Time to mix it up: cross-collaborate with shared classes!

As a science teacher, I am always trying to find ways to cross-collaborate with other teachers  to make my curriculum more meaningful. During my physiology unit I tend to pair up with the P.E. teacher for a project. During physics I team up with the math teacher. Cross-collaboration allows students to see connections between subjects, making content richer and more relevant to their lives. However, it can be difficult to assess cross-collaborative projects when you don’t necessarily see how students are making use of their time in the other classes. The solution? ClassDojo Shared Classes!

Sharing classes on ClassDojo is very simple. On your home screen you will see each of your classes. In the top corner of each class you will want to click on a small triangle, which will open up a drop-down menu. Click “Share!” You’ve got it from there. Shared Classes allows multiple teachers to have access to one class, both contributing points to students and messaging with parents. You might implement shared classes year-round or if you are more hesitant, a cross-collaboration project is a great way to try it out for a shorter period of time.

When starting a project I like to make sure all points have been cleared, then I share the class with collaborating teacher. Customize feedback points depending on the type of project. I tend to give students points every day for “productivity” and “teamwork”, which are a certain percentage of their final project grade. Once the project comes to an end, points given in-class can be used as part of students’ final assessment. Sharing classes holds students accountable for their behavior and work ethic in all classes involved. Cross-collaborative projects are the perfect opportunity to take Shared Classes for a spin, and hopefully will lead to better teaching and learning!

Happy sharing! 🙂

3 ways to increase teacher collaboration with technology!

Teachers are not known for having a lot of free time, and finding time to collaborate with colleagues can be even more challenging than finding time to plan alone! So how can teachers collaborate effectively with limited time? Here are a few tips:

1. Set measurable, actionable goals

It is very easy to get caught up in business or housekeeping in collaboration meetings, but when you come together to collaborate about curriculum, it’s a good idea to start with some goals. What would you like to see your students improve in? What unit would you like to plan? Your goals should be measurable, so if you decide your students need to improve in a certain area, you should start with how you are going to assess where they are, and where they are going. Be as specific as possible, don’t just say you want your students to improve their writing, pick a specific trait to focus on, and assess only that trait.

2. Start small

By choosing a specific area to focus on, you are not biting off more than you can chew. It may seem like a waste of time to spend all of your collaboration meetings talking about one thing, but by doing this for one trait, you will refine and improve your practice overall. Just look at this Japanese model of lesson study, they spend months, sometimes years refining the same lesson, and it pays off.

3. Use collaboration tools like Mindmeister and Google Docs

When you can’t meet in person, use asynchronous collaboration tools. I love MindMeister, but Google Docs works really well too. You can add thoughts and ideas as they arise, even if you don’t have time to meet.

So why should teachers collaborate when time is so limited? It may end up saving you time down the road. Why reinvent the wheel all the time, when someone has probably been where you are before? At the very least, you will have double the brain power to work on an issue, and at best it will improve student learning in your class, and improve your practice.

 

Come Together: Building a Global Teacher

Being a child of the 80s and 90s (Can I get a what-what?!), rap was a big part of music and pop culture growing up (and it still is today). While the music was fresh and funky, one thing that first comes to mind about the early era of rap music was the constant feuding, tension, and “haters” associated with this music movement (R.I.P. Tupac and B.I.G). Then, finally, someone realized rappers needed to (in the ever wise words of the Beatles) “come together,” stop hating, and start collaborating.  My first recollection of this was a Jay Z collaboration that blew my mind. This collaboration model concept caught on, and not only did more and more rappers start joining forces to bring better beats than ever before, but their songs (endorsements, and other products) soared to the top.

What’s my point? (…other than having a bit of a “Throw back Thursday” moment)

I feel like we are seeing an awesome teacher-collaboration movement in the education community.  Our industry has and most likely will always have controversy, opposing sides, endless change, and even some haters that you will inevitably encounter.  Even in my twelve short years as an educator, I’m happy to say that I have seen and continue to witness a shifting culture of increased support and collaboration.  Let me be clear: I’m not saying teacher collaboration is a new trend.  Rather, I feel that technology, ease of travel, and sheer necessity to collaborate (due to ever increasing demands on we teachers) has forged a fantastic network of educators reaching beyond the four walls of their classroom, the buildings they work in, and even states and countries to hold hands together, share, support, inspire, and collaborate through the endlessly challenging task of being a teacher in today’s world.  As we are more closely scrutinized than ever by the outside world, media, and politics, we must “come together” with our colleagues and fellow educators.  Doing so is proving successful for teachers, just as it did in the rap world. Teacher blogs abound with countless followers, districts are tackling Common Core together, educators are trusting other teachers for classroom resources and making major bucks in the process thanks to sites like TeachersPayTeachers.  All in all, connection + collaboration = teacher success in numerous ways!

So, how can you create your own collaboration?

Blogging Besties: If you are already a teacher blogger, you have likely experienced the surprisingly wonderful friendships and professional bonds you have formed with fellow bloggers and your blog followers.  Last summer I began my blogging journey as a Scholastic Top Teaching blogger and instantly met two fabulous ladies (Kriscia Cabral and Erin Klein) who became fast life-long friends and excellent educational collaborators.  If I have a question about teaching or need some inspiration to get out of a curricular rut, I reach out to those ladies, even though they might be in Michigan and California.  Getting outside perspective from teachers cross-country is an amazing way to shake up your instruction and stay current on national education issues. If you are not already a teacher blogger, follow and comment on other teacher blogs for the same type of advice and connection, or start your own blog… why not?

Recently I attended a national teacher-blogger meetup and it was amazing! Not only was I able to reunite with blogging bestie Erin Klein, but I made new friends like these lovely ladies from GoNoodle, and connected with both new and veteran teacher bloggers from across the country, including Angela Watson from The Cornerstone (we had a blast together!).  I can’t wait to reach out to and collaborate with these inspiring educators!

Local Connections: Don’t overlook the importance of starting new local teacher connections and maintaining existing relationships.  We are all so busy as teachers, that sometimes it is difficult to tend to our collegial friendships. Make it a goal to do something special for your teammates, keep in touch teacher friends from past grade levels or schools taught at.  If you want to expand your local circle of teacher connections, challenge yourself to reach out to teachers beyond your team, grade level, school, or even district. Within your school and district, make a point to talk to new people at meetings or times provided to collaborate. Beyond your district, join local educational organizations or tap into social media to make those connections (see below).

Webinars, Blogs, Social Media, Oh My!: If I had to pinpoint a singular catalyst behind this web of teacher connectivity, I would credit technology. You have so many vehicles for collaboration without boundaries thanks to online webinars, teacher/educational organization blogs, and social media. Check them out and mix up the way you follow and connect with people. Don’t limit yourself to in-person teacher relationships. Below you will see how I utilize different social media tools to connect with teachers beyond local borders.

  • Facebook gives me quick peeks at updates on blog posts, products released, reviews, and tips from teachers around the world.
  • Pinterest is one of my biggest obsessions. I search Pinterest for classroom ideas, resources, decor/bulletin board ideas, and organizational tips.  I’m super visual, so purusing through pics is a winning approach for me.  I could Pin away hours of my life and have gleaned some of my best teaching ideas from this source!
  • Instagram is my newest social media love, as it plays to my visual nature much like Pinterest.  I love Instagram because it allows me to often see more personal glimpses of the life and classroom happenings of teacher bloggers and fellow colleagues.
  • Twitter is the perfect forum for me to soak up top educational trends and tidbits, and then further explore via links provided if I so choose. I don’t have time to read every educational organization website, journal, or news report.  The people I have chosen to follow on Twitter provide short blurbs that keep me up-to-date and lead to further exploration of topics most relevant to my professional growth. Also, watch for and engage in top weekly educational Twitter chats that will provide a more personal interaction with Tweeting teachers.

Take a moment and choose even just one of these suggested ways to further connect and collaborate with other educators. If you do so, you’ll see that everyone wins…and most importantly, your students will benefit from the wealth of “good things” that emerge when we as teachers “come together.”

Don’t know where to start?

Connect with ME! I’d love to collaborate together.

Co-Teaching: Wedding Bliss?

Yesterday, I attended a beautiful wedding for my friend and colleague, Meagan.  Meagan and her new husband have all the ingredients for a successful marriage–mutual respect for each other, shared values and beliefs, the ability to compromise, and a commitment to each other through thick and thin.  Before this wedding, Meagan and I were also married in a sense.  We team-taught a class of thirteen students with intellectual disabilities (ID) and traumatic brain injury (TBI).  And we, too, shared all the ingredients for a successful partnership.  Our class excelled, and we experienced tremendous professional and personal learnings during that year of teaching. It worked so well, that I found myself being paired with a very unlikely co-teacher the next year–my brother. Those were my two best years of teaching.

Co-teaching is a highly beneficial scenario for both students and teachers, but as with any relationship, co-teachers have to work hard to cultivate mutual respect and understanding. Below are five keys to a happy and healthy co-teaching “marriage.”

1.  Small talk is a big deal

You will spend 8 hours a day within arm’s length of your co-teacher.  You will see them more than your real spouse or partner during the week. Get to know them as a person rather than simply another colleague.  What are their hobbies?  Are they married?  Do they have kids?  Are they a morning person? Do they prefer to use their prep period to work together or quietly on their own?  Get these conversations out in the open from the start, because they are more difficult to have later on; nobody wants to learn the hard way.

2.  Identify personality type and teaching style

Meagan and I were both extroverted teachers who preferred to move around the room, engage students in group work, and keep a high-energy classroom. We preferred to improvise and plan more on the fly. My brother, on the other hand, is a thoughtful and subtle introvert who levels out a tense or hyperactive classroom with a sense of competency and calm. Our lessons were highly structured and very detailed. Some co-teachers will energize us while others will balance us out.  Like any relationship, it’s best to go in with an open and positive mindset.

3. Identify strengths and weaknesses

If you’re not comfortable enough with your new co-teacher to have a conversation, it might be helpful for you both to make a list of strengths and weaknesses.  It’s likely that there won’t be too many areas of overlap, so taking a look at this list and agreeing upon duties and responsibilities will offer a sense of control and security to both of you.  A strong partnership relies on someone who is willing to take out the garbage and someone who will clean the bathroom. In this case, it’s probably agreeing upon who will grade tests and who will develop them.

4.  Establish procedures and expectations

We like to think we’re all snowflakes in the world of education, but when it boils down to it, most teachers have the same behavioral expectations and classroom procedures.  Compare paperwork, discuss homework, grading policy, and how you will communicate home. Know that you both will have to make adjustments to the way you ran your classroom before; be open to doing things a different, or perhaps better, way.

5. Agree to make mistakes

It’s hard enough to misspell a word or botch an historical fact in front of students, but when you do this in front of a colleague, it can be downright demoralizing.  Agree from the start to screw up occasionally, support each other in correcting mistakes, and move on.  Remember that we are constantly modeling for our students, so this is the time to show them that we’re all lifelong learners.

 

The Power of Collaboration

I was speaking with my new team of teachers about collaboration and what it looked like for them at previous schools. The responses shared were not at all what I had hoped. I’m not sure what it is about the teacher mindset, but we sometimes forget how much power comes from conversation with others. Why is it that doors are closed and ideas are “secret”? Are we all not working towards the same goal to “Better OUR students for the future”? Notice I capitalized ‘our’ because yes, they are all ours. No one can change the world on their own. We have to come together, unite and work as one. Here are a few things my team tries to do to improve collaboration:

Schedule Meetings Accordingly

When your team prepares for planning dates, be sure to have a calendar out and an idea in mind. Make sure that everyone is on the same page with time, location, and some possible agenda items you plan to discuss. If it is a meeting where a decision needs to be made, share that information prior to the meeting time. People feel less intimidated when they can see where things are going and be somewhat prepared for that journey.

Be Flexible

Understand that life happens. Yes, you just sat with your team and scheduled these meetings and sometimes, they do not go exactly as you planned. Be flexible and willing to adapt. Make room for “just in time” planning and “just in time” rescheduling when things don’t work out. At your collaboration meetings, go with the goal in mind and if you don’t get there, know that this is where you would like to start for your next meeting.

Be Honest With Each Other

Vocalize your concerns with your team. If there is something you are unclear about, share it out. If there is a decision that needs to be made and you are not on board, ask for a vote. “Fist to Five” is a great strategy and so is a thumbs up, down, or sideways. Create a way to show how everyone is feeling about the issue that is nonverbal and nonthreatening. Teachers are the most creative people, come up with something that works for you and your teammates.

Have Fun

Laugh often. It does not have to be a serious moment of deeply rooted planning every time you meet. When planning your meetings, plan for a social gathering as well. Step out of the classroom and meet at a restaurant for happy hour or in another part of the school. If you can’t have fun doing what you love, do you really have a love for it? Make time for “getting to know you betters” and find ways to connect with your team. These are the people you will see on a daily basis. The people you want to trust to share students (Check out ClassDojo’s new share feature if you haven’t already!), ideas, and values with. Take some time to create a professional relationship with them.

The value of relationships is priceless. Working together as a team allows teachers the endless opportunity for growth. This 21st Century school rings loudly in the lessons we teach to our students daily and yet we do not model what that actually looks like. In an effort to reach our common goal, the success for ALL students, let us stand by the words of Helen Keller, “Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.”

 

 

Professional Learning Communities

When I heard Clay Shirky say that the only proven way to improve teacher performance is for teachers to learn from each other, my conscience stirred within me. Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) are a growing trend in excellent schools and we didn’t have one yet at my school.

Shirky went on to say, “Letting teachers choose to opt out of new tools is okay because it keeps the naysayers from blocking forward movement. Let those who are interested implement change.”

The next week I began asking my fellow teachers if they’d like to create a PLC. Within three weeks, eight out of thirty-seven teachers signed up. At our first meeting, eighteen showed up!

Our First Meeting

At our first meeting we discussed Harry Wong’s book, The First Days of School. This meeting was unlike any other I’d been to at our school. Several teachers had already read the book and shared how it had helped them. Teachers who were planning to read it asked incredible questions. I came away with at least 10 ideas for things I could do on day one of the next school year. I got more out of those 30 minutes than I’d gotten from 30 hours of certain professional classes. It was unbelievable!

What’s Next

Our next plan of attack is to have a “lunch and learn” at our school. Everyone is working to finish the book and we’re going to discuss and share ideas. No one is required to do this — we are attending by choice, making it that much more powerful.

Reach Out and Start Your Own PLC

It can be intimidating to reach out to colleagues, but we know that the way to improve schools is to improve teaching. We must do this for ourselves. Although it is frustrating to have an insufficient amount of money to spend on professional development, we can get so much from a PLC — for free! We are so excited to be part of a teacher-led group that encourages sharing and collaboration.

I encourage you to talk with other teachers at your school. See if there are a few who would be willing to start a PLC. Some may refuse to join you, and that’s okay! Don’t be discouraged, there will be other teachers who are just as excited about starting a PLC as you!

If you’re having trouble creating a PLC within your own school, there are plenty virtual PLC’s. In Summer 2014, thousands of educators joined the Summer Learning Series, open to any and all educators (#SummerLS on Twitter). You can also keep an eye out for Voxer groups and book studies that you can join.

When you work with teachers who are willing and excited, change happens. Are you ready to level-up your classroom?