Collaboration as Story Building

by Colleeen M. Fairbanks

Having participated in the development of collaborations between universities and schools in different sites and across different states, I have come to see collaboration as a kind of lived story, one that unfolds but is rarely predictable. By lived story, I mean something on the order of Jerome Bruner's definition: "human agents doing things on the basis of beliefs and desires, striving for goals, meeting obstacles which they best or which best them, all of this extended over time" (1992, p. 43). Partnerships between people who have complementary but not necessarily identical aims or beliefs must negotiate, compromise, find consensus if they are to make goals and meet them, if they are to overcome the obstacles that their different roles or the context puts in their path. When they succeed and their story evolves along constructive lines, each character in the story learns at least as much as they have bargained for and usually a great deal more.

To illustrate how such partnerships between teachers from different institutions grow and change, I want to sketch briefly the story of one school-based collaboration in which I took part and then to discuss why this partnership worked as it did, to the benefit, I think, of both participants.

For three years, I worked with the Saginaw (Michigan) public schools in a broad-based collaboration between the schools and the University of Michigan's Center for Educational Innovation through Collaboration (CEIC). The institutional collaboration was aimed at the exploration of literacy, teaching, and teaming, and involved a number of faculty and graduate students in partnerships with teachers. My role consisted in facilitating the CEIC's projects with the schools. In addition, I also established with my Saginaw colleagues individual classroom projects aimed at developing curriculum to encourage the literacy learning of students in the district.

When I started my work in Saginaw, about ninety miles from the University of Michigan campus, I could not have imagined the twists and turns that my life as full-time, school-based project coordinator would take. Nor, I suspect, could Kathie Smith, a tenth grade English teacher at Saginaw High School, one of the city's two comprehensive high schools. My initial activities consisted of acquainting myself with the district's language arts teachers and the projects currently underway. In October, several of us attended a seminar in Detroit to talk with other teachers about our individual efforts at school reform and to learn about what others had begun in their own classrooms. One of the sessions included an example of a cross-age tutoring project in Chicago. As I recall it now, it seems that Kathie and I were struck by the same bolt of lightning; we began planning, even during the session, how we might do something similar with Kathie's tenth graders and one of the local elementary schools. This moment began for us a year-long co-teaching partnership that extended far beyond the cross-school project we had initially stumbled upon.

Our work together did not then just magically unfold. It began with a mutual interest sparked by the opportunity to learn from other teachers and to explore what we might learn in our own context. Kathie and I discovered at that meeting, and in our subsequent work, compatible beliefs about teaching and learning as well as the means by which we could put our respective abilities to work for the students at Saginaw High. It helped immensely that the language arts teachers in Kathie's school district had been talking with their university partners for some time about their classrooms; university academics had already shed the image of remote outsiders with little interest in the practicalities of schools. Both groups had committed their energies to the prospect that university/school collaborations can and ought to be formed, not simply to create a better understanding across institutions, although this has been one of their outcomes. We discovered that such partnerships enrich the individual activities we pursue in academic settings. The possibilities that Kathie and I were privileged to explore came from such commitments as well as from the time and resources that allowed us to collaborate.

As we planned and taught together, we learned a great deal from each other about our individual roles, our relationship with each other and our students, and the life of the classroom we built together. We made our blunders together, and we celebrated our successes over a beer at Holly's Landing, a local pub. Our original plans for the cross-age teaching project had to be scrapped, for example, because we had planned our visits to the elementary school too close together and too close to final exams in January. After thinking about the schedule over night, Kathie came in the next morning and explained what concerned her; we changed the schedule. At the end of the year, as our students were writing the children's stories their elementary school partners would illustrate, we also both sat dumbstruck when Lee, our ne'er do well student, came into first period class asking to read the story he had drafted, "The Scarecrow who Scared the River Spotless." The previous day, the students had shared their story ideas for the children's book. When Lee's time came, he mumbled something barely coherent about a scarecrow. It was clear that he had made up this idea on the spot, but the other students in the class questioned, cajoled, and made suggestions to him about a plot he might use. To the best of our knowledge, it was the first time Lee had actually completed a writing task outside of school.

We also learned to reflect more deeply about our interactions with students and the aims of our instruction by drawing upon our individual perspectives about classroom events. I want to share a planning session between Kathie and me to illustrate how we worked together, pushing each other to find more effective means to build our students' understanding of texts and hence their own literate abilities. Our class had just begun to read The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, and Kathie and I were both concerned that the students were having difficulty following the different narrative voices in this complex novel. "I like the idea of having the students write about an experience and talking about if you would get more information if you recalled that incident to somebody else," Kathie began. "What kinds of information could someone else add?"

"Maybe we could use a school story since we're on 'Who am I in school?' You know, some kind of incident from school," I suggested.

"We could model stories," Kathie said.

"Yeah, we could model one or two for them. I remember a story about Gloria during recess. It was hysterical," I responded thinking about the stories I might tell in class tomorrow.

"What do we want to do after that? Have them write in their joumals?" Kathie asked.

"Do we want them to just write the story in their journals, or do we want them to do both­write their story and discuss what the differences might be," I wondered.

"Do you think it would help to have them assume another character in their narration and write the same story from that point of view? That's exactly what the writer is doing." Kathie was beginning to visualize what class will be like tomorrow.

"Yeah, that's great. Then we can use their stories and have them tlk about how each one is different," I responded.

In class the next day, Kathie told a story about a friend from high school who got pregnant and had to give the baby up for adoption, even though she and the baby's father eventually married. It was a sad and poignant story, and the students responded with all kinds of questions, since most of the teenage girls they know who get pregnant keep their children. I also told my story about Gloria, whose skirt fell off one day during recess while we played dodge ball on the school playground. The stories made a good pair, providing the students with ideas for their own stories. They had more difficulty with changing the narrative perspective. One student, Lanette, however, did share a very funny story about painting her bangs with nail polish. She captured beautifully her mother's irritation when she discovered Lanette's after-school activities. It not only left the students rolling in the aisles but provided a wonderful example of perspective for them.

This kind of planning meeting had become familiar to us as we negotiated the curriculum amongst ourselves and our students. By the time we began to plan for our unit "Who am I in school?," the pattern of our interactions had developed their own routines. The constructed nature of our collaborative teaching, enacted through the give-and-take of such conversations, involved us both in new activities with students and new relationships between school and university teachers. We had, in essence, established our own ways of talking about the classrooms we share, using our own shorthand that no longer needed detailed explanations. Below the surface of our talk, we had developed shared assumptions, derived from both our individual and collaborative experiences. We had generated a collaborative view of reading, writing, and the connections between them as well as the importance of modeling, sharing our lives with students, and inviting students to share their lives outside of school.

It is tempting to see Kathie's and my planning meeting as occurring effortlessly. Perhaps only Kathie and I can know how many conversations and classroom interactions took place to reach this level of ease. Judith Lindfors and Sarah Hudelson have described collaborations as "delicate balances." They suggest that successful collaboration is characterized by "its continuing and evolving nature; its essential dialogic character; and above all, its life within and dependence upon a relationship characterized by mutual trust, a relationship simultaneously affiliative and autonomous" (p. 3). For such relationships to occur, university and school partners need time, space, and the willingness to explore classrooms together. They need not only to respect but also to appreciate the expertise that each person brings to the collective effort, and they need to discover amongst themselves the mutual interests that will guide their work together. Sometimes, these interests reveal themselves suddenly, as happened with Kathie and me. Other times, interests accrue more slowly. Like stories, each partnership has its own plot, its own characters, and its own evolution.


Bruner, J. (1990). Acts of Meaning. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Lindfors, J.W., and Hudelson, S.J. (1993). Delicate Balances: Collaborative Research in Language Education, Urbana, Ill.: NCTE.

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