The story so far: Overcoming obstacles to collaborative inquiry (Part 1 of 2)

There is a growing body of evidence to support the premise that teacher collaboration supports student achievement. It also suggests that this collaboration works best if it is sustained, high quality, and connected to instructional strategies, curriculum and assessment. That all sounds good – as teachers, we tend to want things that will benefit our students, and we recognize that the opportunity to work with one or a group of colleagues over a period of time to collectively improve our practice is also personally and professionally rewarding.

However, while anyone can walk away from a one day workshop or collaboration feeling good about the work they did, the day to day reality of sustained collaboration is that it is hard work.

My school environment comes with a few extra obstacles as well. Our school is overcrowded. Originally built to house approximately 1100 students, we now have over 1500. We have a five block day instead of the four block schedule we would have in a non-crowded school, and teachers work either the early shift (blocks 1-4) or the later shift (blocks 2-5). We have essentially three campuses – the main school building, a collection of portables just south of the school and up the hill, and another block of portables behind the building, in what used to be a parking lot. To access that block, staff and students have to cross a narrow bridge over a protected creek during the few minutes that are squeezed into our timetable to allow for class changes. Most meetings are held during lunch hours, because that’s when all teachers are in the building and are available to get together, but the reality of walking from one end of the building to the other leaves about 20 minutes of effective meeting time. Staff meetings are held once a month with students dismissed early to allow all of us to get together, and our meetings take place in the theatre now because the other large spaces in our building are too small or don’t have suitable acoustics.

Just getting through the hallways from one end of the campus to another on any given day poses a fair number of obstacles, but sustained teacher collaboration adds another layer of complexity. That being said, I have been engaged in a three year sustained collaboration with a colleague, and we recently shared our story with the rest of our staff in the hopes that it would help others find ways to overcome obstacles. I am sharing it here in the hopes that it will do the same.

My colleague and collaborator is Meghann Kenkel – you can see her Twitter feed here. Our personal circumstances have not done a lot to minimize the obstacles we face – I have two teenagers, the department head position in the languages department, and roles on various committees. She is in the final semester of her Masters program, which she is doing online while she teaches full time and coaches two teams each school year. Add to that the fact that she teaches at the opposite end of the campus from me (in the portables up the hill) and until this year, we have been on opposite schedules (I work the early shift, she works the late). It’s hard to imagine more obstacles that might have been in our way, but the important part is how we’ve overcome them.

Meghann was considering coming to our school about 5 years ago, and contacted another colleague of ours to ask about the school and the department. He told her the school was great, and that he thought she would work well with me. 5 years, 4 presentations, and countless texts and emails later, we think he was right.

Our collaboration was sparked by a reading journal. We had had a department goal of improving student reading in second languages, and I had taken that goal, used cross curricular reading strategies that our students already knew from English classes, and descriptions of second language reading proficiency levels from the Common European Framework of Reference to create a simple reading journal format that students could use in second language classes. I shared the journal idea with my department, and they started using it in their classes too. Each teacher used the journals a little bit differently, but we all started seeing improvement in our students. That sparked more enthusiasm, and the project took off when we received support from our librarian in the form of subscriptions to authentic French magazines. Because of the spread out nature of our school, sharing individual copies of magazines among multiple teachers and 1500 students was a problem we needed to solve if we were going to get off the ground. We did that through the use of the app Scanner Pro, which allowed us to create PDFs of pages we were using and send them to each other. Meghann soon organized us and created a Google drive folder that we could all upload too, and soon we had a library of resources, organized into categories, that could be accessed by teachers wherever they had an internet connection. We shared what we were doing at the Surrey Teachers Association Convention that year, and we were thrilled when teachers at other schools saw value in what we were doing, and started using similar strategies in their classes.

Because we were both teaching at the same school, we inevitably encountered some of the same students. We have talked about some of them and shared ways in which we were able to help them and support their learning – no teacher can reach every student by themselves, but together we can build a bank of strategies that make us better teachers and helps to support students more effectively. There is one in particular who we have both taught, and he has become a touchstone student for us. When we are considering something new, we think about how he might react to it and adjust accordingly. Learning from our students is important, and there is a dimension added by shared teacher experience that allows us to meet our students’ needs more effectively.

From reading journals, we moved on to learning maps, which I’ve written about here and here. We shared our learning maps with our staff at our monthly learning partners meeting, and then in a larger setting with BC language teachers at the BCATML Conference. Sharing our learning has become an important part of the process. It forces us to become clear in articulating what we think and why. We also feel that coming up with something that other teachers can use and see value in gives validation to our work and makes it more worthwhile, because we are not the only ones benefiting from it. It has become a goal for us that the products of our collaboration need to be replicable. They need to work for all students, not just some, and they need to work for other teachers too.

Our shared process became even more challenging last year when Meghann and I were teaching in completely different departments. We continued our learning maps inquiry, because we value the work and the process. I was teaching all French classes, and Meghann was teaching math, science and a support block for struggling students. Collaborating while in different departments took content out of the picture, and meant that we focused on our process, the skills we want our students to learn, and the strategies we use to support them. This year, we will be teaching some of the same courses and will share a prep block, but the focus we gained from last year is going to continue to inform where we go from here.

As I’m sure you’ve gathered by now, not all of our collaboration is face to face. Up until now, very little of it has been. We have used social media (mostly Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest), texting, email, and the collaborative features of Google tools to share ideas with one another. This takes different forms, depending on the day and/or topic. Sometimes one of us will create a document and share it with the other, and other times we co-create documents using different text colours. We have sent screenshots, photos, passages from books, quotes, links, and more to each other. All are equally valid ways of collaborating, and then when we do get an opportunity to work face to face, we are able to pick up where we left off.

We both attended a workshop last year, facilitated by our helping teacher, called CSL4FSL (Communicating Student Learning for French as a Second Language). During the course of the workshop, we were challenged to consider creating a lesson or a series of stations that dealt explicitly with the BC Core Competencies that form part of our redesigned curriculum, and how they look in our subject area. We loved the idea and wanted to implement it, but had no idea what it would look like. On a subsequent release day, we went for a walk to discuss our plans, and decided that the way we envisioned it wouldn’t work. We kept the basic concept, and that idea has now morphed into the current version of our learning maps, which incorporate the core competencies in the wording we chose. Through using the learning maps, our intention is that these will be things we talk about every day in our classes. The evolution of that idea took us through a lot of confusion and ambiguity to where we are now. What we have learned through this process is that it is just important for us to reflect and revisit ideas as it is for our students. We change, throw out, adapt, and revise our ideas and plans on a daily basis as we continue to read and develop our lessons. Building a series of shared experiences, workshops, and reading has allowed us to be able to have input into each other’s ideas that we wouldn’t be able to otherwise. We are able to come up with better work together than we would apart.

Being able to solve the problems we have encountered during our process of collaboration has made us more aware of things our students might likely encounter, and better able to support them as they work through the process of solving those issues. Talking through specific wording that we have chosen has really forced us to think about our process. Explaining to each other why we did something and then building on it together is an important part of collaboration. 

We don’t work in the ideal environment for collaboration. Adapting to our environment has been critical. We could have focused on the difficulties, and they are real but not impossible. It comes down to this: if you want to make it work, you will. Collaborating isn’t easy. Doing it the way we have means accepting that you are not going to be paid for all the hours you are putting in. But when you find someone who thinks similarly and cares about the same things you do, it’s amazing what you can do together. The reward is in the process, the results, and the collaborative relationship. No one forced us to work together; no one has checked up on us. We are not accountable to anyone except each other. The work is important to us and we care about it – that’s really what drives us. Because we aren’t accountable to anyone, we are free to grow and develop at our own pace. We can choose our own materials and use them the way we want. If we want to revisit something and rip it apart, we can. We know that we are growing and moving forward because we can see the evidence of it in our own work and in each other.

We have created multiple versions of our learning maps. They are not something that we created and reuse every year. We consistently revise and change based on changes in the curriculum and in our own journey. We feel that this is what having a growth mindset looks like for us. Staying at the same place isn’t our goal. We’re always looking to improve. This doesn’t mean we change things for the sake of change, but working this way has taught us to have a certain level of intellectual humility – we’re willing to revisit, discuss, rework, and if it needs to change then it does. You can’t be defensive in a process like this, but on the flip side, feedback has to be constructive too. Our first learning maps were really good for where we were at at that time. They represented the best light bulb we could produce at that moment. But as time went by, we realized that things needed to change and adapt, and so we did… a few times. Although we are very happy with our current version, neither of us thinks it will be our last. Those light bulbs have also grown into revisiting other aspects of our assessment including rubrics, feedback, portfolios, and more. Changing one thing is like a home renovation – you always realize you need to change something else.

Teacher inquiry grows out of a desire to make a difference. No one forced us together. We found that we have similar philosophies and goals and our collaboration grew naturally. Ultimately, our goal is to better support our students and share our learning and journey with other teachers. Our goals have been similar but flexible. Listening to each other has been important – neither of us directs the other. We may make suggestions, but the direction grows out of mutual discussion (more on our future direction in part 2).

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