C is for Collaboration

Working TogetherI recently had an exchange with the parent of one of my advisees. He shared a paper his older daughter wrote in college with me. I don’t have permission to reprint any of it here, but she made some interesting comments about collaboration in schools. She made the comment that academics collaborate all the time on lab reports and journal articles, but collaboration among undergraduates and K-12 students is more rare. In some extreme cases, we might call it cheating.

I recently tried out a new way of teaching writing which involves collaboration. You can read my posts about here:

I have had an opportunity to present how it works both to my own colleagues and at a local conference (here’s hoping NCTE is interested as well; we find out next month). One of the things I pointed out both times is that if we write professionally, we expect to have an editor. No one says we don’t really know how to write on our own if someone edits our work. No one says we’re cheating. Yet, with students, I have heard teachers argue that students need to write in isolation. As I mentioned in the post, I have seen students revise much more often now that we are doing writing workshop, but one of the other byproducts of writing workshop has been a classroom community that I didn’t anticipate. I have noticed it even if we’re not writing. Students are friendly and collegial with one another. They have learned to value each other’s voices and opinions. They work together readily.

We were recently working on multigenre writing projects in the classroom, and as I came in the room and prepared to start class, I noticed two students who had both chosen to write about Edgar Allan Poe sitting together. They do not normally sit right next to each other. They had their heads together sharing their work with each other and talking about the different types of writing they were doing for the project. Would another teacher have wanted to keep them apart because they were working on similar projects? Possibly. Why? They shared great ideas with each other, and their projects will be stronger for the sharing and feedback. I think we are afraid sometimes that it is not original work if students collaborate, but truthfully, we often benefit from models. Models can show us how to do something and give us ideas we might otherwise not have had. A recent study by Thomas N. Wisdom, Xianfeng Song, and Robert L. Goldstone from University of Indiana explores the ways in which social learning can improve problem solving. The implications of the study suggest that sharing ideas and encouraging individuals to work as a team will result in better learning:

The results of both experiments show that imitation can be productive for groups as well as individuals, because it enables the preservation of good tentative solutions in “group memory” and their further improvement through cumulative exploration. These results also showed that the pursuit of larger amounts of exploration can result in diminishing returns for both individuals and groups. (Wisdom, Song, and Goldstone 1419)

One of the things I have noticed about writing workshop is that students often open their laptops and revise their own writing when we are collectively editing a peer’s paper. They notice something they want to change or that they want to try, or they have an idea based on something their peer has said. As such, my students’ writing has strengthened a great deal over the course of the year.

Students might not necessarily go on to be professional writers, but often, the situations in which professional writers work mimic the writer’s workshop more than writing in isolation does. Journalists always collaborate. It’s understood that an editor and copyeditor will work on a journalist’s writing. The writing room for just about every television show you can name involves collaborative writing. Students can apply these skills to the other work that they do.

Students have commented on first trimester course evaluations that the class is “like a family” and that they are “always collaborating.” Second trimester, one student said they “are asked to work together and by ourselves. We do a lot of group work.” The same student added that I make “sure we understand things before we move on.” Another student remarked that the class is “an opportunity to meet challenges.” I share these comments because I think they are a window into how establishing a classroom community and offering opportunities for collaboration helps students learn better and enjoy their learning more. We are reading article after article about the skills employers are looking for in college graduates, and over and over, we read that the ability to work as a team and to collaborate and to communicate well are important. However, we are strangely selective about the opportunities we give students to collaborate. We rarely allow students to write together, and having seen the ways in which collaborating in this way have not only contributed to my students’ ability to write but has also built a strong classroom community, I’m convinced that collaborative learning like writer’s workshop is the way to prepare students for the real work of the world.

Work Cited:

Wisdom, Thomas N., Xianfeng Song, and Robert L. Goldstone. “Social Learning Strategies in a Networked Group.” Cognitive Science 37 (2013): 1383-1425. Print.

Image by Lolly Man

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The Best Laid Plans

Some weeks ago, I shared exciting news that my students were collaborating with a girls’ school in Israel on a joint wiki writing project. Just as we got our wikis off the ground, a teachers’ strike in Israel put our plans on hold. The strike has now lasted more than a month. If it is not resolved before the winter break in about three weeks, the project will be on hold indefinitely as my students will be writing a research paper from January to March.

I know that the teachers I am working with are saddened about this turn of events, and I think we all agree that the timing of our collaboration was unfortunate in light of the strike. However, I think our situation poses an interesting lesson for all of us who are interested in embarking upon global collaboration in our classrooms.

What do we do when the best laid schemes o’ mice and men gang aft a-gley?

And what does it say about the project that the kids are still chatting through the discussion area of the wiki and friending each other on Facebook even though the project is on hiatus?

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Flat Judaism?

Many of my students feel a strong connection to Israel and have visited Israel at least once.  Some of my students are Israeli.  When an opportunity for my students to work with students in Israel on a “flat classroom” type of project, I jumped at the chance.  I am pleased to introduce you to our project, which I am calling “Faces of Judaism.”  Together with the Neveh Channah Torah High School for Girls, my students at the Weber School are exploring their Jewish identity through writing.  Some questions guiding our exploration:

  • What does it mean to be Jewish in Israel?  In America?
  • What is my home really like from my point of view as compared with how others see it or portray it in the media?
  • Who am I, and how does my religion form that identity?

We are still very much in the nascent stages of our joint writing venture, and unfortunately, a teacher strike in Israel didn’t come at the most opportune time, but we are soldiering forward despite this setback.

You can check us out at the Weber Writers Wiki and Israel Faces Wiki.

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