best approach.
Through teachers working together, I see the creation of a community where students are known well and supported, where there are multiple entry points and opportunities for success, where we work together to create a safe place for students to push themselves, take risks, learn and grow from successes and failures. Judith Warren Little (2012) notes from her observations and research, that successful schools were those “that had built robust cultures of collaboration. They had norms of collegiality and experimentation, and these had to go together” (33).
In the end, collaboration matters because relationships matter—and building healthy, supportive relationships between administrators, teachers, and students is what school is (or should be) all about. That’s where the learning is.
Cain, S. (2012). Quiet. New York: Crown.
Fullan, M. and A. Hargreaves. (1991). What’s Worth Fighting For in Your School? New York: Teachers College Press.
Hargreaves, A. (1993). “Individualism and Individuality.” Teachers’ Work: Individuals, Colleagues, and Contexts. J.W. Little and M.W. McLaughlin, eds. New York: Teachers College Press.
Lehrer, J. (2012) Imagine: How Creativity Works. New York: Houghton-Mifflin.
Little, J. W. (2012) “Teachers’ Work and School Change” UnBoxed: A Journal of Adult Learning in Schools. Spring 2012; 31-38.
Pink, D. (2009) Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. New York: Riverhead Books.