Team Teaching – an all or nothing phenomenon?

Team teaching has the potential not only to raise your game as a teacher, but also to elevate learning for our students, however these outcomes are not easily achieved. Working in IB schools it is easy to marry the values of the team teaching approach with collaboration and the IB learner profile for teachers; after all it challenges your practice on every level!
I once taught in a school where team teaching was not an option, but compulsory. Although I learned a lot, at times I found it frustrating and a bit stifling to my practice. I think if there had been more supporting systems in place it would have been amazing. My personal perspective on collaboration of this nature is; if it’s too forced it can lead to unnecessary challenges that can impair teaching and learning. However, like so many things in life it is possible to identify degrees of practice, especially when it comes to team teaching. If a school as an open mind to teaching many strategies can be scaffolded into the school culture in low stakes ways, like this one…
Tuning in – This works best if the lead teacher does not reveal too much about the unit to the children, as she attempts to hook their curiosity. As the teacher leads the tuning in activity, the co-teacher circulates around the class and asks students; “what do you think the unit is about?” Or, “what do you think you will be learning in this unit.” After the tuning in, teachers debrief and engage in reflective dialogue – the important part! The lead teacher shares what she was trying to achieve through the tuning in and the co teacher shares what she heard the students say.
Of course to utilise such a strategy does not necessarily need a co teaching approach, it could be done as a reflective activity with the students after the tuning in. However, the value added effect of the team teaching approach is making public one’s practice. In turn this supports greater validity of our teaching and creates a context for further collaboration between teachers.
More on team teaching some other time!

In search of a common language

Learning principlesLast year we sculpted our learning principles for the whole school. At the time, I had a feeling that when we begun to put flesh on the bones of the learning principles they would reveal their true merit. But why would a school need a specific set of learning principles? In education our plates often over runneth with different ways to say the same thing to the point of just confusing the practitioner, let alone the learner. So why add more ways to the say the same thing? I believe the true value of the learning principles lay in their succinctness; they are not like a policy document, they have to be unpacked, and like a good central idea they promote inquiry, research and action.

This week we went deeper into unpacking our learning principle about formative assessment. Using the thinking hats, teachers worked in teams of pre-k, lower elementary and upper elementary to uncover what is the language of feedback and thinking we use in the classroom (white hat) what language will we make common across grade levels (green hat) and what student and teacher actions need to happen in the classroom to promote and strengthen assessment literacy (blue hat). To aid this inquiry teachers also brought in samples of assessment tools, strategies and displays they currently use. As the session began to unfold it was interesting to see how at times this exercise caused learning tension; teachers were placed in a compromising situation. The blue hat directed teachers toward making concessions and come to common agreements about how to make assessment literacy more transparent for our learners. To me this is a very important and worthwhile endeavour, we have between 50 and 60 nationalities amongst our students, the majority are ESL learners. If we want students to feel empowered by assessment, doesn’t it make sense to promote and use a common language?

To me dealing with issues that provoke learning tension is a fundamental part of  being a healthy PLC;  in moving from theory to practice, groups achieve coherence and connectedness through collective endeavour that builds and tests relational trust. In turn I think this helps to de-privatise classroom practice and nudges us further towards the holy grail of collective responsibility and understanding.

Pressing the pause button on learning – the power of collaborative reflection

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Two practices that fundamentally resonate with me as an educator are: pressing the pause button on learning and, empowering students as teachers. Ultimately these two important facets of learning are about metacognition, for the student as teacher it is an opportunity to process what they know and reach deeper understandings, for the student as a collaborative learner it is an opportunity for someone other than a teacher to affirm prior knowledge and extend it in new directions. I believe we do not create enough opportunities in our schools for empowering students to be leaders and co-constructers of learning for understanding. From a teaching perspective, the value of creating opportunities for reflective learning is that it gives you a window into just what and how students are thinking about their learning. Of course we could argue all learning engagements are about this, but often in the school environment “busy work” and coverage can subjugate learning and true understanding. If we are constantly bombarding students with new knowledge and challenges that embrace coverage of the curriculum how do we authentically gauge where students are? Hence the need to press the pause button every now and then.

Today in grade 2 and 3 was a day for pressing the pause button; as teachers we created a learning opportunity for students to reflect, process and extend their understanding about “who they are as writers,” independent of the teacher. By creating a simple visual graphic entitled, 5 ways to find your voice as a writer, the G3 students prepared a short mini lesson. In small groups the students collaborated, shared and appreciated each other’s contributions. On these occasions I thoroughly enjoy being a fly on the wall and listening to the rich conversations that unfold, only intervening when totally necessary to keep the discussions on track.  Following the sharing session we got the G2 students to reflect on the experience by using a HPZ thinking routine – “Connect/Extend/Challenge.

Many of the G2 students were at ease expressing how the G3’s ideas connected with what they already know. Equally they were able to express the new ideas they had learned. Many of the responses were a clear indication of how reading informs the writing process independent of what is directly taught by the teacher (for example, I had noticed over the past few weeks how a number of students had started to experiment with speech marks and exclamation marks; something that I had encouraged, but not taught explicitly). However, in response to the “challenge” part of the reflection, few students were able to articulate questions or areas of difficulty. I suspect this is an indication of the existence of multiple levels of self-awareness – to articulate what you find challenging requires reflection on your own strengths and weakness’.

What are your thoughts on pressing the learning pause button?

Teachers collaboratively thinking about student thinking.

As a faculty we got together in teams last week to discuss evidence of student thinking by looking at student work. Collaborative assessment is a well established process practiced by many professional learning communiities in schools around the world. However, often endeavours are based around improving student grades and driven by specific criteria. So it is refreshing to be part of a study where inquiry into the collaborative process is seen as a value in its own right. It is an opportunity for teachers to reach deeper understandings about how children think and how we teach them to think.

We used a simple protocol called ATLAS to help streamline our discussions, a worthwhile process to try. There were some fascinating pedagogical discussions and great sharing of ideas. I loved listening to the early years teachers interpreting student thinking through pieces of work, reminded me of discussions you might hear art critics having. Interestingly at times, using the process provoked us to suspend judgement, withold qualifying statements and refrain from giving background information. In this sense we were learning to listen in dfferent ways and when we did listen, two affirmations resonated – differentiation and student driven inquiry

There were great examples of differentiation and student driven inquiry happening across the school, but also the recognition that we could do better. As teachers, sometimes our best intentions get diluted along the way through our dense to do lists, busy curriulums or swollowed up by the gamet of other performances bestowed upon the teacher. (see time and space blog for further throughts on these issues). “To develop student thinking we need to treasure student thinking” – we need to maximise the space and time to allow it to blossom and actualize the importance of structuring learning around the curiosities that children bring to the classroom.

Does this mean we need to revolutionise our curriculums? What are your thoughts on actualizing schools of thinking?