Over the past week I've had several discussions about collaboration with my colleagues. On one occasion this was at a workshop about documentation, lead by our Early Years Vice-Principal. I attended this workshop in the hope that it would give me some fresh ideas about how to collect and evaluate data in my own classroom. We talked about the processes that the Early Years teachers go through and engaged in some nice discussions about the mechanics of their documentation.
One of the key elements of documentation in Reggio-inspired approaches is the need for follow up discussion about the evidence that has been collected. This enables educators to flesh out their ideas and helps to create clearer understandings about what has been observed. Of course, this isn't only evident in Early Years teaching. Any teacher worth their salt collects evidence through observations, individual and group discussion, work samples and any other effective means. One of the big differences, though, is that there are less ways to collect evidence from students who cannot write competently yet, or perhaps speak fluently in the language of instruction. As this occurs more frequently in the Early Years, observing the students is a popular way to document development and perceived understandings. Advocates for this approach to education, such as our VP, do their best, then, to ensure that specific structures are in place to allow this to happen. Extended blocks of inquiry time are common and more than one adult per group of children is a frequent sight. Unfortunately, for several complicated reasons, this doesn't translate to the Gr. 1-5 classes at my school. So we've been looking for ways to enhance our ability to collaborate.
As a Team Leader, I try my very best to ensure that our meeting times are focussed on student learning and not the other 'stuff' that fills up our day. One thing I try to do at the start of our meetings is engage in different protocols that allow us to freely discuss what's been happening in our classes - both successes and failures. A second point to consider is the focus of discussions that the team engages in. While our discussions might be about student learning, it is important to guide team members to discuss the right sorts of things. This is a skill I'm still developing. In their article about collaboration, So they can fly - Building a community of inquirers (2007), Linda Gibson-Langford and Di Laycock refer to a term called coblaboration, which was first coined by David Perkins in his book - King Arthur's Round Table - How collaborative conversations create smart organisations. Coblaboration is characterised by chaotic conversation patterns, repetition, group think and dialogue with no action. How many 'collaborative' meetings have you been a part of where these arise? I know I've been in plenty. So keeping precious meeting time focussed is essential.
Another point raised by one of my colleagues is that we need to question our mindset about collaboration. She said that most of the time when we meet to collaborate we come with the idea that we're going to talk about things that are going to happen. This is great, but we also need to consider the value in collaborating about things that have already happened. This doesn't just mean in UOI reflections every 6 or so weeks either, it means discussing and debating ideas based on what's happened with your class that week or day or hour. I think there's a lot of merit in that.
Everyone always talks about collaboration and how great it would be to collaborate more. However, a lot of the time we get caught up in other things that require our immediate attention, but may not be all that important. Last year, when I was in Gr. 4, I tried to encourage the practice of getting into each other's classrooms more often. We discussed this - how we felt about it, what we thought the benefits were, what we thought the barriers were. We also talked about our feelings when someone was in our room - some people shared feelings about this being like an appraisal, but that's another discussion. We agreed on a goal that we would try to engage in one collaborative teaching experience per fortnight. We reflected on this in our meetings and although everyone said they valued the process, finding the time to meet with people in order to discuss and plan lessons was another 'thing' to do in our already packed day. I haven't yet been able to get over to Gr. 4 and see if they're carrying on with the process this year.
This year I've moved to Gr. 3 and our classrooms are set up a little differently. In Gr. 4 we worked in portable classes that, while being roomy, were essentially boxes and to get to another class you had to go right out of your room. In Gr. 3 the classes are alongside each other and have doors that connect each room. One of the first things my neighbour and I did this year was contact the custodians and get them to remove the door. Having an open passageway through the two classrooms forces us to collaborate more - although I must say that I'm lucky that I work next to a teacher that doesn't need too much encouragement with this. We also sat down and looked at the times during the week where we have opportunities for more collaborative learning between the classes. This also involves our Learning Support and EAL teachers. For this to work effectively we'll need to talk over things (that have happened and will happen) in order to plan appropriately. If everything aligns, hopefully it will extend to include all of the 5 classes in Gr. 3.
Photo credit: Shunting