Posted by Brison Harvey on Tuesday, 05/05/2015
Over my short period as a teacher, I have heard so many teacher leaders in the profession push for more time for collaboration, more time to talk with one another, more time to reflect, and more time to grow. The need for more time is a constant theme, yet, few teachers get the opportunity to experience this dream scenario. I am one of the lucky few that have been a part of the Common Assignment Study, which brings teachers from Colorado and Kentucky together to create common units in English, Social Studies and Science for teachers across districts and states.
The Common Assignment Study was created out of the Literacy Design Collaborative and the Universal Design for Learning initiative and fused together to create comprehensive units in three subject areas at the high school and middle school level. Funded by the Gates Foundation, this two year research study was created to see if collaboration using common content, common assessments, and Common Core Standards could be possible across states to effectively increase student performance and teaching quality. Teachers from Colorado and Kentucky have joined forces to create amazing instructional units—but the most important takeaway for me has been the collaboration process itself.
When we got started, it was clear that some significant differences, such as differing approaches to teaching, different priorities, and different styles of communication, might get in the way of consensus as we created our units. There are certain collaboration tools that are necessary to work past these differences. First, trust is essential for teachers who work closely together. Luckily, I found that trust was easily developed within our group of high school history teachers. This was partly accomplished through the selection process. District and school leadership staff identified innovative and effective classroom leaders to join the Common Assignment Study. As the youngest voice in the room, it was amazing to hear how open and receptive others were to my ideas.
Next, we assigned roles to help create more efficient workflows when collaborating. Roles help keep everyone focused on a particular task. While my role was maintaining some of the digital files for each unit, I still was invited to provide feedback on the work that others completed independently. This was vital in making me feel like an equal and valued member of the team. Likewise, I asked for feedback on the digital organization of our unit files and the process has evolved and changed to make it more user friendly for the other teachers. The feedback also allowed for a cohesive, streamlined unit that created a wealth of resources while teaching. Establishing roles helped prevent individuals feeling overwhelmed and overburdened with a large project.
With these two basic cornerstones of working together established, we were able to move on to my favorite part of the Common Assignment Study: sharing ideas and feedback. This was tremendously helpful and invigorating for my teaching. In my school, we work in Professional Learning Communities, but those networks are small and so the breadth of feedback is limited. By opening this project up to educators in a number of different districts and states, I’ve had a wealth of perspectives opened up to my teaching.
During the course of the Common Assignment Study, we have utilized webinars, face-to-face meetings, teleconferences, shared Google Docs, and even chain emails. While not every idea offered by my extended network of colleagues fit my teaching style, all of the discussions helped me think a little differently about my teaching and how to better engage my students. For example, from our discussions and sharing, I have discovered a new way to approach images and political cartoons when we review them for analysis. I have also added a new way to facilitate classroom discussions and debates using self-guided rubrics for the students. These examples only scratch the surface of the amazing ideas that have been shared throughout the project.
Moving forward, the Common Assignment Study will branch off and take different forms. It will become slightly more localized but allow for a strong network of teachers to stay connected and share the exciting work happening in their classrooms. It is my hope that this work will grow locally, even with the larger research aspect of the work ending. I will try to stay in contact with the new friends and expert colleagues I have met during this experience to continue a positive flow of resources and knowledge.
While funding and other roadblocks may limit others from creating similar networks, the move to the Common Core standards does create more common ground among educators nationwide, opening up more opportunities to perform cross-district and cross-state collaboration. I would encourage any teacher to join a network, such as CTQ’s Collaboratory, or build their own, where like-minded individuals are willing to find time and share resources to create amazing products with equally productive experiences together. The journey that projects like this take can help to improve aspects of a teacher’s skill while, in general, staying focused on generating strong instructional units that fit into a variety of curriculum programs. Technology and educational advancements have made it easier than ever, and I can say that this collaboration has forever changed the teaching in my classroom.