Voices from the Classroom A Case for Collaboration

By Carol Keck, Linda Tripp, and Ann Claunch

For collaboration to occur between a school system and a university requires more than proximity. It requires a mind­set that we are all learners in the teaching process.

Here is one example: During a weekly seminar between mentor teachers and university supervisors, a discussion of the need for multi­culturalism to be an integral part of the school curriculum creates an awareness among the group that each mentor and supervisor has a different idea on what it means to translate the theory of this curriculum into practice. One mentor says, "It really seems that we've been doing multi­culturalism as a pull out program, something that is separate from everything we do." Another mentor responds, "We need to broaden this area to consider not only cultural biases, but gender biases, and any biases that make us think that those who are different from us are inferior." A supervisor feels the need to narrow the focus to anti­racism. The question among all participants arises, "If we raise the level of our studies in school to social activism, are we engaging students appropriately or are we using our classrooms to serve our own agendas?"

It becomes obvious that in addition to realizing their different perspectives, the mentors and university supervisors are into a level of discussion on the topic that has become uncomfortable That discomfort becomes the focus of the conversation and there is agreement among the group that they all have a common desire to face the discomfort and learn from each other as they work to develop an appropriate curriculum for their apprentices. During evening seminar for apprentices, mentors, and university staff, the discussion continues as participants relate their ideas to daily classroom experiences and readings.

Here is another example: Beth, an apprentice teacher, visits the classroom of a mentor teacher. While visiting, Beth observes the mentor lead students through a series of questions and computations to determine how far light travels in a light­year. While the mentor is facilitating the children's work, Beth asks, "How did scientists determine the speed of light in the first place?" The mentor pauses, realizing that she'd never considered that question with her students. Rather than leave it at that, however, the mentor says for all to hear, "Oh gosh, what a good question. I don't know the answer." The mentor helps Beth find the reference books and says, "Let's look in here. Why don't you see if you can make sense of the information at the end of the lesson today." At the end of the lesson, Beth shares with the class the book she read to find the answer to the question.

With that one brief interaction, the mentor has modeled for her students and for the apprentice a willingness to be a non­expert in the class. Learning is seen as a continuing process. The mentor has modeled how to find information in the class and has integrated the apprentice in an authentic way into the lesson. The mentor has validated that Beth has the ability to share what she knows with elementary students as their teacher. A pattern has been set for the collaboration that will occur when Beth begins her work as a full time apprentice.

Isolated incidents? No. Each of these scenarios took place during one week within the context of the Career Development Program, a collaborative program of the University of New Mexico and Albuquerque Public Schools. This seventeen­month program, designed to prepare individuals making a career change for teaching certification, involves the collaboration of university personnel, public school employees released from classroom duties to serve as university instructors, master teachers in the classroom who mentor program participants, public school students from kindergarten to fifth grade, and people from all walks of life who have decided to pursue teaching as a career. The program represents collaboration on many levels as participants come together in different configurations to read, present, experience, discuss, practice, and reflect.

As participants in the program, we have been able to experience this multi­dimensional collaboration and understand the growth that is possible from the experience. The prerequisites for effective collaboration include a mutual respect among the participants for one another's knowledge, perspective and experiences, and an openness to what another has to offer. Also needed is a tentativeness about one's own ideas, an attitude that is always open for reconsideration. Thus the mentor teachers in the discussion group were able to explore multi­culturalism from many different angles, not always pleasant ones. Trust and community are necessary ingredients, as well as willingness to be open to learning from whatever source, as was evident in Beth's entry into the lesson.

It is through community created by trust, openness, respect, and reflection that collaboration produces growth. The individual teacher in the classroom is isolated. That teacher may reflect and learn from experience and from reading. He or she may seek growth, but the human tendency is to seek experiences which reinforce preconceived ideas or stances. Within a community of learners the learner is forced to confront ideas that do not necessarily match his or her own. This promotes reflection and rethinking, which may lead to new ideas or to re­affirmation of old ideas but from a greater depth of understanding and insight. Further, the collaborative community provides support that encourages the learner to risk, to try new ideas, to move out on a limb. Growth cannot occur without some risk, and a collaborative community provides the environment in which it can occur.

Back to Table of Contents of the Spring 1996 Issue of On Common Ground

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