Collaboration and the frame of mind

I am a fan of adjusting student groups in my classes. Of course, this drives my students up the wall, but the work I get out of them when they are in groups I set up can be wonderful. When I told my AP English Language and Composition class that I was putting them into groups, they balked and groaned. But, they moved to their assigned spot for the day.

With the students newly organized, I turned on my doc cam and projected a page from my notebook. At the top of the page I had written “What collaboration looks like.” In the middle, written in large letters, “A group of people gathered for a common purpose.” The rest of the page was empty.

I asked them what they feel like collaboration looks like. I poised my pen over the page ready to scribble. And I waited.

For 15 or 20 seconds the silence was deafening. I did not want to start this conversation. I wanted this list to be on them. Finally a kid chimed in: discussion. Good, I say. Tell me more about that, in a collaborative environment, what does discussion look like? A few students suggested some details about the idea of collaborative discussion in small groups. From there, the list took shape and the map filled up. We talked about the role that compromise, performing at the best of one’s abilities, leadership, and ego play in effective collaboration. Most importantly, we pulled this away from school and talked about what it looks like in sports, on a stage, at work, at home.

We talked about what usually happens in classes when they are asked to collaborate. They divide the work up between them, do their own part individually with little communication, and compile their work into one document. They agreed that this is not collaboration. They will readily agree that all they want to do is get their work done so they can move on to better things like Snapchat.

With the mindset established and roles assigned (scribe, researcher, and speaker), students collaborated in small groups with the purpose of using our unit question (What role do social institutions play in determining the level of power derived from authority?) in order to develop a stronger understanding of the arguments presented by Machiavelli, Thomas Jefferson, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The conversations were insightful and productive. I wandered about my room and heard students seeking more depth from their peers as they pushed for deeper understanding in their responses.

From here, we switched to using their collaborative mindset to developing skills and approaches for the AP exam in May. Again, they collaborated and pushed for deeper and richer understandings in order to present a more compelling analysis.

I sometimes forget the importance of getting them in the right frame of mind for working in class. I teach in 90 minute blocks and to spend the first 10-15 minutes helping them to get into the right frame of mind is well worth it. As noted in my post on skills over content, if I want them to utilize these skills in class, then it is upon me to spend the necessary time in order to help put them in the right mindset for using those skills in class. So, rather than a bell ringer activity or whatever they might be called, I wonder if we would all be better suited by letting students know of the skill they will utilize that day and what it looks like.

Welcome to Thinking without a Harness

I have been thinking quite a bit this school year about the significance of student (and teacher) reflection. I enjoy spending time in my own head, but often I find I don’t do it with the intention that I really should. I encourage my students to reflect and share their reflections, so I reckon I should too. In so many ways, that is the purpose of this blog and website. I intend to use this as a time to put together ideas and reflect on what I have done in my classes, tried to do in my classes, read for fun (and my classes), and other random writing and thinking.

So let this be a welcome mat to my  blog and my latest creative and educational endeavor. I suppose I should spend a moment on why I finally decided to give this medium a go on my own.

Last week I was at the Colorado Council of the International Reading Association 2018 conference and sat in on a few sessions by George Couros. I was moved. I was motivated. I realized in his session what a sham I had been asking my students to take risks with their writing and their thinking and all the while I was hiding most of my thinking on this computer of mine. Moreover, I realized if I want to improve my craft, I need to get out there more. By that, I mean I need to get my writing, my ideas, my struggles, my successes, my thoughts, all of it. I just need to get out there more.

And so this site was born over a couple of Manhattans with Felicia, my girl friend. I told her of my thoughts to put this together and we brainstormed ideas about the name and the purpose. And here it is, Thinking without a Harness.

Here you will find various pieces of my writing and thinking and reactions and reflections. I will post about teaching, learning, living, functioning, and the like. Take what you will. Leave a comment or two. Join in for the ride.

So, welcome to Thinking Without a Harness. This is my place to reflect and work some thoughts and ideas out in public.  And it starts now.

I look forward to your comments and thoughts and insights. As educators and people, we cannot function well in isolation, so please join in the conversations. I will let go of my safety harness and put my thoughts and ideas out there. I hope you will join me in this endeavor as I put my reflections out there and do what I ask of my students, and not what I do.