In 1985, after a mid-semester teacher in-service (a service I had come to see as routine), one of my colleagues, Katherine Smith, told me about two university teachers and a presentation they had made about collaborationabout new ways for teachers across levels to work with one another on problems of teaching and learning. Because of my state of mind, I didn't think that these two people would eventually change my life inside the classroom to the extent that they have: what did they know about the students I taught or the pressures I faced every day of my professional and personal life? But Kathy was so impressed that she began to tell all of us who had missed the session about a different way of teaching and about different ways to imagine our lives as teachers. Because her enthusiasm was contagious, all Saginaw Public Schools secondary language arts teachers were given the opportunity to attend a workshop led by Jay Robinson and Patricia Lambert Stock. This was our first introduction to programs offered through The University of Michigan's Center for Educational Improvement through Collaboration (CEIC), which Robinson directed. What came after was more important than any single workshop.
I came away from this initial workshop amazed by the freshness and enthusiasm these university teachers exhibited and encouraged by their willingness to listen to us: to hear about our problems and to attend to our hopes and aspirations. These early sessions, in which we explored our common understandings and identified problems of teaching and learning that we felt we could solve together, and in no other way, developed into several collaborative projects involving the assessment and teaching of writing and the place of writing instruction in a broader language arts curriculum. In our initial work together we encountered differences of experience and perspective that we had to negotiate and resolve: the idea of working on various projects with university personnel was uncommon in these parts at that time and many teachers were apprehensive about getting involved with the unknown. But I was longing for a change and began to think, as time went on, that this just might be it.
Our administrators supported our efforts. Interested teachers were released from class time to attend many day-long in-service sessions in which we met and worked with various professors and graduate students from the University of Michigan. We were offered models for authentic assessment of student writing and were given practice in "read arounds" as a means of articulating standards for good writing; we were offered ideas for innovative and creative lessons. The waywe were treated by Jay, Patti, and their university colleagues was very surprising to me and to many of my colleagues. We were not only treated as professionals but as equals as well. What we, as teachers, had learned and knew was always valued; what we had to say made a difference. Our opinions counted. If we desired change, it was up to us to effect it, working with but not relying upon our university colleagues.
Our work together moved from the workshop to the classroom and our university colleagues sometimes taught with us. We used collaboration extensively in planning and developing curriculum. We generated ideas in our group planning sessions and tested them out in our classrooms, returning to group sessions to improve them; we tried out new ways of doing things which seemed valuable but had gone stale. I began to allow my students more freedom to plan and direct their learning and I was pleased with the results. Through a new awareness, I began to let the curriculum emerge and grow, following the direction of my students' interests. The benefits of involving students in collaborative work were first made clear to me when I decided to solicit their help in designing the writing assessment that would be required of all Saginaw students.
We teachers had been asked to come up with topics for a writing prompt that would challenge students and allow them to write freely and honestly (something that we did not find in state mandated tests or national models). With my eleventh grade students, we took a survey and brainstormed ideas about issues that concern teens. Many common issues emergedteen pregnancy, problems with peers and with peer pressure, problems with parents and other adults, problems with school, issues of alcohol and drug use and abuse. The issue that most students ranked as number one, however, somewhat to our surprise, was teenage stress. The students argued, persuasively, that in treating this issue, many others could be addressed because they were indeed stressful. The excitement with which the students tackled this assignment was unbelievable, perhaps because they knew that their work would be used in the design of a writing assessment. Maybe a fresh approach was the answer. I was amazed.
From this initial exercise, I began to become convinced that the interest level of students increases as they are made partners in the planning of their own learning. Similar lessons were to come from the work we were doing together as teachers. Even though teachers on the same faculty teach the same subjects, none of us actually knew what other colleagues were doing in individual classrooms. After collaborating with university personnel, teachers began to see the value of planning with each other, sharing ideas that worked in the classroom and brainstorming about issues and problems that all of us face.
Collaboration is the best thing that has happened to me in my twenty-five year teaching career. It allowed the university to come into my classroom, providing access to materials and information that enriched my knowledge and re-directed my practice. Work with my university colleagues gave me the push I needed to make my teaching a viable and valuable experience for my students. Because of the collaborative experiences that I have been a part of, I am proud to be a teacher who tries to make a difference in the lives of my students; because of that experience, I know I am not alone.