The importance of a collaborative environment cannot be overstated. Whether preparing for college or for a career, the ability to successfully work together to solve problems and create new material is a critical skill that students must be given an opportunity to practice. While it is easy to say that students are naturally good at working with their peers, here are some ideas that may help to ease the transition between conversing with others and true collaboration
The traditional arrangement of a classroom (teacher in the front, students in rows facing the same direction) works well if class is conducted in the view that the teacher is the source of all knowledge. However, in the “teacher as facilitator” model that many of us have adopted, the whole arrangement of the classroom needs to be reconsidered. Walking through our halls, several classrooms styles are observed: traditional, students gathered around tables, desks forming a large circle, and desks in clumps. Each arrangement has benefits within certain contexts. Laura Bradley has a great article about using specially designed furniture to promote a student directed, rapid change of classroom environment.
Even with modified seating, most classrooms aren’t really designed with student collaboration in mind. Consider using other locations to encourage students to work together. Even at our small school, we have several spaces that are frequently used by other teachers. English classes are often in the library/media center (perhaps no great surprise). I have seen the geometry classes working on projects in the gym and physics building roller coasters in the band hall.
Reading and commenting on other students’ work remains a solid way for students to gain experience giving and responding to feedback. Publishing work on blogs or Google Drive can facilitate this, but is by no means necessary. The same outcome may be achieved by passing an essay between classmates. A well designed rubric and common language is critical for transparency in this process. We are in the early stages of developing a set of shared rubrics that students and teachers across our school may use in a variety of settings so that there is less confusion as to expectations.
Our fine arts department gets into the spirit of collaboration with a recurring coffee house event. The event typically runs for 3 hours on a Friday night at least two or three times a year. Free refreshments are offered at this entirely student run event. Individuals or groups may sign up for one or more open mic sessions during this time. It’s not unusual to see certain individuals appear on stage three or four times over the course of the evening as part of different ensembles.
I use the word pen loosely here. One of the great advantages of modern technology is the ability to communicate with others all around the globe with relative ease and incredible speed. Students can gain perspective from other classes or experts all around the globe. There are a number of ways to accomplish this. Email of course can work most similarly to letter writing, but Skype or even Twitter can prove an effective way to quickly correspond with partners. While I would like to see our students using social media more for this purpose, Catholic schools in my area have traditionally viewed this form of communication as dangerous since it is often unmonitored. I am hoping to change this view by providing digital citizenship education to students, parents, and teachers.
Collaboration isn’t just for students. We can learn a lot from each other as well. Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn are great ways to gain insight from experts in a variety of settings, but don’t forget to look within your school as well. As a department head, I have been amazed at the new ideas and inspiration that I gain from my observations of my department members. Ask if you can drop in to watch a class, particularly of a teacher outside your own subject area. And although it’s tempting to work through lunch to prepare everything that’s necessary for the next class, there’s also much insight to be gained through faculty lounge conversations.