The Role of Willingness in a Collaborative HIgh School Classroom

Collaboration is the ““willingness to grant authority to peers, courage to accept the authority granted to oneself by peers, and skill in the craft of interdependence.” ~ Kenneth Brufee

Okay, I’ll admit it. I’m a Criminal Minds fan-freak. I watch the series over and over, and it was only yesterday that I realized what it is that I really like about it. It’s not just that the team “gets the bad guy” (Un-sub for those in the know) that I find so satisfying—it’s also how they find the perpetrator(s).

The Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) from this show is the perfect collaborative team. 

They each have strengths and weaknesses, which they purposefully use towards resolving the crime. For example, Dr. Reid does his best work in geographical analysis, whereas Morgan and Prentiss are best at working the crime scene. The team members bounce everything off of each other, gathering and synthesizing new information, creating and revising the victimology or the “Profile” as they go.

What really stands out is how they present their thinking to each other. Often, their points are concepts that everyone on the team already knows, but are nonetheless verbally presented, and while I realize that the script-writers do this for the sake of the viewer (who most likely does NOT know the information), the result is a powerful exercise in willingness to grant and accept authority between team members. I want this for my students. But what do I need to do to be sure I'm modelling it? 

While we may be all set in accepting authority from our students, do we have the capacity for granting it to them? Can we-- or should we--perceive them as peers of a sort, at least to the extent of the unit or lesson being undertaken? How would that impact their learning and ability to authentically collaborate?

The concept of shared authority is an important one as it speaks directly to a perception of power or powerlessness. Teachers, by their role, find themselves in a relatively powerful role. However, in a truly collaborative environment, everyone has a voice, and in the act of voicing, they learn and become aware of others’ perceptions.

We can’t expect students to authentically collaborate until we ourselves can willingly do so with them. It really is the only way because we are the ones who (hopefully) have a grasp on what collaboration truly is.

We know that collaboration is different from cooperation. Collaboration does not demand consensus or even, necessarily, an accomplishment (Daniels & Walker, 2001).  It has less to do with the structure of the interaction and more to do with a philosophy of interaction (Pantiz, 1997). That’s where willingness falls into play. The willingness to be wrong or right without fear. The willingness to share without fear and hold one’s self up to the judgment of others.

That is what the BAU has. They work from their disagreements, demand reasoning from each other, and hold each other equally accountable. It requires so much more from a student to be collaborative than to be cooperative. It is an equality of being that compels them to be willing to understand themselves and each other.

Are we willing to do that? 

Brufee, K. A. (1999). Collaborative learning: Higher education, interdependence, and the authority of knowledge. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Daniels, S. E., & Walker, G. B. (2001).  The basics of collaborative learning.   Retrieved July 23, 2013 from http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/comm440-540/CL2pager.htm

Panitz, T. (1997, Winter). Collaborative versus cooperative learning: Comparing the two definitions helps us understand the nature of interactive learning. Cooperative Learning and College Teaching, 8(2),  1-15. Retrieved July 23, 2013 from http://pirun.ku.ac.th/~btun/pdf/coop_collab.pdf

Mindy and some of her former students wrote Transparent Teaching of Adolescents: Creating the Ideal Class for Students and Teachers--a philosophy, method, and timely application of strategies that span the school year. A collaborative (!) effort from all over the globe, the dialogue between this teacher and her former students presents both the wholeness of teaching and a model of how to build rapport, engage high school students in their experience, and enrich learning at the secondary level of education.


Converting Theory into Practice: Organic Technological Integration

We've all thought this at one point in time: "Please, for the love of all that's holy, just give me some practical things to do in my classroom."

We don't want to hear about all the specifical statistical theory that goes into the infrastructure of the framework of the ideological paradigm--we just want the nuts and bolts that we can immediately begin adjusting in our classroom.

I used to think that, too. Then, I had one of those "ah-hah" moments.

If you can understand the principle or theory, you can do anything.

It's kind of like what we try to do with students. We strive to teach them skills: how to think, how to learn, how to collaborate, how to read.

Because those skills transfer to a host of other things, smaller things. Now, we just need to remember that for ourselves! We need to embrace theory. I'm not saying that practical things have no purpose, but IF we have the theory down, we can then approach anything on solid footing. 

For technology integration, especially, a lot of teachers just want to learn the program or the application. They want the practical side of things because that, they feel, is where their potential weakness lies. That's what they're afraid of: not knowing how to work the technology. 

For a minute, let's see how working from a theoretical foundation might actually improve their practical application and help them overcome this fear. Consider:

The best integration of technology comes from an understanding of theory, not how well you can use the app or the program.

Teachers wanting to learn practical things first are potentially at risk of working from the technology tool as the foundation. This approach, though it does meet the basics of integrating technology, fails to reflect purposeful integration.

What teachers need to understand is not how to use Program A or Application B or even that the programs exist, necessarily, at first. They need to know what their objectives are for their lesson, first.

Let's say one of those objectives is collaboration.

Then, they need to know that IF and only IF they have determined that collaboration will enhance their students' learning, then they need to figure out HOW they want the  students to collaborate. Then, and only then, are they ready to even think about a particular program or application:

Do they want students to work together on single page or document or separately on a single page or document? Do they want students to simply discuss in a forum?  (There are certainly more ways that students can interact and collaborate with technology, but we'll stick with these general ways.)

Then, they also have to decide whether the choice to use technology is the BEST choice, given that they can do any of those three of these without it.

Why might it be better to use Padlet or Wikispaces than say, a posterboard in the classroom? Why might the use of an online discussion be more effective for student learning than an in-class discussion?  Why would I want them to collaborate on a google doc instead of working together on a physical paper?  Why is the use of any online tool warranted in this instance for this lesson?

All of these WHYS must be answered. Here are some potential answers:
  •       I want a paperless classroom.
  •      The technology saves money and resources (markers, etc.)
  •      I'm required to integrate technology.
  •      It's a really cool app!!!
If any of these answers are "Yes," then the use of technology is potentially superficial. You have to be honest with yourself, here. Consider that technology may not be the best choice, and using technology for the sake of using technology is a misuse of it.

However, if the technology tool enhances student learning in some way towards the objective, then we've got something. Some possibilities might be:
  • This topic is controversial and may be uncomfortable for some students to discuss in person.
  • Students would benefit from having the opportunity to publicly express their ideas with forethought.
  • Part of the objective for the lesson is that students work on their visual aesthetic abilities, which is made readily available with the tool.
  • For those students who are uncomfortable with creating original artwork or lettering, the use of the web tools puts them on more equal footing, thus increasing the likelihood that they will take academic and creative risks.
If your thinking takes you down one of these kinds of paths, then you can do a quick search for a program or app that helps students collaborate. Now, you have a program or application that is clearly and purposefully, and dare I say, "organically" integrated. It makes more sense.

(Consider the difference in student response to these reasons, too. More than likely, if the reasons for the technology are theoretically and/or pedagogically sound, then you will experience less student resistance.)

But this is just theory...

                                           with which you can do anything.

What's my objective?
How do I want students to work towards the objective?
Ask "Why technology?"
What tool will match what I'm trying to do and why I'm doing it?

Mindy and some of her former students wrote Transparent Teaching of Adolescents: Creating the Ideal Class for Students and Teachers--a philosophy, method, and timely application of strategies that span the school year. A collaborative effort from all over the globe, the dialogue between this teacher and her former students presents both the wholeness of teaching and a model of how to build rapport, engage high school students in their experience, and enrich learning at the secondary level of education.


Help Students Learn How to Self-Assess

In a discussion of the use of self-assessment in the classroom, a colleague pointed out that, potentially, not enough time is spent on emphasizing the importance of being self-critical. In her class, she used a set of self-assessment questions at the end of a research project, but she noted that “students spend the least amount of time on this, usually answering, ‘Yes, I did it well,’ or ‘No, there is no room for improvement.’”

Her question was how to get students to engage in the practice of self-assessment as well as how to get them to understand how important it really was.

The student responses above are the kinds of answers I would get from my classes when I first began asking them to evaluate their own essays. Although with teenagers, I’d get something more like, “It’s good enough. Whatever…” (with an accompanying eye-roll for emphasis). 

But we have to consider that the ability to self-assess is one of the most difficult of the self-skills. It's not really a fun thing to do, self-evaluation.  It’s also a “thinking” skill that teenagers seriously lack. Their self-perspectives are often distorted. Thus, having them practice this skill with their writing, in particular, may help them not only improve their essays but improve their ability to self-perceive. 

It’s not something that we can throw out there to a group of students, though, as “Let’s self-assess our writing, today.” It’s crucial that we personally have a strong grip on it before we launch the idea.We have to ask ourselves:

  •  How well am I able to self-assess my own writing?   
  • How well am I able to determine what my strengths and weaknesses are?

These questions might lead us to:

  •  Have I written something or done something that I can self-assess?   

I think we sometimes underestimate the need for and impact of role-modeling, particularly as it applies to any sort of self-criticism. Finding the time can be an obstacle, but I'm wondering if it's more so that we don't' realize the importance of modeling this particular skill-set.

       We have to be comfortable criticizing ourselves and our own work, if we expect students to do 
        the same.  

In the Language Arts curriculum, writing alongside students can be the first step in guiding them to stronger self-assessment skills. 

For example, if you have a timed writing prompt, write the essay along with the class—same topic, same time parameters.  I would use this approach for a few reasons: (1) to ensure that I had a better grasp of the question, (2) to model the writing process (warts and all), and (3) to have an authentic point of reference when reviewing their work and in any discussions we’d have about the rubric. 

Then, we’d evaluate.  I’d share my writing with them in some way (sometimes, I’d just read it aloud), and then, I’d identify what I found to be a strong element (basing it back on the principles from a rubric), and what I thought needed work. I would also explain why something was strong or weak, in my opinion and based on the rubric.

That why is crucial. All too often students stumble onto a turn of phrase or idea, and they think it’s a one-time thing that they’ve done well. It’s NOT. Whatever they’ve done well can be repeated because it will reflect a principle of writing. The key lies in identifying the principle. 

Having the teacher tear her own work apart released their apprehensions in doing so themselves. Much like a counseling group, everyone would open up, once they felt safe. This approach served as a model of intellectual humility, and it also aided in cultivating a classroom culture of continuous improvement. Not just for the students, but for the teacher, too.  

If we want students to self-assess, then we'll need to show them how. How willing are we to model self assessment?

Mindy and some of her former students wrote Transparent Teaching of Adolescents: Creating the Ideal Class for Students and Teachers--a philosophy, method, and timely application of strategies that span the school year. A collaborative effort from all over the globe, the dialogue between this teacher and her former students presents both the wholeness of teaching and a model of how to build rapport, engage high school students in their experience, and enrich learning at the secondary level of education.


Webinar Review: "Success with Strong-willed, Stubborn, or Downright Defiant Kids"

I just finished watching Dr. Charles Fay’s on-demand webinar. (You can order it, here.

Well, I shouldn’t say “just finished watching”, I should say:

           I just began changing the way I look at myself and my students. 

As an avid devotee of Love and Logic principles, I went into the webinar with many expectations and a few presumptions. For example, I anticipated that I’d be learning some great stuff, but I also figured eh, recorded presentation. Happily, Dr. Fay not only exceeded my expectations, but also my presumptions. At least five times over the course of my three viewings (I decided to watch the parts separately), my husband asked me, “What in the world are you watching?”

That’s because I found myself nodding, smiling, laughing, furiously typing, making strange noises (awww), intermittently calling out “Gold! Garbage!” or “Nooooo problem,” and at one point, holding back a few tears.  He could not imagine what video I had put on. 

Charles FayI appreciate that Dr. Fay has a presentation style that immediately engages your interest. His knack for timing as well as his use of vivid facial expression do help us overcome the relative stillness of the recording and presentation.  I also appreciate that I could stop, pause,  and go back, things that the face-to-face participants could not do. But more than anything, I recognize the value of the message he offers to those of us who are dealing with some pretty difficult situations with stubborn and defiant students. 

The strategies offered are clear and immediately relevant to the classroom. Those, coupled with the painfully familiar examples (Do I really say those things to 
students?), afford both new and veteran teachers solid, tangible things to do along the spectrum of behavioral issues we encounter every day.

The “Three Es of Love and Logic are also very clear.  And I cringed as I saw where, exactly, I tended to mis-step, and then I thought, “My gosh, Fay!  Help us deal with other adults!!” 

Are we not our own worst enemies when it comes to setting examples, letting experience guide learning, and empathizing?  Here's a place to learn how to overcome that!

This webinar’s cost is far outweighed by the change it can invoke in your classroom. The accompanying workbook alone is teacher gold.  

If you find that a student (or students) is sometimes holding your class hostage with his or her stubborn or defiant behavior, you’ll want to check out these strategies and see how, exactly, you can develop a mindset that can cope with just about anything kids can throw at you.   

Pardon me while I let my 21 year-old son’s poor decision—to spend money on a t-shirt instead of gas to go to work—do the teaching… 

Mindy and some of her former students wrote Transparent Teaching of Adolescents, a discussion of effective teaching strategies for high school.