During the January meeting of the Editorial Board in Santa Fe, we asked these teachers to say something about their experience in collaborative projects and about the potential usefulness of On Common Ground. Here are some excerpts from our conversation:
MANUEL GÓMEZ: What for you has been the value of working in cooperation with university colleagues, or other colleagues in the community, or fellow teachers?
SHARON FLOYD: Working in collaborative projects has given me confidence to deal with an emerging curriculum. Right now I'm involved in a project titled "Write for your life," which deals with health issues that students face. My curriculum emerges from the topic that interested my students most, teen violence. That's a nationwide issue that has impacted on all our lives in one way or another. In such a collaborative project we don't try to make the issue fit the material that we already had. With the support of the university, we frame the issue and then find the material. Collaborative projects have also taught me that its OK to be different, to try something in a non-traditional way. I might do the same thing three different ways trying to reach all my students. They have also introduced me to team teaching, and to working with people from outside the school. That's another plus. We have also, because of collaboration, begun to work with writing across the curriculum in science and math, and other people on our staff now look to us to help them generate writing in various classrooms.
PATRICIA KING: As the guidance counselor, I had the job of setting up an effective instructional support team in our building and deciding how we were going to run it. With a lot of help from the principal and our wonderful reading specialist, we sat down and tried to decide how to proceed. We decided that we were all in it together and we moved along. Some of the other schools in our district moved more quickly, through administrative decisions. But we chose to move more slowly and bring everybody on board as we went. And by far the most valuable experience for us was having Elaine Moe from Lehigh come in to work with us and make suggestions. The way ideas are presented to the teachers can make all the difference as to how effective a project will be. And so can the support of the school administration.
SHARON OLGUIN: My experience with collaboration began with my work on my master's degree in a collaborative program. What I discovered then was that I never wanted not to be part of some collaboration. Teaching in itself is isolating, but in collaborative relationships you can have continued dialogue about curricular issues, and about children and their needs. Collaborative experiences have also given me greater autonomy, and a feeling of empowerment. They have helped me toward my goal of being a reflective practitioner and lifelong learner. My present work involves responding on a weekly basis to our interns' journals, and I'm continually impressed by their commitment to teaching and their understanding of, or questions about, pedagogy and philosophical beliefs. This process is mutually enriching. I have also assumed the role of being a messenger to the general public, helping them to understand the changing nature of education today.
MANUEL GÓMEZ: You speak of experiencing greater autonomy as a result of collaborative activity. Can you explain that paradox? Perhaps if traditionalist teachers, or those who are fearful of collaboration, could see how greater autonomy can result, they might be more eager to engage in such efforts.
SHARON OLGUIN: Dr. Auger from our university has looked at that issue in this way: He suggests that as children we're dependent on our parents, and as we grow up we become independent, and then in our further experiences we move toward interdependence. We share that paradigm with our students. As they move into teaching, they're dependent on us as the deliverers of information, and they move to independence as they can deliver instruction on their own, but the ultimate goal is that move towards interdependence which is really very freeing.
PATRICIA KING: Also important here is the leadership within the school, the tone the principal sets. If the principal really believes in collaboration and in empowering teachers to be active participants in their school, that starts to come about. If it's nurtured and valued, teachers begin to buy into it. But another problem is that often we're not given the time to collaborate with one another or with anyone else.
SHARON FLOYD: I agree. Many people don't want to become involved because of the time factor. They view it as a separate planning session when you're already teaching three or four English classes. But because this is something that you're collaborating on, then they want released time. When we started out we had released time to collaborate. But it didn't last. Right now we have a project that is not working in our school with collaboration that's supposed to be going on between an English teacher and a history teacher, but because they don't have released time they refuse to do it.
JAY ROBINSON: I guess this does get to a question I wonder if you'd comment on. Much of the argument for collaboration rests on the assumption that teacher voices will then be given more strength in the kinds of discussions that really count. I'm thinking particularly about discussions that would lead to real structural change in the schools. Do you feel that's happening?
SHARON OLGUIN: I think in part in our district that it is happening. We have many principals like Charles Serns who are really listening to their teachers, and asking them what their needs are and what kinds of change would benefit their students, and trying to respond to that. I don't know that it extends itself beyond a particular school site and its administrator, however.
PATRICIA KING: You know, I sit here and think Albuquerque, New Mexico, and East Greenville, Pennsylvania, are very far apart but we're so very close in other ways. I would say the same thing. We move toward site based management. There are some wonderful things going on, and my elementary school is a good example. We have a very supportive principal who listens to the teachers, goes to the central administration and fights for his teachers and their ideas and what we need in our school to make special education, for instance, more effective. But in some other places the principal may work less well with the teachers.
JAMES VIVIAN: Could you comment on ways in which On Common Ground can serve teachers, or ways in which it can give a stronger voice to some of the matters you've been raising here?
SHARON OLGUIN: I was struck by the global view of collaboration. I realized that my vision of collaboration had been very narrow - - limited to my school district and the university. But in reading the articles I really appreciated being given a perspective that is broad and interdisciplinary. I also want to comment on the inclusion of the art, and the connections to art that are brought forth in the articles. This periodical is a powerful voice moving towards what we need to look at art as a tool for continued learning. We're finding that art is always the first thing that's done away with because there isn't any funding, and I've recently developed a very different understanding about art. One of the students I supervised was an artist, who was integrating art into his classroom_a classroom with six different cultures and lots of low esteem. What I saw happen through his use of art as an instructional tool was a great improvement in their self esteem and also a real control and understanding in the field of art.
JAMES VIVIAN then asked: "How can On Common Ground give teachers more of a voice to reach the audience of college and university presidents, chief state school officers, corporate and foundation heads, and the like_those who may be important agents of change?" And the responses of SHARON FLOYD, PATRICIA KING, and SHARON OLGUIN all pointed in the same direction: "I think that if there is an opportunity to let teachers submit manuscripts talking about their collaborative experiences. . ." "As well as their needs. . ." "Yes, yes. The pros and cons of collaborative experiences. . ." "Voicing the impacts it's had on their professional lives. . ." "I think sometimes administrations, and maybe universities, don't understand what's going on inside of the teacher trying to make it day to day and work effectively in a public school situation."
Can this piece, "Voices from the Classroom," become a regular feature of On Common Ground? The answer, we think, lies in your hands. Our three new board members thought it would be especially helpful to our readers both to those who work in the classroom and to those who don't if teachers could provide testimonials about the collaborative experiences that have powerfully influenced their own practice. Let us hear from you!