Collaborating Beyond Classrooms

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Virtual Learning

The Common Core State Standards, along with advances in technology, have opened up a new era in teacher collaboration over the past few years. Reaching across district and state boundaries, teachers are not only sharing useful resources and strategies, but also co-designing lessons and writing curricula.

But with so much of that work happening virtually, teachers are finding that there are some guidelines that can make online interaction more effective and help build a teacher’s growing professional community.

“It takes a while to build that capacity and that trust,” Nancy Gardner, who teaches English at Mooresville High School in North Carolina, says about collaborating with teachers that she has never met in person. “It’s different for us to reach out and touch someone not just next door, but across the state.”

Gardner says the right tool for collaboration can make a difference. And she suggests that when teachers are first embarking on a virtual project together, a videoconferencing platform, such as Skype or Zoom, can help break down the barriers of working together from a distance—especially if the teachers have never met each other.

Renee Boss, the initiative director at the Fund for Transforming Education in Kentucky, observed how teachers used the online collaboration program created for the Common Assignment Study, which brought together teachers in Kentucky and Colorado to design common lessons. She says it’s helpful for teachers to provide some context about themselves, such as how long they’ve been teaching, whether they have children, and whether they are participating in other networks or communities of educators. A few personal comments can help the team members get to know each other, but the facilitator shouldn’t let it go too far, Boss says.

“You don’t want every post that you make to be about your son’s football team,” she says.

Ground Rules

As with any good meeting, online sessions should stick to a schedule and have an agenda, Gardner says. But opportunities should be available for participants to stay in the session or on the phone longer if they wish.

For many collaborative projects, the team will often divide the tasks that need to be completed. For the Common Assignment Study, for example, two or three teachers would design the writing task, another subgroup would focus on the kinds of assessments they would use, and a third group would gather documents and resources that the students might use for their research. That’s why at the beginning of a project, it’s also helpful, Gardner says, to ask teachers about their strengths and weaknesses. That way, the outcome of the work is likely to be stronger.

As with any meeting or project, there are likely to be participants who are more active than others and tend to post or share resources more often. Gardner says she doesn’t think that “oversharing” is a problem, as long as the material or the link is relevant to the topic.

“You are networking at the same time you are collaborating,” she says, adding that if a teacher can’t use a particular resource right away, he or she might come back to it later or share it with a colleague.

‘A Powerful Force’

Many teachers might take their first steps toward online networking by participating in a Twitter chat or responding to a blog post. Molly Robbins, an English teacher at Cherokee Trail High School in Aurora, Colorado, suggests that teachers “lurk” to help figure out where to plug in.

“Lurk on silly sites, lurk on professional sites, lurk on chats, lurk the edu-stars,” she says. “Just take some time to get to know that language and the etiquette of the different forums and people.”

Ultimately, she says, teachers will find the discussions and opportunities that work for them and help them improve their teaching.

“The nature of these spaces is that people are looking to solve problems or think about practice in new ways together,” Robbins says. “People sharing their work or their ideas creates a powerful force to reckon with.”

Boss adds that Twitter helps teachers “build a community.” She recently became an editor for the National Blogging Collaborative, which gives teachers a forum to discuss all aspects of teaching and learning. “I wouldn’t be involved with the Collaborative if I wasn’t on Twitter,” she says.

Brison Harvey, a social studies teacher at Lafayette High School in Lexington, Kentucky, wrote in this blog post about what he took away from working with teachers in different districts and a different state over a two-year period as part of the Common Assignment Study.

“In many ways,” he wrote, “we are modeling the ideal that we want our students to achieve—create, collaborate, and invent high-level products that benefit the world.”