by Emily Meixner (CEL EC Member-At-Large) and Rachel Scupp (CEL Member)
Even when two people have known each other a long time and see each other regularly, a conference often facilitates conversations that wouldn’t take place otherwise. Perhaps it’s the coffee, or the walks together to the next presentation, or the way in which shared meals lead to unexpected dialogue. Whatever the case may be, conference magic struck at CEL 2016 and led us toward a remarkable professional opportunity.
Scene: Atlanta, GA. Georgia World Conference Center, Nov. 2016.
Rachel: How was your sabbatical?
Emily: Good! I managed to do a ton of reading, but I never got to the case study part. I said I’d identify a teacher who might be interested in developing and teaching secondary-level LGBTQ curricula.
Rachel: (enthusiastically) I’m interested! I teach a human rights, social justice curriculum! (irony: about which we had just presented).
Emily: Ah. Right.
Narrator: At the time, Emily told Rachel that she was still trying to figure out what she wanted to do (translation: I’m scared to teach your 8th graders). Rachel was kind enough to wait several months before mentioning it again.
Scene: Ewing, NJ. Spring Break, 2017. Rachel’s porch.
Rachel: So, how’s that sabbatical project coming?
Emily: I’m still working on it (translation: I haven’t done anything). I haven’t found a teacher yet.
Rachel: *eyes narrowed* Um. What about me? I teach a human rights, social justice curriculum. You could co-teach in my class.
Emily: … *averting all eye contact*
Rachel: *shrugs shoulders* We’ll do it, and see what happens!
Emily: (hyperventilating slightly) Don’t you think we should check with your supervisor?
Rachel: Oh. Right. Maybe. But she’ll definitely love it.
Narrator: And thus began their exciting, collaborative journey together.
Immediately following this conversation, Rachel emailed her supervisor and asked if she would be interested in seeing a proposal for LGBTQ book club curriculum that could replace a short story, close-reading unit Rachel usually taught early in the school year. Her supervisor responded with an enthusiastic “yes!”. Last fall, we taught this curriculum for the first time as a pilot with Rachel’s 8th graders. It was a wonderful experience. Rachel’s students were mature and thoughtful and ready. Along the way, we had many opportunities to think and talk about our collaboration — its benefits and its challenges. For those of you considering collaborative endeavors now or in the future, here are our thoughts on some things to consider.
- Identify Individual and Collaborative Contributions
Both of us brought important and different knowledge to the project. As a college professor, Emily was familiar with middle grade LGBTQ texts, LGBTQ vocabulary, and gender theory she thought would be appropriate for and palatable to middle school students. As an experienced middle school teacher, Rachel had a clear sense of her curriculum, its overarching objectives, and her students’ needs and abilities. While Rachel initially relied on Emily to recommend texts and content, Emily also relied on Rachel to help her pace and frame the content for this particular group of students. At the beginning of the unit, Emily would frequently create instructional materials that Rachel would then modify in order to best suit the needs of her 8th graders–many of whom were (and are) English Language Learners. Together, we would also research and share ideas for activities, articles, and analyses that we would then discuss and build together, often assigning each other tasks (finding mentor texts, creating questions, developing graphic organizers) based on enthusiasm, time required, and confidence. By playing to each other’s strengths, our recognition and value of each other’s individual contributions made our work feel cohesive and equitable.
- Align Instructional Aspirations
What helped tremendously as we developed curriculum was that we consistently agreed with each other about the kinds of educative experiences we wanted to cultivate for Rachel’s students. As our collaborative LGBTQ book club unit existed as a pilot program that would later be adopted by the other 8th grade teachers within the district, Rachel decided that the objective would center on teaching close reading skills, as that was the curricular focus of the unit being replaced. Emily then recommended the vocabulary and theoretical lenses we would introduce to the students. As we envisioned possible lessons, we needed to make sure our beliefs about best classroom practices also aligned. We both believe in student-centered methods like book clubs; in student choice when it comes to reading and assessment; in the power of focused mini-lessons that provide students with tools, with content and skills they can immediately apply; and in curriculum that challenges social norms and disrupts student thinking. Sharing these beliefs with each other was critical as we made curricular decisions and moved into the implementation and teaching of the unit.
- Consider Needs and Concerns
One of the aspects of our collaboration that we didn’t discuss before co-teaching was how we would enact the actual instruction of the unit. We present together all the time at local and national conferences. As a result, we didn’t imagine we might have different anxieties or hopes in a co-teaching situation. As it turned out we did. When the unit began, Emily was worried about overstepping, about intruding upon the culture, relationships, and expectations Rachel had already established. As the unit began, Emily looked to Rachel to infer instructional and management preferences and saw Rachel as the lead teacher. Rachel, however, immediately invited Emily into a genuine co-teaching relationship with shared authority. Having taken Emily’s methods class as a college student, Rachel saw this as an opportunity to learn as well. And, she was excited for Emily to get to know her students. Both of us, to different degrees, felt like students. Neither of us recognized this in the other, however, until after-the-fact conversations that often sounded like this: “You were nervous?” “You were watching me?” “But I was watching you!” “I wanted to wait to see what you’d do.” “But you taught me to do that!”
- Divide and Conquer, but Consult
Because of our shared experiences presenting, we quickly figured out that we needed to determine who would do what in the classroom. As with the development of the curriculum, we identified moments when we could co-teach, for example modeling a close-reading of a text or facilitating conversation in the book club groups. But there were other moments when we needed to observe each other at work: Rachel running a socratic seminar or Emily presenting a mini-lesson on a theoretical concept. As the unit continued, we became more comfortable (Emily especially) transitioning between each other’s parts of every lessons. Touching base quickly between classes about what had and hadn’t worked and making adjustments based on each other’s observations also helped.
Assessment and Grading
- Support Innovation
As we thought about the kinds of assessments we wanted for the unit, we knew we had to make sure students were not only demonstrating familiarity with the unit’s target skills and content, but were also exerting some ownership over how to make use of them. Rachel immediately suggested an advocacy project in which students would decide how to educate others. Emily loved the idea and recommended having the students write a proposal justifying their project’s value. Together we brainstormed examples of what this project might entail (which Rachel wisely suggested we share with her principal). Emily also wanted to try out some new educational technology she was learning, specifically screencasting. Rachel was game. Together we talked about where we might include technology purposefully in the unit (video book talks, short film analyses) and how it might facilitate demonstration of student understanding. We ultimately decided to use Padlet to evaluate students’ familiarity with unit vocabulary and have the students develop literary analysis-style screencasts to assess groups’ close-reading skills and lens application. As we tried out these ideas, we felt supported by each other’s openness and enthusiasm.
- Establish Mutual Expectations
Because Emily was responsible for her own teaching, grading, and administrative responsibilities at the college where she works, Rachel absorbed the bulk of the grading for the unit. Nevertheless, we both collaborated on the individual assessments and agreed upon each assessment’s purpose. When possible we also developed rubrics collaboratively and talked about valuable feedback, for example we both read through and commented on the students’ project proposals. Rachel additionally suggested that we both respond to students’ literary letters because then students would be able to choose who they wanted to address; they could write to Emily or to Rachel or to both of us (not knowing who might respond). This was a great idea and allowed us to obtain a clearer sense of the students’ engagement with course content as well as respond to their questions and concerns.
Since our work together last fall and the pilot of the LGBTQ unit, the unit has been adopted by the other 8th grade IRLA (Integrated Reading/Language Arts) teachers in Rachel’s district. We had the opportunity to present the curriculum to them specifically this spring during an 8th grade IRLA team meeting and some of them implemented all or parts of the unit in May and June. We also shared the unit with other interested high school teachers in Rachel’s district during an in-district professional development day. Rachel’s students even collaborated with us on a blog post in which they talk about their experience.
Scene: 9:00 AM. Bistro table at the local Panera. Midsummer, 2018.
Emily: So, how did everything go with the other 8th grade teachers teaching our LGBTQ unit?
Rachel: Amazing! They love it, the students love it, and we are all teaching it next year in October.
Emily: That’s great! *pauses* So, um, am I still coming in to co-teach again next fall?
Rachel: *without missing a beat* ABSOLUTELY!
Narrator: Emily and Rachel high-five and excitedly talk about new articles, book titles, and new avenues they’d like to see for the unit.
Narrator: As the scene sets on these two collaborators, they’ve learned that effective collaboration requires time, on-going communication (thank goodness for text messaging, Facebook Messenger, and Google Hangouts), and most of all, trust. As you begin your year as a teacher, literacy coach, supervisor, department chair, or principal, Rachel and Emily encourage you to identify a collaborative project, seek out a partner, and they challenge you to discover what’s possible.
Rachel and Emily: We look forward to hearing about your experiences collaborating — the problems and the possibilities — in Houston at CEL 2018!