Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (aka: Collaboration)

There is nothing I love more than collaborating with my English/Language Arts colleagues. We have time built into our daily schedule to do this, but that time is often robbed from us without our consent or input.  So, when we do get that time--either as a grade level department or as a school department, we often struggle with what to collaborate about because we aren't usually provided with time to prepare in advance.  I cannot express how much I value my time in general, but collaboration for educators is an absolute necessity.  But there is also something to be said for doing it correctly.   Over the years, I have been able to develop and implement several new ideas from these interludes, but not nearly as much as I would like because time for conversations was limited, separated by months in between and therefore forgotten, or simply cut short by a bell.

I have several colleagues whom I often collaborate with informally. We drop by each others classrooms to share ideas, ask questions, or to vent about something (others would probably deem) trivial.  This often takes place in the three minutes we have between classes or the five minutes left over from collaboration-turned-staff-meeting-time.  I know that not all schools have collaboration time and we are fortunate that we do, but mixed messages are often presented as to how that time should be used and who gets to control it.

After some of that informal collaboration mentioned above, and in an attempt to be part of the solution rather than the problem. We, as a small grade level department team, implemented an idea that we felt was a valuable use of our time.  It meant taking chapters from our favorite professional literature, making copies of those chapters, and then setting a time to read together silently (in our case--about 15 minutes). During that time we annotate what we read and we are left with about 20 minutes for discussion.  In our first attempt, we chose chapter 4 from Cris Tovani's So What Do They Really Know? Assessment That Informs Teaching and Learning.  The results were inspiring.  We discovered we were having  REAL CONVERSATIONS about teaching and learning!  Best of all, we were collaborating.  (Insert the angels singing here.)

The following are questions, statements and "a-ha!s" that resulted from our discussion:
  • Ms. Tovani has a ninety-six minute block for her English class.  What do we do if we only have 48 minutes?
  • It's okay to have the same learning target for a week.
  • What is the best method for organizing and keeping track of conferencing notes with students?
  • We found a reference to Rick Stiggin's book which was the title used for a district Assessment Literacy course several of us took a few years back. (Ta-da---CONNECTION!)
  • The Reading/Writing workshop structure easily lends itself to many opportunities to differentiate.
  • Differentiation is not about an elaborate individualized project. 
  • Model. Model. Model. And then model again.
  • Background knowledge is imperative to better understanding. Many of our students do not possess this and we need to create it for them. 
  • Should we or shouldn't we teach a whole classroom novel? (Much debate on this one.)
  • What are some strategies we currently use for assessment that guide our instruction for the very next day?
  • Choice is huge--but it is okay to control or limit the choices.
  • Text complexity is in the Common Core State Standards and must be addressed in our teaching.
Okay, so this all came from TWO 20 minute discussions, and I didn't mention everything.   We finally felt like our time was being used wisely and that we were all getting something valuable from it.

Although we learned that professional book examples don't always address the realities of our classrooms (right, Deb?), and that we don't always come up with the answers, we were able to share some of our own strategies--what worked well, what did not, and how we modified.  We also learned that keeping our discussion group small lends itself to being more productive than in our larger grade level teams where (unfortunately) very little gets accomplished.

I believe my friend and colleague, Melissa, said it best. This time gives us the opportunity to address "the good, the bad, and the ugly."  We've proven this to be true in more ways than one.

I am eager for our next meeting when we can finish reading and discussing the chapter we have started.  The plan was to do this tomorrow, but guess what?  We cannot as that collaboration time has been robbed from us again.  (Groan.) Maybe next week? :)

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