Collaboration

 What would it be like if your classrooms and our teaching were based on the principle of cooperation, people working together to achieve a common goal, supporting and helping one another along the way?—Mara Sapon-Shevin 

The Setting

Student teaching requires extensive collaboration regardless of your placement, but collaboration became especially important for my teaching assignment.  My classroom environment was a team-taught, 3, 4, 5 multi-age setting with a wide range of abilities and learning modalities.  My team teacher and I were collectively responsible for the education of 54 students, with children functioning from a second to seventh grade level. This created a natural need to collaborate on a daily basis to create lesson plans, develop units, correct assignments and put together homework packets. We also had to come to conclusions on classroom rules, homework policies, curriculum and procedures. At first, I was skeptical as to how I could possibly meet the needs of every child with such large developmental ranges, but I soon learned it was absolutely possible! This daunting process was accomplished through daily meetings with my Team teacher, weekly meetings with my Cooperating teachers, and professional development workshops.  Through this collaboration and with dedication, I was able to learn methods by which to differentiate the instruction to meet all my students’ needs. 

The Dilemma

Working from my past experiences in the education field and having successfully completed three quarters in my Masters program, I felt armed with numerous teaching strategies to troubleshoot a variety of classroom situations.  However, when faced with meeting the needs of every student in my classroom where developmental levels ranged from the second to seventh grade level, I was at a loss as to where to begin.  I felt as if some of my students would either get left behind or not challenged enough; I knew collaboration with my colleagues within the school and greater community would be absolutely essential in achieving success for my students and myself. According to Sapon-Shevin (1998), "Embracing cooperation as a guiding principle would mean believeing the poster that says "None of us is as smart as all of us" and enacting that belief in all aspects of our curriculum, pedagogy and school organizational structures” (Sapon-Shevin, p. 13, 1998). Luckily, I had a wealth of support and resources around me to reach out to and gain the necessary tools for success.  It is in my nature to work with others and I truly foster in situations where I have opportunities to share, learn and collaborate from those around me.  Therefore, when faced with this dilemma, I welcomed the opportunity for collaboration, and saw my student teaching as a remarkable situation in which to further my growth as an educator.

The Collaboration

Egypt Welcome Collaborative Board.jpg 

Collaboration with my team teacher 

From the beginning of our placement my team teacher and I put a huge emphasis on building a classroom community where collaboration was the key to success.  From creating bulletin boards together, to jointly running classroom meetings, we tried to serve as constant models for our students, showcasing the benefits of working as a team.  Yet, with mutual worries as how to meet the academic needs of all students in our multi-age classroom we began our on journey of learning the value of collaboration. Our first strategy was to put both our minds and talents together in daily meetings after/before school and every Sunday for the duration of our student teaching placement.  We decided this planning time would allow for valuable research and design of collaborative lesson plans, discussion of student learning, development of individual homework packets and feedback on the weeks’ happenings.  This would allow us to combine our ideas and build upon our expertise. At this point, together, we had decided on a plan of action, but where to go from here?  Luckily, we were able to seek the advice and collaboration of our cooperating teachers. 

Collaboration with our Cooperating Teachers

With daily check-in meetings and observation feedback, our cooperating teachers offered endless amounts of advise and support throughout our student teaching experience. They recognized that meeting the needs of all our third, fourth and fifth grade students would be a constant challenge; yet, a challenge we were capable of overcoming. They both noted that even in a classroom of only fourth graders, we would have a huge range of developmental levels and learning modalities. For our situation, this developmental span was magnified; however, it was simply about learning how to differentiate our instruction.  Through modeling and discussion, together with our cooperating teachers, we generated the following strategies to be utilized in all aspects of our teaching:

  • Provide open-ended projects, always allowing room for extensions

  • Offer varied entry points on assignments

  • Create collaborative project-based learning activities

  • Develop interdisciplinary activities addressing the varied learning modalities

My team teacher and I put the above strategies into action in all of our planning and instruction.  Through implementation of these strategies we were able to begin meeting the needs of all students. In the following paragraphs I have discussed each of these above strategies as solutions with evidence showing their success in supporting our students learning. 

Putting Strategies into Action and Student Successes

Provide open-ended projects, always allowing room for extensions 

This solution was manifested in the creating and maintaining of our three-week student literature circles.  Together we developed five guided, cooperative literature circles. All group books focused around the overall theme of Asia; this allowed for beneficial interdisciplinary connections to our Ancient China social studies unit.  My team teacher and I each read all of the chosen books to prepare for our collaboration in developing the weekly literature packets.  These weekly packets addressed various book themes and vocabulary. We also sometimes included scaffolded reading questions depending upon the level of the reading group. In order to provide as much individual student attention as possible, my team teacher and I each lead 2 to 3 literature groups; enabling us to have twice-weekly meetings with each literature circle.  During these meetings, we would discuss with our students everything from plot predictions to challenging vocabulary.  We were also able to closely monitor the progress of individual students and note the needed extensions for students requiring more learning opportunities. By splitting the groups between both of us, we were able to work personally with more students, while analyzing each group’s book in more detail.  During our planning, it was also necessary to make accommodations for students that finished their literature packet early. Some examples of created learning extensions included, doing computer research on a specific topic within the book, rewriting a scene in the story as if they were the author, or drawing a picture of the main character including details about the setting and time period.  All of these extensions explored more deeply topics we had discussed in our literature circle meetings.   

Our culminating literature group project consisted of each student creating an origami picture book report.  This book report allowed for extension opportunities and open-ended learning. We set up basic guidelines for the project but encouraged some students to go beyond these requirements if possible. Upon completion, we found a huge range of final products from the students; however, each student met the guidelines we presented. This origami book report is a NUA writing strategy my cooperating teacher learned in a professional development workshop. Together my cooperating teacher, my team teacher and I adapted this NUA strategy to meet the needs of all our students. Below you can view a multiage range of successful final literature circle projects.

                      Literature Project 4.jpg                 Literature Project 6.jpg                   Literature Project.jpg

Offer Varied Entry Points on Assignments 

A strong example of how my team teacher and I offered varied entry points on assignments was shown through our Ancient China unit’s student reports. For these reports, each student was given an individual research topic. Over a two week period of time, they were expected to research their topic, take notes, site sources, develop a tree planning map, draw a representative picture and type up their final report. When assigning topics we took into consideration our prior knowledge of each student, and based our decisions on both their subject interests and developmental level.  We generated over twenty topics ranging from difficult topics like Ancient Chinese legalism, to easier open-ended topics like Ancient Chinese art.  Together my team teacher and I found books to support these topics and websites on the Internet; this helped encourage successful student research and continued interest.  Each of us independently researched half of the topics so we could serve as experts for our students. All 54 of our student’s reports were successful and far exceeded our expectations. By offering developmentally appropriate entry levels for these reports, we provided opportunities for every student to succeed. Here is an example of one student's writing planning process and final picture for her assigned 'games' topic. 

                                    Report Cover.jpg                  Report Planning.jpg                         

Create collaborative project-based learning activities

In our classroom, we also developed weekly opportunities for collaborative project-based learning activities.  Though I taught and planned my TERC Math Investigations unit independently, I still was able to utilize one of our core solutions/strategies developed in collaboration with my cooperating teachers.  My culminating project during this math unit is one example of how beneficial project-based learning activities can be for addressing the needs of all students. This unit focused on the topic of data interpretation and collection.  For their final project, students were put into multi-age collaborative groups and were required to generate and investigate a question about sleep, gain data from surveys and finally interpret their results. Throughout the planning stages of their research, I scaffolded each group's progress offering some groups more assistance if needed.  Everyday each group member had a specific role such as recorder, data collector, or drawer. I made sure to monitor every group’s activities and continually request feedback on progress and successes. Once completed each group had to give a class presentation, which allowed every member to share their findings and interpretations.  Throughout this unit I consistently observed the positive interactions between students at different learning levels. All students were able to contribute to their groups successes. As Evertson, Emmer and Worsham suggest, “The group format encourages students to become active participants rather than passive recipients of information…lower-achieving students profit from their peers’ explanations, and high achievers benefit from constructing explanations for other students.  All students can develop interpersonal skills through group tasks with a common goal” (Evertson, Emmer and Worsham p.113). This collaborative learning process encouraged my students to communicate their ideas and learn how to function within a small learning community.

                              Math Data Chart Back 1.JPG                         Math Data Chart 1.JPG

 Develop interdisciplinary activities addressing the varied learning modalities

   Tangram21.jpg   Dragon Art1.JPG    Map Reseach China Center.jpg

Within our 10-week Ancient China unit, my team teacher and I collaborated to create four rotating interdisciplinary centers with content focus in math, art, social studies and writing.  Together we developed our overall center themes and our student learning objectives.  We then separated out the center planning based on our personal strengths; with my background in the arts, I developed the Chinese tangram and dragon art centers. While, my team teacher developed the geography/history research and folktale writing centers. Having a partner to plan with doubled our opportunities for creativity and enthusiasm.  As a team, we were able to develop four comprehensive centers, all addressing different learning modalities to meet the needs of all students. Furthermore, when the centers were running within our classroom, each of us could work closely with our specific groups, bringing focus, expertise and one-to-one student/teacher help as needed. This also assisted in our classroom management of our 54 students. Our lesson plans for these centers were developed collaboratively and extensive in detail. These centers truly embodied the philosophy of Howard Gardner’s multiple forms of intelligence. By teaching through a variety of activities addressing different learning modalities we had opportunities to see in which situations our students were shining. As Kornhaber (2001) states,… (Gardner’s) theory validates educators' everyday experience: students think and learn in many different ways. It also provides educators with a conceptual framework for organizing and reflecting on curriculum assessment and pedagogical practices. In turn, this reflection has led many educators to develop new approaches that might better meet the needs of the range of learners in their classrooms” (Kornhaber, 2001).

Further Collaboration Through Professional Development  

To increase my understanding of our Food Chemistry unit and how to best teach my varied learners, I attended an Expository Writing and Science Notebooks professional development class offered by the Seattle School District. At this workshop, we discussed how to engage students in expository writing reflections during science lessons.  This workshop provided writing prompt ideas and data charts that I found to be valuable tools for my own classroom.  Using this workshop’s techniques, I developed a successful system by which to engage all of my third, fourth and fifth graders in understanding the science content. The writing prompts allowed students to work from their own level, but still engage in the expository writing process.  Using the class’s suggestions, I began and finished each lesson with the same prompts to all students, but held differing expectations for their responses depending on the student’s level.  I modeled possible writing responses, and taught appropriate data collection methods by sharing visual charts. Some students needed the prompts, modeling and data chart examples throughout the entire science unit, while others could proceed without them.  I was pleased to see that when reading my student’s science journals, most responses were meeting my objectives for each grade level.  Below are examples of my third, forth, and fifth grader's expository writing reflections on glucose vs. carbohydrates. You will notice that with each journal entry the students were able to explain their understanding, but their responses reflect their varied levels of development.  By attending this workshop, I learned valuable tools by which to scaffold my teaching to better meet the needs of all my students.

 3rd Grade Science.jpg             Grade4 Science Journal.jpg             Grade5 science journal.jpg

Analysis of Collaboration

Through our collaborative efforts and dedication to the success of every student, we created a classroom where opportunities for support and growth were bountiful.  The varied entry points and open-ended format for projects provided a space for students to exceed their expectations and really explore their own potential. Our project-based learning opportunities encouraged communication amongst all grade levels and helped students develop responsibility of their learning.  As team teachers, we were able to create lessons and units that went far beyond what I would have been able to achieve teaching alone; our combined talents enriched the variety of learning opportunities for our students. By attending a professional development science workshop I was also able to gain the tools necessary to successfully teach the appropriate content knowledge to all of my third, fourth, and fifth graders.  I have truly appreciated the value of two minds versus one, and I have seen its power positively manifested in my student’s performance.  This experience further challenged me to make my student’s learning authentic and meaningful, while attending to the diversity of learning styles in our classroom.   Upon reflection, I wouldn’t have changed my situation for anything, even if, at first, the task seemed daunting.  I know that whatever classroom situation I find myself teaching, I will always have a large range of student developmental levels and learning modalities; yet, now I bring with me a better understanding of true differentiated instruction. As a teacher, I will always create and welcome collaborative-based teaching and learning opportunities for my students and myself!  

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References

Evertson, C., Emmer, E., & Worsham, M. (2006). Classroom Management: For Elementary Teachers. Boston, MA: Pearson Allyn and Bacon.

Kornhaber, M. L. (2001) 'Howard Gardner' in J. A. Palmer (ed.) Fifty Modern Thinkers on Education: From Piaget to the present. London: Routledge. 

Sapon-Shevin, M. (1998). Because We Can Change the World: A Practical Guide to Building Cooperative, Inclusive Classroom Communities. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.  

 

 

 

 

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