What makes collaboration successful?

Collaborating is a challenge. The demands placed on educators pulls us in so many directions that I find it very difficult to find time to sit down  for the much needed time to make a large project successful. I celebrate when I have successful collaborations, and I look at these successes and ask myself what made them a success. How did we find the time to meet? Why did it work so well?

One of my most recent collaborations has been such a rewarding experience. Natalie Hicks, a gifted teacher, came to me with an idea that she wanted to do with her fourth grade students. It started as an idea: do inquiry-based learning projects with her students. We both met together in my office and brainstormed possibilities on a couple of occasions. We looked at I-Search, Web 2.0 tools, various research tools, and possibilities for final products the students might consider. We found that the more we brainstormed, the more questions, uncertainties,  and unknowns we discovered. I remember telling her, “This is the fun of learning: the unknown. We have to give ourselves permission to not know the answers and work through things as we come to them. We enter into this with a plan, but we’ll come to roadblocks along the way, and we’ll work through them”. I have been amazed by her courage in trying the unknown and seeing what happens.  She constantly tells her students that they are pioneers and must work through difficulties as they arise.

Our collaboration also brought in Steve Piazza, an instructional technology specialist, in the district. Natalie met with Steve on her own, and we also met as a team to talk more about the possibilities of this project. Steve came and assisted us periodically on our journey. After brainstorming in person and via email, we crafted a plan of action.

What resulted was a project that spanned multiple weeks with extraordinary learning taking place. In the first weeks of the project, students self-selected topics and learned about what inquiry-based learning is all about. They did background reading and developed questions that they wished to explore.  Much of their question development took place within their classroom. With their questions ready, I introduced search strategies including the Google Wonder Wheel. Students explored this tool and gathered information about their topics. We also included analyzing sites for the most reliable information and following copyright and using photos with creative commons.

Natalie, along with her fellow gifted teacher Katie Biehl, contacted a mentor for every student in the project. The students interviewed these mentors via email or in person in our media center. For example, one student’s mentor was a panda keeper at Zoo Atlanta. She sent him questions, and he graciously emailed her back. We were blown away by the willingness of so many people to give their time to these students and their questions. Some spent as much as an hour sitting with these students and sharing their knowledge.

As students began to gather a rich amount of information, it was time for them to begin thinking about their final products. One goal was to explore numerous technologies to use in the project. I took a couple of days and did introductions to Animoto, Screencast-o-matic, Powerpoint, Photostory, and Windows Movie Maker. Students then began to storyboard their information and thought about which technologies would best meet the needs of their projects. Many of them decided to use multiple tools. For example, most students used Powerpoint, but they might have a Photostory or Movie Maker file embedded.

The next few weeks involved the students getting into the computer lab and putting their final product together. As they needed reminders or had ideas for what they wanted to do, I would pull small groups in front of the Smart Board and do follow-up lessons to help them along with their projects. A few students wanted to use Flip cameras to film scripts that they had written or film experts in their fields. Steve Piazza also came in during these times and helped students with roadblocks or questions that came up and taught small groups. What amazed me was how students took technologies that they had never used and explored them with open minds. When they discovered something new, they shared it with the person beside them, and soon, that new knowledge spread to the whole class. They became a collaborative team and willingly shared their knowledge and asked one another questions instead of just relying on the teachers.

When the projects were finished, we held a media festival in the media center to showcase their work. Natalie and Katie invited parents, district leaders, all the mentors, and other classes in the school to come view the projects. The students ran their stations and shared not only the knowledge that they learned about their topics but also what they had learned about technology and research.

Since this project came to a close, Natalie has started additional projects with her fourth grade students and began a similar project with her third grade students. Other teachers in the school are getting interested in what we have done and are thinking about what this might look like in their own classrooms.

I hope you will take time to view their projects here, view some pictures from our media festival, and watch our Animoto of the process.

4th Grade ELT Digital Inquiry Projects.

As I look back, what made this a success?
• We made time to sit down together and brainstorm before making a decision
• We gave ourselves permission to have some unknowns to work through along the way
• We each took our own expertise and took responsibilities in the project. There wasn’t just one person doing all the work
• We relied on multiple resources, including support from district personnel
• We allowed the students to take ownership of their work and gave them opportunities to showcase their knowledge
• We allowed students to become creators of information
• We equipped students with the tools they needed to search successfully for information and think about reliability of sources.
• We shared the success we had with multiple people in the hopes that more teachers would like to become involved

I invite you to think about your own successes with collaboration. Share those successes. Share what made them a success. Perhaps our sharing might spark other ideas for how to create more collaboration success.

Andy Plemmons
School Librarian
David C. Barrow Elementary
Athens, GA


About plemmonsa

School librarian, connected educator,Google Certified Teacher, NSBA 20 to Watch, speaker. Expecting the miraculous every day! http://about.me/andy.plemmons

Posted on February 24, 2010, in Best practice, Ideas, Research, Technology, Web 2.0 and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Thanks, Jim. You are doing incredible work.

  2. You are my hero.

    –Jim Randolph

  3. I like what you mentioned about reminding the students they are pioneers and must work through difficulties as they arise. Sometimes I get frustrated working with students because they aren’t willing to explore and start figuring things out without myself or the teacher holding their hand. This is a line I will remember to use in those times.

  4. I love hearing of successful collaborations. They are what make it all worth it and I have to remember them when I feel like banging my head against a wall due to attempts that fail.
    Thank you for this post.

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