Collaborating in the Wild

As educators, we talk about how much we value collaboration, but sometimes the way it looks in practice contradicts that claim. For example, when teachers take half or full day release time to plan as teams, there is not a consistent space in our building for them to spread out and work. They can use the conference room—if there aren’t any meetings going on. They can use the library—if there aren’t classes scheduled to come in (or if they don’t mind talking over the ones that do). They can meet in the teachers’ lounge—but it gets pretty crowded between eleven and one o’clock with everyone cycling through to eat lunch. And any of these spaces can be commandeered at a moment’s notice if they are needed for students, because we believe students come first.

I believe students should come first. . . and I also wonder what we communicate to teachers when collaborative meetings between adults are booted from shared spaces because we need a space for small group testing, a parent meeting, or an in-school suspension.

The way most schools are designed, the most convenient place for teachers to work is in their classrooms. Alone. Or perhaps with colleagues from the same horizontal team. This kind of geography isolates educators from each other, when what we need is more vertical collaboration. I had a colleague mention in an offhand way recently that the only time she even sees teachers at certain other grade levels is during staff meetings. This caught me off guard, since I feel like I get to collaborate with everyone in some way at least every week.

After seven years with a closet for an office (literally), I have an opportunity this coming school year to move into a classroom. My vision for the space is for it to be a collaboration room (not “Amy’s office”)—open to any teachers at any time. I’m curious to see what shifts might happen around how we collaborate and learn together when we have a dedicated, shared space to do so.

These ideas were swirling recently as I read Kids 1st From Day 1, the new book from Kristine Mraz and Christine Hertz. If you have not yet checked out this book, I highly recommend it. Their thinking about how we create learning spaces that are ready for and responsive to kids will push the thinking of all educators—regardless of how long they have been teaching. I found myself making connections to our collaboration room project across the text; it has been such a relevant parallel to the conversations with teachers in my building (also reading the book) as they’re thinking about shifts they’d like to make in classroom communities.  

The guiding question in Kristi and Christine’s chapter about the physical environment is, “Does this space reflect what I value most about children and learning?” (Hertz and Mraz, 2018, p. 33). As I continue thinking outside the box around professional learning, I’m noticing the disconnect between the spaces adults have for learning and the types of learning and collaboration I believe we should be doing more of. If we want the space to reflect the learners and collaborators who will (hopefully) spend time there, we have some re-thinking to do!

“When it comes to setting up our classrooms, there are certain choices that we can make as teachers to design an aesthetic that promotes independence, creativity, and joy” (Hertz and Mraz, 2018, p. 35). Those three words—independence, creativity, and joy—that is the way I want our collaboration room to feel. Not like “the meeting room,” not like any one person’s office, but like a shared, co-owned space where we collaborate on work that matters deeply to us and is energy-giving.

There is a physical component as well as an emotional one to consider as we begin to build this space. (In the interest of length, I’ll save the emotional side of co-creating this space for another post.) The easiest choice is always to stay where you are, especially if you’re potentially carting materials. . . So what choices might we make in designing the physical environment that would make a trek somewhere else worth the trip?

I imagine the collaboration room having multiple spaces for teachers to meet and work. Perhaps a large table near the projector, for times when we might need to collaborate on a shared doc, plus smaller round tables in other parts of the room. Maybe a couch and a couple of comfy chairs for more casual conversations? Standing desks? There is so much creativity around flexible seating options for kids right now. . . I wonder what kinds of furniture might honor the preferences of adult learners in a similar way. Having tables and chairs on wheels would communicate a flexibility around how we might modify the space based on the purpose and size of the group. I’d like to have shared community supplies plus storage space for all grade levels, so teachers can leave materials if they need to.

Obviously, this is the real world, so we won’t be able to wave a magic wand and design/purchase everything we might want to create a state-of-the-art collaboration room right away. And really, if I do it all myself ahead of time it defeats the purpose anyway. We need to co-create the space, open to how it might evolve over time. We need to experiment and discover how we want the space to function and feel.

Hopefully, the biggest draw to the space will be knowing other teachers will be in there!

In Kid’s 1st, Kristi and Christine challenge us to consider the story walls would tell if they could talk (Hertz and Mraz, 2018, p. 48). This got me thinking about the kinds of teacher work products that might encourage vertical conversation. I’m trying to imagine the opposite of data walls. . . If teachers could share what they are proud of with others, what might that include? What artifacts might communicate our beliefs about student learning, instruction, and our community of professional learners? What might encourage us to ask each other questions or to invite ourselves into each others classrooms to see learning in action with kids?

“Not only does your classroom environment reflect what you and your class value as a community, but it also has the power to shape your community’s values” (Hertz and Mraz, 2018, p. 33). So while on the one hand, I’m thinking about what our community has already internalized around collaboration—because this is a staff deeply committed to collaboration—I’d also like us to continue challenging our assumptions and beliefs about what collaboration looks like and can support us in becoming. 

For example, I’ve been thinking a lot about time. I know teachers value time to collaborate vertically, but there will never be enough of it if we’re waiting for someone else to schedule it for us.

I believe we need to create our own opportunities to bump up against each other, to initiate instructional conversations with colleagues outside of our own grade levels.

We need to be in the mix with colleagues as we’re planning; we need to see what it looks like and hear what it sounds like so that we can ask better questions. There is so much we might learn from each other if we just interacted more regularly in the process of doing the most important work. If we really want to deprivatize practice, we need to increase transparency—we need to plan, learn, and collaborate in the wild.

I believe the most authentic learning experiences are owned by the learner and supported by the learning community. We make time (and space) for what we care about. If we want to change the way educators learn and collaborate, we need to co-create spaces for us to engage side by side in organic, learner-directed ways. 

As we move into this new school year, I’m motivated to leverage this rare opportunity of physical space in combination with new ideas around structures and processes for professional learning. There are so many possibilities for shifting the learning experience for educators, especially if we can begin breaking down outdated models (like planning independently in our own classrooms after school)!

I’m curious: if you already have a collaboration room, or if you’re thinking about designing one, what might we include? What else might we need to think about to make this a space teachers want to be?

 

References:

Hertz, C., and Mraz, K. (2018). Kids 1st From Day 1: A Teacher’s Guide to Today’s Classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

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