I teach, therefore I am.
In our classes we constantly advocate collaboration. We preach about the values of working together, the sharing of ideas, the scaffolding of knowledge and the joys of group work. Mostly the students are sold – they like learning from each other and building projects together. Yet a teacher’s story can be quite different. We operate in an isolated space, (both physically and mentally), sometimes only emerging from the classroom in order to attend a meeting; which more often than not can be swamped in discussing administration. We return home to our piles of marking and lesson planning, where the only conversation can be between us and our students’ work.
Good teachers, however, seek out ways to collaborate. This is apparent (as I mentioned in my previous post) through the public forums of Twitter, blogging and TeachMeets. Sharing and discussing our ideas, theories and practise is as key to our self-improvement as it is to the students in our classes. This post aims to highlight why ‘teaming up’ together matters and how it can work practically in schools and in the classroom.
I experienced ‘collaborative success’ during my teaching of a political poetry unit I had devised for my Year 9 class. We were exploring the ways in which political thought could be expressed through poetry. Obama had just been inaugurated for the second time and this Jay Z clip from the rally was a gift for getting a way in.
We watched this and thought about how rap and poetry compared; what was the effect of this message? One of my students consequently directed us to the Barack Obama vs. Mitt Romney rap battle which hyped everyone up.
Soon the class were spitting out beats about issues from Syria to Saville. We explored Nick Drew’s poem They went to war in a sieve and looked at how old forms could be played with to explore new ideas. They started to understand this concept, making comments about how the use of childish rhymes and rhythms helped convey the poet’s feelings about the foolishness of Blair’s decisions. However, something was still missing in their understanding; I wanted to get them thinking about the history of using poetry to convey political belief, why this was important and how to convey this convincingly in extended writing. Putting pen to paper was something they seemed less keen on.
Revelation came during break duty – it sometimes has its rewards – as I witnessed these same students enthusiastically scrawling away at their history homework where they were composing a story from the point of view of a soldier in the First World War. When questioned, it was clear that they loved their history lessons and were really getting into the idea of these characters. I sped off to find their history teacher and we discussed linking our learning programmes together. It didn’t take much more than that discussion before the students were talking about poetry in history and history in poetry. My colleague came to see me to tell me about a lesson where the students had shared the poems they had created in my class. They had used existing songs and poems and changed the words to create a political impact, I had compiled these into an anthology which I had given to my colleague. He described with delight how one of the students had actually sang his out loud with the rest of the class cheering them on. In my lesson, they continued to perform them and we drew comparisons with the war booklet they had been studying in history. It was alive and it was meaningful. Their written work on the poems demonstrated insight and enthusiasm. Best of all was seeing the fascination from the students about the fact that their teachers were talking and sharing ideas. Referencing each other in lessons suddenly made school (with its separate units of study) link up and make sense. Mostly they liked the idea that their good work was discussed between teachers. I liked it too.
With work like this you genuinely model the concept of collaboration, it isn’t just a classroom buzz word, it means something. Last year I attended a panel discussion (part of the Inside Out festival) entitled ‘Where Are All the Women’, which explored the absence of women in ‘top jobs’. Discussion revealed that perhaps our society didn’t value the skills of collaboration and empathy. It lead me to think that the de-valuing of these qualities would have a negative consequence on both men and women. Being collaborative and empathetic isn’t solely gender specific, I know a number of men who find the idea of leadership unappealing because of the cutthroat nature of the job. My concern is that with the school environment becoming increasingly ‘dog-eat-dog’ (data which compares departments and teachers, Ebacc, performance related pay) there is a danger of collaboration (and empathy alongside it) falling to the side. What example does this set for our students and what does this mean for our own practice?
With this in mind I teamed up with a colleague to organise an internal TeachMeet, which takes place at our school next week. On Friday evening a few of us teachers found shelter from the cold and conversation turned to this upcoming event.
“The Headteacher’s presenting?!!/ Who else? /What are you presenting about? [Co-construction – more of which in next post]/ That sounds great, I was doing this […] with my class last week.”
It had started. Here we were, amongst the ice and snow on a Friday night, sharing great practice. It seemed effortless but it came from teachers investing in collaboration, believing in its value and working to get everyone else on board. Writing this as a blog I am probably preaching to the converted but I think this is a key time to re-iterate the importance of working together. It’s more than a theory, it is integral to teaching and to creating a future generation who understand that greatness can arise from choosing cooperation over combat.