What is Collaboration?

This week’s post is written by Grace Raffaele, the NYC Writing Project’s Teacher-Consultant to Flushing International High School.

We do not need to look up the word collaboration in order to know what it means. We only need to spend a day in a school such as Flushing International High School. It happens organically and seamlessly. No one says, “OK, let’s collaborate” or “Don’t forget to include collaboration.” It is an unsaid but integral part of what they do. It is a bit like breathing: you may not realize you are doing it all the time, but once you start to pay attention to it, you realize how natural, continuous and important it really is. So, let’s look at a typical day and all the ways collaboration is breathing life into this International High School.

fw8okzf77:45 a.m. Classes haven’t started yet. Students are not even in the building. But teachers are. In one room, 2 teachers who teach a Humanities course together are reviewing the plan for the day. In another, three teachers compare handouts as they hover over the copy machine. Could their inaudible prayers that there isn’t a jam during their copies also be considered collaboration – with the machine??!!

pqm6otl18:00 a.m. Classes still haven’t started. But a few students sit around a table with a math teacher. Even the furniture helps define collaboration – every room has the same trapezoidal tables arranged in small groups. Right now, arms are reaching across papers pointing to different parts of a graphed equation. You hear mostly student voices until the teacher says, “But wait, what do you think this means?” And the student voices continue…

8:30 a.m. The hallway hum signals the approach of first period. The camaraderie of peers of all ages, genders and nationalities is warm and infectious. Mixed in with native language salutations are the “Hey, Miss! Good morning.” And “Yo, mister, is there after school today?”

8:40 a.m. First period begins as do the first signs of collaboration in the classrooms: students exchanging papers and looking at each others’ work in one class, students helping each other gather group projects and materials in another. And in every room there is the sense that students are helping each other get started on routines that have already been established.

As the morning continues, the variety of student-to-student collaborative learning experiences becomes even more evident:

  • A small group of students is standing in front of a class presenting a project. But within that small group, you see students helping each other, pointing out where a
  • group member should be reading from or helping with the pronunciation of a word. The whispers within the group are not distractions, but prompts and encouragements to go on with what the group has planned together.
  • Clusters of students work in the hallway: adding their own “leaf” to a tree that will eventually show the DNA traits of an entire team, putting post-it note responses on project displays, rehearsing skits they have written together and are now preparing to perform together.
  • In one 9th/10th grade room, a few students, identified as “writing experts” are moving from table to table, helping their classmates revise their writing. In another, students are in writing groups that will stay together for a few days as they hear each other’s work in order to give written and oral feedback.
  • Speaking of writing, this is one of 3 International Schools that have partnered with the New York City Writing Project to support and enhance student writing across the curriculum. The NYCWP teacher-consultant collaborates with teachers and administrators inside and outside of the classrooms as well as during professional development to meet the specific needs of the school’s wide range of writing activities.

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11:52 a.m. Students flock to one of the two lunch periods. But lunch is also providing a collaboration opportunity for the teachers. Although there are weekly team meetings after school with clear and focused agendas, these teachers seem drawn together to meet whenever they can. Whether it is the home-made lunch recipe, the movie they saw last weekend or the student that drew their attention that morning, the work mixed with congeniality at lunchtime provides a relaxed but important element in their workings together.

12:36 p.m. During Advisory period students engage in topics, themes and activities that a team identifies as important for their students. In addition, the role of the Advisor is a key component in the collaborative mechanism that helps a team know their students well and enables them to offer support when it is needed. Whether it is an Advisor or a subject teacher, teachers are constantly meeting with students on a one-to-one basis. It is more than a visual impression – these teachers want to be with their students.

1:20 – 3:24 p.m. Throughout the afternoon, every room is evidence of some form of collaboration between and among teachers and students. However, we forgot to stop by one room that could be considered the symbolic hub of collaboration – and that is the Principal’s office. Together with the Assistant Principal, these leaders not only have an open door policy, but they also seem to have a “stop me in the hall if you need to” policy, an “I’ll get back to you – for real” policy, and a “Let’s talk and I’ll listen” policy.

3:30 – 4:30 p.m. In addition to the after-school programs we see on a daily basis, on Monday and Wednesday afternoons we also see teachers meeting either as a whole staff, in teams or in committees. These regularly scheduled meetings and the committees that plan them are yet another part of the info-structure that supports the shared decision-making process.

It is the end of the day and often teachers as well as students need to be prodded to leave. But leave they will – only to return the next day to keep the work going in paradoxically refreshed as well as consistent ways.

Throughout this panoramic view, one important factor is not evident – this is not easy. It takes time, dedication, trust and hard work. Maybe it’s the combination of individual commitment and built-in supports that keep it going. So, what is collaboration in an Internationals Network school? It is actions that mirror beliefs. It is the breath as well as the heartbeat. And maybe there’s a little bit of magic in it too!

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