Establishing Our Collaborative Work Norms

Tch Laureate Team

This is part of Kristin Gray’s Getting Better Together series, Establishing a Culture of Collaborative Learning. Kristin and all the Teaching Channel Laureates are going public with their practice and seeking support in getting better from colleagues and the Tch community.

Getting Better TogetherEvery school year, I would ask my students to develop a set of classroom norms. When given the opportunity to decide for themselves what would make the math classroom a safe place to share their emerging ideas, they never disappoint.

This process provided a wonderful opportunity for me to hear what was important and valuable to them in creating a safe classroom. They worked individually, in small groups, and finally came together as a whole class to refine and edit their ideas. As an example, last year we settled on the six classroom math norms pictured below.

Math Norms

Working with teachers this year, I find this same routine to be such an important piece of establishing a safe culture of learning, both when working individually with teachers and as a group in our Learning Labs, which is what we call the time we have to work on and reflect on teaching activities. I think it’s important for group members to be able to express their needs within our collaborative work, as well as hear what others on the team need.

Our Learning Lab cycle consists of four distinct stages:

  • Planning an activity together
  • Watching the activity play out in a classroom
  • Debriefing afterwards to make revisions
  • Trying the activity, with revisions, in all the classrooms

In thinking about this cycle, there are norms that extend throughout each of the stages, while there are some norms that are more applicable to individual stages. When I met with each grade level team of teachers after our Learning Lab overview, to discuss each of these stages and the norms they felt were important for our future work together, I presented them with the questions below and we discussed the norms they felt were most important to them as learners engaging in this process.

Learning Labs norms

I found it interesting to hear so many parallels between the norms that help guide our students, and the norms that guide us as adults.

In both cases, the majority of the conversation was about being accepting of others’ ideas, being respectful, and being present and focused when we’re working together. I loved hearing these ideas discussed by my students, and loved it just as much to hear it from teachers. It showed me that learning together is learning together, whether it be among children or adults. We all need to be mindful of others’ thoughts and feelings while also being accountable to the group’s work.

One unique aspect of teachers talking about collaborative learning was the focus on being present and feelings about comfort, over the actual content planning and teaching process. This was honestly something I hadn’t thought too much about in planning for this meeting. It was only afterwards, when I sat and reflected on the experiences of the day, that I started to think there may be a difference between working-together norms and working-together-around-math-content norms. I thought this was very telling with regard to how most of us typically plan, and teach, as teachers.

Usually, we plan alone and we have our own process of thinking through a lesson without the input or the ideas of other people. We then teach the lesson void of that same input. Teaching and planning, then, are typically private acts that, through Learning Labs, we are making public. How very brave and important of all of these teachers to take something so personal and open it up for other teachers and the students themselves to see! And how valuable for us as learners to be doing this work together!

Each grade level now has a set of work-in-progress norms in place and a sense of excited curiosity for our next meeting, in which we plan an activity together. We’re going to implement that activity with students in a classroom and, afterwards, come back together to debrief about how our planning went. Did the students’ respond as we thought they would? Did it go in a different direction than we anticipated? What moves and/or questions could have changed the course of the activity? What revisions would we make to improve the activity? And, most importantly…

What did we learn about our students and ourselves through this process?

Kristin Gray is a National Board Certified fifth grade math teacher at Richard A. Shields Elementary School in the Cape Henlopen School District in Lewes, Delaware and a Teaching Channel Laureate. During her 19 years in education, she has taught 5th–8th grade math, as well as spent two years as a K-5 Math Specialist. She feels fortunate to be involved with Illustrative Mathematics and Teaching Channel on projects developing math tasks, facilitating professional development, and blogging about these experiences. She is always excited to share her love of teaching at conferences such as NCTM, NCSM, ISTE, as well as on her blog. Follow her on Twitter: @MathMinds.

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