By Karla Hilliard
Background: Teaching can be a lonely job.
Ever have that stuck feeling? It’s just you, your brain, and some ideas that are either genius or ridiculous, there’s no telling which? Ever have the unfortunate realization that you are more or less constantly surrounded by teenagers and now regularly use the words Same!, Right?, and It’s Lit? Ever want to FaceTime the teacher downstairs after something weird or wonderful happens in your classroom just to know another living, breathing, available adult “gets it”? Ever have someone pop their head into your classroom to find you singing this:
Yeah, me too.For this week’s Best Thing, I give you: COLLABORATION. It is truly the best.I teach Honors English 10 and English 10 at Spring Mills High School in our brand new STEAM Academy. Because 20% time is our guiding principle for STEAM enrichment, we spend every Friday, periods 1 through 4 as an 82-person class with four content teachers – Biology, Mathematics, Social Studies, and English (that’s me) wearing many hats, some of them uncomfortable (like anytime I have to math).
Like most everything, we learn by doing. And designing and running this academy is no exception. Some weeks, we know exactly the thing to do – the concepts to scaffold to, the seeds to sow, the supplies to gather. Some weeks, we have no idea. The four of us gather in my room in our STEAM-centric flexible seating and throw ideas at the wall to see which ones stick.
During one recent meeting, not many ideas were making it to the wall and not much was sticking. We knew where we needed to go: hydroponic gardening systems. We knew what we needed to do: design a challenge that highlighted for students the parts of a whole. We Googled, we Pinterest-ed, we took stock of our supplies: leftover papier-mâché, a disassembled Homecoming float, various cardboard, straws, popsicle sticks, some spaghetti noodles, and standard bio lab equipment and classroom supplies.
We hemmed and we hawed, we thought and we discussed, we became frustrated and weary. After some time of this, we turned off the Google machine and tapped into the real power of collaboration.
We began with the basics – Where are we going? What do the students most need? How can we effectively design a challenge that nurtures and grows these ideas?
Suddenly, our bio teacher says, “What about Rube Goldberg machines?! You know, they can see how one action causes another and how each one depends upon the next for the machine to function as a whole.”
What happened was collaborative magic. It was one of the most organic lessons we’ve pulled off. The next day, all 82 of our STEAM Academy students were tasked with building Rube Goldberg machines in three class periods using only the supplies they could find.
Here are a few results of the challenge and four STEAM teachers’ willingness to fight the good fight:
- The best collaboration is organic. It does not come from a specified meeting date complete with agendas and PowerPoints. It comes from a real need and true desire to improve students’ learning experiences.
- The push and shove of teacher collaboration fuels the fire of good teaching. I can pinpoint times in my career when I have improved or refined some strategy or lesson because a fellow teacher did not just rubber-stamp; they spent time discussing the idea and learning goals and how to craft a well-designed lesson that meets student needs.
- Even if you have procrastinated, feel pressed on time and resources, or no idea feels like a good one, you must push through it. I’ve found that some of the most meaningful collaboration stems from necessity. If you have a vested interest in students and share a common purpose, you will find your idea, and chances are, it will be a good one because more than one brain has been on it.
- Unwavering administrative support (shout out Dr. Marcum & Pam S.) makes authentic teacher collaboration possible.
- Teaching alongside three other talented teachers from different disciplines (shout out to Ashley B., Kelsey C., and Aaron C!) is both a joy and an ego check. They help me remember that I can always improve my craft, and they help me see my classroom through new eyes. I am grateful to them and humbled by their passion, their creativity, and their desire to help all students achieve their maximum potentials.
Karla Hilliard teaches STEAM Academy English and AP Literature and Composition at Spring Mills High School in Martinsburg, WV. She has been a classroom teacher for 11 years. When she isn’t teaching, you can find Karla hanging with family, cooking up a good meal, reading up on educational trends, crocheting soft things, or eating spoonfuls of peanut butter.
Karla serves as Executive Vice President and Head of of Secondary Affairs for WVCTE and she is a contributing writer at www.movingwriters.org. See what’s happening in her classroom at www.hilliardsclass.com or connect with her on Twitter @karlahilliard.