Post #11: The Benefits of Collaborative Teaching for Instructors and Students Alike: Students Have Two Instructors!

As I shared in Post #6: The Joys of Teaching History to 10th Graders in an Urban Setting (published on March 10th), my collaboration with 826 Boston was a highlight of the last four years of my teaching at the O’Bryant. Fortunately, I was lucky enough to have three additional opportunities for collaboration during those years. From 2013 through 2016 I team taught Big History (https://www.oerproject.com/Big-Historyhttps://www.oerproject.com/Big-History) with Fred Pontillas, a biology teacher; from 2014 – 2017 (which overlapped with Big History for two years!) I also collaborated with Talia Clark, a physics teacher, in teaching AP Seminar, the first part of the AP Capstone course (see AP Capstone – AP Central | College Board), she in turn collaborated with me in teaching AP Research during 2016-2017. All of my experiences as a collaborative teacher support the value of such work. In all of these cases it was apparent how wonderful it was for me, as a history teacher, to work with a science teacher.  Most significantly, I was able to see how much students benefited from having two instructors.

There is little doubt that it would be beneficial for all school systems to allow more educators to take advantage of different kinds of collaborative experiences. Too often teachers are limited in their practices by the idea that a teacher has “control” over what happens in one’s classroom and that one should not share the limelight with another educator. This concept is, of course, coupled by teacher contracts and training and perhaps even their personal reluctance to think outside of one’s subject training. While the ideas of a content and a special educational teacher may be more prevalent in models of inclusion, this post discusses two content teachers — from two different disciplines — working together.

In all three cases I found these efforts to be important highlights of my teaching career so that I was thrilled that in my last four years as a full-time educator that I could benefit from them and have new opportunities to learn new content knowledge, new ways of thinking, and even new approaches to teaching from a colleague from another discipline. Unquestionably, they improved my own teaching. I also developed other relationships with students, some of whom I had already known in a different context and yet most of whom were new to me. Of course, part of these considerations had to do with my willingness to engage in this work and the two wonderful colleagues that I have had! Such experiences are clearly beneficial to all participants, whether in the form of genuine team teaching or some form of collaboration. There is no doubt that it was worth the time and commitment — in so doing students benefited by working with other adults which helps prepare them better for the real world where collaboration is indeed an important skill. See for example: What is Collaborative Teaching? – Top Education Degrees and Tips For Team Teaching: Two teachers, two classes in one open primary school classroom (kathleenamorris.com)

So how did this collaboration work? On reflection there were similar components; we had intentional time before the school year began to prepare each course, as well as time during the school year to collaborate. Beyond time, there was a willingness to learn from one another and a personal commitment to do so. Fred and I were already friendly with one another; Talia and I, despite greater differences — generation (I am twice her age), experience (I was already a veteran instructor),and our gender — we became more friendly with one another and were pleased to have such great opportunities to learn from one another. 

For Big History in June 2013 Fred and I took a week-long training to learn about the course, which helped us design the course syllabus and to structure our work to teach the course. As Fred and I had discussed in the 2015 article in World History Connected, we collaborated on almost every aspect of the course (with the exception of assessment) so that students were able to experience two teachers in the classroom working together (see World History Connected | Vol. 12 No. 2 | James A. Diskant and Ulpiano Frederick A. Pontillas: Team Teaching an Interdisciplinary Course: a History and a Science Teacher and their Students Collaborate on Learning Big History Together (uillinois.edu). There we discussed the benefits and challenges of such a model for each of us, as well as for our students. While there were challenges, the benefits clearly outweighed any of them.  Since I have already written about my reflections, I do not want to repeat what had been written (see the article in World History Connected for more details on our collaboration). Simply stated — it was a joy to work closely with such a talented educator! Working together in the classroom meant that we shared our knowledge with our students and for some activities – such as Socratic seminars it meant that students had greater opportunities to share in smaller groupings – what could have been better for student learning? It also meant that I learned more about science content that made my understanding of the past and the present more nuanced. This new knowledge provided me with another way of thinking that was different and yet similar to that I was trained as a historian in terms of how to access evidence and to develop theories.

For AP Seminar and AP Research Talia and I took College Board a week-long training in August 2014 (in Spokane, Washington) and in July 2015 (in Orlando, Florida) respectively. As in Big History, there was value in having two instructors for each of those courses one from science and one from history to help bring different perspectives to the courses and to the students. The College Board developers had after all suggested that such a pairing would work well to balance the ways in which the courses were taught. A few important things were in place to help our collaborative work: to name the most important: intentional time to work together in the summer outside the school environment to prepare the courses, a willingness to expand beyond the limits (comfort level?) of our respective disciplines to create two interdisciplinary courses, and our personal abilities to listen to each other. For these two courses, we designed the work collaboratively so that we took advantage of our individual strengths. This collaborative work had a number of ramifications to it – from course outlines, lesson planning, lesson teaching, student support, and assessment. At all of these levels it allowed for a fruitful exchange of ideas between us and in both predictable and less predictable ways for the benefit of each other and for our students, as well as the different ways in terms of how we interacted with one another and with our students. 

Since AP Seminar is offered to 10th graders at the O’Bryant, some of these students were also in my history classes each of those three years; it was great to observe them in a different setting in an elective class. While students submitted an application and there was only one class for the entire tenth grade, we had to develop criteria, which focused on their collaborative interests and interest to take the course since it was actually open enrollment, which made accepting students somewhat challenging. Once they took AP Seminar, they had committed themselves to take AP Research two years later.

More specifically, in terms of AP Seminar, Talia and I developed the course together after attending a wonderful summer planning session in August 2014, led by the College Board, where we worked with other educators to do so. Using provided syllabi and ideas from other teachers, we created ours (or actually Talia’s, since she was the teacher in record); as her co-teacher I taught certain lessons, co-taught others, and/or observed and assisted in others that she taught. As in the case of Big History, she was in charge of assessment with the exception of the assessments that we assessed together for the College Board. 

In our work together we had fascinating conversations about ways of thinking and how historians and scientists created inquiry questions, created and tested theories, and weighed evidence. Even more wonderful, of course, were our spontaneous conversations in which we shared observations about our students. Rather than discuss the course itself for which there are countless links, I want to share a few ways in which we worked together in the units and in assessment. First, for the major units, we both provided materials and assessment methods. Since the course revolved around skills and themes: in which students both work on their own and with each other. The three overlapping aspects of the course allowed for a variety of interdisciplinary approaches, shared materials and student-centered approaches: 

  1. Content Examples for Units of Study
  2. Five Big Ideas or QUEST: Question and Explore, Understand and Analyze Arguments, Evaluate Multiple Perspectives, Synthesize Ideas, and Team, Transform, and Transmit.
  3. Different Lenses/Perspectives: cultural and social, artistic and philosophical, political and historical, environmental, economic, scientific, futuristic, and ethical

The course then allowed for the creative ability to teach a variety of skills — which was done through a variety of units for the first half of the year. This interdisciplinary nature was mirrored in each unit so that students could learn from the various lenses or perspectives, for example  — “discovery” of the Americas, myths, politics. In essence we modeled the different ways of thinking to our students through the materials that we had provided them. For these units, we both provided materials, as well as teaching strategies. For the first unit on Discovery, I provided materials on the “discovery” of the Americas, myths, and for an culminating activity/debate on the use atomic warfare I provided a support unit taken from the Choices Project on a Debate about the dropping of the atomic bombs in Japan and helped work with students on preparing the debate, which is sadly no longer available.

The student-centered methods — from partner work to full class activities — also did this as well. This also occurred in the contexts of discussion around different ways scientists and historians created inquiry questions and went about answering those questions. Once students were working on their projects, we both were available for student assistance. While Talia assessed class-based activities, together we assessed both the group and individual projects that were collectively 60 % (35 % and 25 % respectively) of their College Board score. In so doing we mirrored what College Board does in assessment. It was a great, time-consuming and yet highly worthwhile process — as we watched or re-watched videos and read both collaborative projects and individual ones together – fortunately we had rubrics – and we found that doing so together led to fascinating conversations. While there were some disagreements and led to discussing specific lines on the rubric.

A year later we attended a second week-long workshop to prepare teaching AP Research; however, since the course was to be offered as a senior elective at the O’Bryant (which made sense, given the nature of the course), I did not teach it for another year. Instead, I met the 11th graders twice a month for an after-school review session to bridge the two classes. Still, Talia and I collaborated on the creation of the AP Research; together we designed the course in which we agreed on the syllabus as we had done for AP Seminar. As this was “my” course, I was responsible for most assessment; and yet for the College Board requirements we assessed the Oral Presentation and Defense together. Throughout the year Talia was in my room at least once (if not twice) a week and since she had all of these students two years previously it was an excellent cooperative venture for all of us and the course lent itself to individual support it was an excellent way for both of us to support “our” students who were now seniors. The course – unlike most high school courses – was in many ways 19 individual independent studies – since after spending the first few months reviewing and teaching research techniques for all disciplines – students dove into their own research. Much of class time allowed students to do individual work and to have one-on-one meetings with me. Once a week Talia was also available. 

With my guidance and the help of an expert advisor, students researched, wrote, and edited a 5,000-word research paper. Having already worked on many collaborative skills in AP Seminar, now they focused more on individual ones – with the help of us and of each other. While it was a demanding course, it was great preparation for college. A collaborative venture only improved the course for me and for our students. One of the joys of having had Talia in AP Seminar two years earlier (and a few had her in a Physics class too) was that they also had trusted her to share their work and problem solve with her. Unlike a more traditional course, they had in essence two teachers, who were familiar with them and their work — this relational aspect was another bonus of our collaborative work that had started years earlier. While each student had an expert advisor, that is a specialist in their field, to advise them, a few who had a scientific topic also benefited from having Talia’s expertise. 

For the Oral Presentation and Defense of students’ Papers, Talia was the second evaluator; the third was my successor or an administrator. As in AP Seminar, assessing this working with Talia was wonderful in that we used the well-designed rubric to assess these student presentations. While we often agreed, conversations were fascinating when we did not and we had to justify clearly to the other why we had assessed that one differently — fortunately we were always near one another! One of the other great advantages of our working relationships was problem solving in terms of helping one or more of these students and having another perspective to those issues. This student support also transferred to other classes and other students beyond these two courses. 

In hindsight then the value of the collaboration for all three courses was enormous for the people that mattered the most — the students. Over the four years of collaboration, perhaps for 150 students! They gained insights as to how two instructors could work together, into the collaborative process, and to much more intangible benefits — what a great benefit for their education. Isn’t that what good teaching can assist? Two people whom they can trust? From whom they can learn? After all learning is at best personal when it can be applied in real world situations, no? 

Note: please let me know should you be interested in any more details about any of the courses. 

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