I know I’ve failed to blog much of anything the second half of this school year- but at least recently I’ve had a good excuse! Last weekend I organized a Science Collaborative Workshop at my school, which brought together 21 science teachers (elementary and middle school) from 5 international schools. For 3 days we shared ideas, exchanged resources, and collaborated on science units we had in common. It was an invigorating and intense experience, but when the dust settled we had collaboratively created seven standards-based units that we will be able use ourselves and share with other international schools on our website (still under construction, but you can check out the Electricity unit for a preview of what’s to come).
I blogged about the preparations back in December, mostly to think out-loud about my ideas for the workshop. Now that the workshop has come and gone (and I have my life back!) I’d like to share a few of my reflections on organizing a professional development experience for my fellow teachers:
If you build it, they will come
Not only is this true for magical baseball fields, it’s also true for teacher collaboration. Too often in education we teachers toil alone behind closed doors, when a conversation with a colleague would make all the difference. But collaborating can be challenging- you need to find the time to do it, you need to find the right person with something to offer, and it needs to be mutually beneficial to make the collaboration last. For our workshop we gathered teachers from 5 select schools where we knew they were experienced with aligning to the AERO science standards and also shared a similar philosophy for designing units with backwards design. So we all shared a common language about teaching and unit planning, and everyone had something to offer. We also put teachers in teams where they all taught similar grades and had a unit in common that they could work on together. So everyone was invested in the work because it was something they could actually use with their own students. Just getting this right group of people together in the same room was probably the most significant factor for the workshop’s success- with the right playing field set up the game happens naturally.
Throw away your ice breakers
One of my main goals for the workshop was to build collaborative relationships between teachers and schools, in other words I wanted to make sure people hit it off with teachers from other schools. So why not start off the workshop with a couple “ice breaker” activities? Because ice breakers have always annoyed me- I don’t know why exactly- but something about their contrived content and obvious purpose always makes me want to rebel and complete the silly activity without actually getting to know anyone. Can you tell I’m an introvert?? 🙂 However, I knew I couldn’t expect teams to dive into curriculum design work comfortably with complete strangers, so the compromise we came up with was science conversation starters. These were based on one of the best PD experiences I’ve ever had: the Summer Science Workshop at Dana Hall. The entire week of that workshop basically consisted of teachers engaging in hands-on inquiry activities with other teachers, and then reflecting on how the activities could be used with students. It was incredibly fun and thought-provoking, and the experience seeing through the eyes of a student and working side-by-side with my peers made a huge impression on me. (Side note- their brochure still has a picture of me in it, so maybe I made an impression on them too!) So each time we began work with a new group of teachers, we had them first do a short hands-on activity for about 30 minutes with minimal instructions: build a sail car powered by a fan from recycled materials, figure out how much water a carrot is made of, investigate whether ice melts faster in tap water or salt water. These activities sparked discussion, demanded creative thinking, and were just plain fun. By the end of the 30 minutes the mood was lively and the ice was broken- but best of all we were doing and thinking about science the whole time.
Sustainability is not just for the Earth
How many times have you gone to a great presentation at a conference, filled up pages of notes with new ideas that you’re excited about trying with your students, and then promptly forgotten them all when Real Life runs you over like a truck when you get home? It happens all the time for me- if I don’t have a concrete plan or reason for using something immediately, it usually gets buried in the pile of good intentions. To avoid this fate for our collaborative workshop, we made sustaining collaboration one of our key goals and spent time during the workshop brainstorming and discussing ways to keep it going. Wheels are already in motion planning a second collaborative workshop for next fall, and each unit team is continuing to work together remotely to finish and publish their units online. Of course it remains to be seen how successful we are at this, but having a sustainability plan of action gives us a fighting chance.