Collaboration

Our best ideas = your best lessons

What’s the #1 complaint from teachers when attending a conference, workshop, training, or professional development session? Besides not enough chocolate, near the top of my pet peeve list is presenters who are not classroom teachers. Even trainers who were once in the classroom lose a bit of their credibility when I find out they’ve been out of the classroom for a few years. Today’s classroom is an ever-changing place!

The same holds true for books and curriculum: I need teacher-authors to write those books so that I know I am getting tried-and-refined curriculum and strategies that will succeed in today’s classroom. And that’s why I’m excited to be part of the launch of a new series of books for teachers, The Best Lesson Series, which is the brain-and-heart-child of Brian Sztabnik, high school English teacher and Talks with Teachers podcaster.

bestlessonseries

Brian reached out to English teachers across the country, asking if they would contribute one chapter on one really great literature lesson that has been successful with their students. I was happy to share one of my lessons that helps my students develop their literary analysis skills, but even better is having access to 14 more lessons that have been developed, tested, and refined by boots-on-the-ground, face-to-face-with-students, innovative classrooms teachers.image1

The timing is perfect to check out the first book in the Best Lesson Series, try a chapter for free, and then grab a copy for yourself. You just might find the lesson you need to get you and your students through the holiday craze, another brilliant strategy to welcome them back in January, and 13 more that will energize your teaching for months to come.

Thanks to Brian for putting this all together, and to Todd Finley, Dave Stuart, Jr., Susan Barber, Jori Krulder, Dan Ryder, Heather, Wolpert-Gawron, Josh Stock, Joy Kirr, Amy Rasmussen, Shanna Peeples, Brianna Crowley, Gerard Dawson, and Ruth Arseneault for sharing their best literature lessons.

Now get out there and do what resourceful teachers have always done: steal other teachers’ best lessons!

Advertisements

21st century collaboration: put ’em on wheels

After just one day with our new furniture, I experienced one of those “ah-ha” moments that I’m sure resulted in a light bulb photo 1 (1)exploding over my head. OK, maybe no visible light bulb, but certainly there were flashes of light in my eyes. As I had predicted when our new furniture first arrived, my students were most enthusiastic about the chairs on wheels, which not only could be maneuvered around the classroom with a light push of the foot, but which also swiveled in place, making it so easy (and fun) to turn to different areas of the classroom, depending on the task. The rolling chairs also have an attached desktop (that swivels, of course!) allowing students to work wherever their rolling takes them.

But we all know that relying on something trendy and cool, like futuristic furniture, won’t bring any kind of long-term change to education. After all, how much would this new furniture affect my students’ learning if I just lined them up in rows, all students facing front, and taught my class in traditional lecture format (interrupted often with pleas of, “Stop spinning your chairs!”)?

No, if our investment in 21st century learning spaces is going to result in meaningful changes for students, we need to pay attention to how new furniture and its arrangement can shake up our expectations of how students should work and what collaboration looks like.

The ah-ha moment came after I had given my students directions for an essay outline they were going to work on that day. I had them all face (or swivel to) the front, and I went over the directions projected on the screen. After a quick check-in, I told them to get to work, and to collaborate with each other if they wanted to. And then the magic happened.

photo 5I watched as students started rolling into configurations that appealed to them: partners like Cittlaly and Sara, best friends and a predictable pairing; trios like Matt, Carlos and Eddie, all athletes working on sports-themed essays; mixed-gender groups of kids, like one from the leadership class working on social justice pieces; and a few students who chose to slide off for some solo work. After experimenting a little with the rolling, swiveling and grouping, they settled in to their work.

But it wasn’t long before some students started rolling again. Cittlaly swiveled around to slide next to Ellie to ask for help on her outline, then she rolled back to Sara. The leadership kids, chatting longer than the others, started to pull away from their big group to make smaller collaborative groupings. Aaron, working alone in the corner, looked up to find Carlos rolling toward him. Heads together for a few minutes, they exchanged ideas on their essays, and then Carlos slid back over to his group.

And this is when the lightbulb went off: we’ve been doing collaboration all wrong! All these years, school-style collaboration has gone something like this:

“You four students sitting in these four chairs around this table will collaborate on this particular project from now until the due date. And then you will be done collaborating.”

But how much of our adult-world collaboration looks like that? When I collaborate with
colleagues, it looks more like this:

Scrolling through my Twitter feed one evening, I find a new app, strategy or project that I’d like to try with my students. I might start by collaborating online with someone on Twitter or Edutopia. Then I’ll probably try it out with my students on my own (that’s the Lone Ranger in me). At some point I’ll bring the idea to a department meeting, where we might collaborate as a group to fine tune it. Or I might talk with just one colleague who has expertise in a certain area.  Often I will work with my grade-level teachers in our PLN on a project for all 8th grade students.

In other words, real-world collaboration means that we go to the people we know are the right fit for a particular issue we are facing. And sometimes we work alone. And then we find someone or some people who can help us past the next phase of the project. And we aren’t bound by artificial parameters like space or time or numbers of people. And we can work alone when it works for us to work alone.

Since my students are piloting a variety of furniture types, we also have tables and chairs in the classroom, which are grouped in sets of four. I watched those students stay in their groups and collaborate with one another, talking easily around photo 4their tables; or some working alone, eyes down, possibly avoiding eye contact with their table peers. Their chairs don’t have wheels, which seemed to mean that they weren’t allowed to move from their table group to work with other students. While this worked fine for four friends who happened to grab a table together, there was less collaboration going on at the missed-out-on-the-wheelie-chairs and too-late-to-sit-with-friends groups.

Those students at the tables missed out on the real-world fluidity of collaboration. If the students in their group weren’t a good match for what they were working on, they worked alone. They watched with envy as their classmates rolled over to work with a variety of students, and it didn’t even occur to them to ask me if they could get up out of their stationary chairs and work outside of their table group. You can bet they are counting down the days to their turn to pilot the rolling chairs!

So this past week I have come face-to-face with the pseudo-collaboration that I have been foisting on my students all these years. And it makes me wonder: how can we give our students real-world collaboration opportunities? While the rolling chairs are a huge step in that direction, there’s got to be other ways to create the kind of fluid, collaboration-friendly environment for our students that so many of us have in our adult work places. How do you inspire and provide for meaningful collaboration opportunities for your students?

(Originally posted on Edutopia.)

Final Project 2.0

Our junior high semester ends with three days of finals: two classes per day, two hours for each class.  I could easily create a semester final exam that would take my students two hours to complete, but I’m not sure that would be the best use of our time (nor am I convinced that junior high students should be taking two-hour finals).  So each year I look for effective ways to fill that two-hour block of time, allowing students to demonstrate their knowledge in a variety of ways, providing time for breaks and collaboration.

This year’s two-hour block of time?  Best. Final. Ever.

When my students walked into the classroom, they found the desks arranged in groups of four, with a laptop on each desk.  They located their seats by checking a list of teams that I had projected onto the whiteboard. Once they were settled, I distributed a page of directions, and they were off and running.

The designated team leaders were given directions to create a new presentation in their Google Drive, and then share it with their teammates (via gmail) and with me.  Then each team worked together to create a presentation about themes in literature.  Using lines from a poem as a prompt, they identified one theme that was expressed in a novel and two movies we had studied.  They were directed to create slides to present the information, and to include a symbolic image on each slide.

A sign of success, right off the bat, was that all the groups got to work right away.  If they had questions, they asked each other.  Most had never used Google Presentations before, but they are familiar with PowerPoint,  so they could figure it out.  And while they were demonstrating their knowledge of theme, they were also learning how to create effective visual presentations: carefully choosing the words for each slide, finding compelling symbolic images, inserting and citing the images, and creating a unified appearance from one slide to the next.

They worked for a little over an hour, and then each group shared their presentation with the class.  Although many groups were working from the same lines of the poem, their interpretations of the themes varied, as did their examples from the literature and movies.  One student asked if she could play a song from her phone during their presentation.  I asked her why and she said the song expressed the same theme and would add “mood” to their project.  Beautiful.

Three days before winter break, junior high students actively engaged in academic work for over an hour, and then attentively watching their classmates’ presentations?

Best. Final. Ever.

Bonus for me?  I could grade them as they presented and have my semester grades done before winter break starts.  Awesome.