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Collaboration Is The Way We Work, Not An "Activity"

Our guest author today is Joseph Vincente, 10th Grade Chemistry Science Team Leader at the East Side Community High School in New York City. East Side is one of a growing network of 38 NY public high schools (mostly in NYC) with waivers that replace standardized state tests with performance based assessment. Vincente is interested in educational technology, sustainability education, and empowering young women and students of color to pursue STEM careers.

So, 300 homework assignments checked, 200 email replied to, 100 quizzes graded, 50 more lab reports left from Monday still to read, 30 lessons executed, 10 revised notebook entries re-graded, 5 phone calls home and texts made to check-in with parents, 4 curriculum maps revised, 3 extra help sessions held before school, during lunch, and after school, 2 college bound pep-talks made, and 1 mediation between quarreling best friends conducted.

Phew. 

I take a deep breath and do a bit of mindless silent cleaning and organizing in my classroom to decompress. Another exhausting week in the life of a high school teacher comes to a close. Must be time for the weekend, right?  Well, almost... Friday afternoon at my school is when we do some of our most demanding but essential work as teachers.  You may be thinking it’s time for the dreaded weekly PD meetings or for some “collaboration”. Yes, that’s right; but, at East Side collaboration isn’t just an activity or behaving in a friendly, respectful, or cooperative way toward colleagues. Rather, collaboration underpins how we structure and conduct most of our work, how we serve students, and how we learn and grow as professionals. In the next few paragraphs, I describe some of East Side’s collaborative structures as well as the norms and conditions that support them.

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At East Side, I work with a “Grade Team” that shares a cohort of students.  This allows me, the 10th grade science teacher, to have powerful conversations with the history, math, and English teachers who also teach the same students. Throughout the year, we compare successes and struggles across subject areas by discussing the varying strengths and needs of our students. At weekly “Kid Talk” meetings, we write “smileys” – postcards commending students for improvement or great work. After we may brainstorm academic interventions for struggling students, such as mandating after school tutoring, reviewing IEP supports, or sharing successful strategies particular to a student.  We also consider a spectrum of students' social-emotional needs through counseling referrals or extracurricular activity recommendations. Grade Teams also organized into smaller advisories which meet at the start and end of each day for a 5 min check-in and twice a week for longer lessons.  Grade teams work together to design the Advisory class curriculum covering everything from health and healthy relationships, college and career preparation, academic support, discussion of current events and more.  In these ways, the Grade Team structure allows each individual teacher to leverage the collective expertise of a group of close colleagues all striving to serve the same group of students and forge authentic relationships with them.

“Vertical Teams” are another vehicle for teacher collaboration at East Side. These teams include all same-subject teachers – in my case, all science teachers – within the school.  I personally look forward to science meeting because I know the work we do as a 6-12th grade science team benefits us all. Over my 9 years of teaching, we have had re-iterative discussions to articulate curriculum. It is incredibly powerful to sit in a room full of other science educators all designing curricular materials that leverage the instruction of teachers in preceding grade levels and are intentionally designed to feed into the following year’s work. I know that the 9th and 11th grade science teachers who flank my chemistry lab are depending on me to pick up where they left off or pave the way for more advanced work in the upcoming year. Vertical teams meet about once or twice a month to set schoolwide instructional goals, develop common language, reflect on pedagogy, test drive new lesson ideas, book club new reads in science, share lesson materials, collectively design rubrics, and honestly critique our interdependent curricula. The kind of mutual accountability that Vertical Teams create seems more authentic to me than other attempts to standardize accountability and assessment. It feels like I answer more directly to our students and to my colleagues as we all drive towards the same set goals.

A third collaborative structure is “Professional Learning Groups” (PLG’s), which are organized around shared professional development interests, needs, or themes.  Though we have been experimenting with the exact design of PLGs for a few years, at my school, PLGs have evolved to focus on peer observation and feedback. Belonging to a community where high-level pedagogical teacher-to-teacher talk is nurtured motivates and challenges me to attempt new instructional strategies. This is an example of how collaboration can support innovation. PLGs provide the space that teachers need to try out new teaching techniques and refine them. PLGs are especially useful when master teachers model strategies and other peers provide non-evaluative feedback.

Finally, “Roundtables” are another collaborative hallmark at East Side – see here. From 6-12th grade, twice a year at the end of each semester, students present their choice of best work from each class.  Roundtables are special because beyond celebrating their best work, they must also demonstrate on demand what they have learned throughout the semester.  Students often present to outside guests, such as parents, scientists, mathematicians, historians, writers, professionals from a variety of fields, college professors, and educators from other middle and high schools. All staff members at the school also serve as Roundtable judges and this builds trust as my colleagues evaluate what my students have learned.  In such an authentic system of assessment collaboration is a critical part of planning for, attending, and providing feedback on each other’s Roundtables.

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As with all relationships, sometimes it’s the small things that matter the most. Most of the impactful work done during the meetings described above is dependent on the smaller interactions that occur daily between teachers, way before they sit next to each other to work together formally. And in many cases, it’s not even what you do, but how you do it that counts. When you take time to simply listen, maybe not even give advice, but just truly hear another colleague, it can build trust that becomes key to future joint work. For example, when the new science teacher on your team vents about a lesson that went well in one block but crashed in another. Those small moments can plant the seeds for meaningful collaboration. That new teacher might have an administrator to help them formally, but the idea that a peer can also provide support through non-judgmental listening creates professional friendships that, in my experience, set the foundation for us to work together authentically in other contexts.

In my experience, the synergistic effects of genuine trust and sustained professional friendships lead to increased teacher and student learning. Being able to visit a colleague’s classroom because I know they are really strong at facilitating rich classroom discussion, routinely being asked to share student work across grades or disciplines, and regularly meeting to discuss the needs of a cohort of shared students are all examples of structures stemming from a school culture where collaboration isn’t one activity or something we do during designated day and time, but rather, the way we do everything. In my experience, strong relationships with peers have always enriched my efforts to grow as a teacher. And it looks like I am not alone; there is now rigorous research showing that collaboration can be directly linked to both teacher improvement and student achievement. 

Some of the structures described above, such as Grade Teams, Vertical Teams, PLG’s, and Roundtables, may be similar in name to what other schools across the country also do. What I believe makes my school’s structures especially authentic and effective is their focus on rigorous project and portfolio based work. East Side is one of a growing number of New York Performance Standards Consortium schools, mainly in New York City, where students are exempt from the state’s examinations. At East Side, students don’t take standardized tests. Instead, they complete capstone projects in each subject area to meet their graduation requirements.  These projects are a nearly semester-long research assignment or Project Based Assessment Task (PBAT). In science PBATs, for example, students design their own research experiments, collect and analyze data, and present their findings to external evaluators. Any school that is preparing students for PBAT-level work requires teachers who are willing to thoughtfully articulate curriculum across years and work on literacy across grades. Teaching the complex skills required for PBAT demands that teachers work interdependently. Thus, Consortium schools encourage, through these policies and incentive mechanisms, the development of sophisticated and varied schoolwide collaborative structures.

This is true at the school- but also at the network-level; Consortium schools gather regularly to hold each other accountable through “moderation studies”, in which many schools join to blindly study, score, and provide feedback on other school’s PBATs.  We tend to be very tough on each other’s work, but in a professional, constructive way that spurs each of us to return to our schools and raise the level of our work. Interschool collaboration can be a powerful way for teachers to cross-pollinate curricula, inspiring us to work harder tempered by our own school’s individual contexts, needs, and student populations. In addition, the sharing of student work within and across schools provides a larger sense of professional community. 

Teachers and schools cannot create and sustain this collaborative, interdependent culture on their own. There need to be policies and incentives that encourage trust between teachers and teacher teams. At a minimum, existing policies shouldn’t get in the way of collaboration and coordination, as might be the case in other schools across the country. If, at the end of the day, my students and I are judged primarily on a single exam score from a single day, I would imagine that this could inevitably breed isolation and an unhealthy competitiveness between teachers that could, at best, feign collegiality, but which would hardly foster collaboration as a way of doing things.

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