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How-To: Build a Community of Learners
Collaboration -- High School Style  Judy Jones

One of the old visions of the high school educator is the teacher who "hermits" in his or her room rarely emerging except for faculty meetings. This is a person who "does her own thing" and rarely shares or talks about curriculum and other educational issues with other teachers. In the past, collaboration was for the elementary school teachers. In our high school and all across the nation, this image is changing. We are being challenged to collaborate with our colleagues on everything from curriculum development to classroom management.

For many years our science department has been collaborating on curriculum. We meet as a whole group and as subject groups to improve instruction for our students. The benefits are many. One of the most important is that new teachers feel nurtured and connected. More experienced teachers thrill in the synergy of developing new activities in cooperation with colleagues. There is new energy when teachers work together and share their ideas.

Over the years, our science teachers have agreed on a common curriculum for each of our subject areas. Each year we also prepare a common purchasing order so that we don't repeat items and waste money. We have an inventory for each of our rooms and a check-out system for using materials and equipment. All of these details have been agreed upon through collaboration. We have developed a sequence for writing of lab reports - so that there is a smooth transition from 9th grade biology to 12th grade physics and other courses as our expectations increase. We have worked together to prepare a philosophy statement for our department and to establish common goals involving the use of technology, the incorporation of open-ended lab activities, and the infusion of mathematical concepts. When we worked on the issue of the math concepts, we invited key math teachers to work with us. This year our seven biology teachers divided up the state curriculum concepts and presented lunchtime review sessions that were attended by at least 25% of our 9th grade students. Quite a success for lunchtime! The work was minimal for each of us. For example, I prepared a two-day review on molecular genetics. Other teachers prepared reviews for the other 14 days. One of the teachers presenting was our special services collaborative teacher, who did a session on test taking skills. This successful project worked because we collaborated. It would have been overwhelming for just one person.

There is no doubt that we are faced with challenges - TIME being the greatest. Our spirits are willing, but we struggle to find the time to meet. We try to have each subject area meet at least twice a month (in addition to regular monthly department meetings). The benefits are so obvious that we make ourselves find time to accomplish our goals together.

Just recently a couple of us decided that we needed something creative to energize our biology students as we reviewed for our end of the year state test - a test that is very high stakes in our state. We called all seven biology teachers (representing 20 sections of biology) together and came up with a plan for a field day for all biology classes. This day turned out to be very exciting for the students. We planned 14 stations - each of us created the activities for two stations (the same content areas as our review session above). The activities involved active processes such as using a dichotomous key to identify a fern, analyzing an autorad to ID a perpetrator, finding the mutation in a strand of DNA, identifying molecular models, matching cell parts with their functions, etc. Each period, the biology classes were organized into 5-6 groups per class. Each group was given a card with the sequence of stations the students were to follow. All the stations were scattered outside around our campus and each group got a map. They first gathered in the commons where our principal blew a whistle to start them off. The senior biology 2 students and the AP biology students manned the stations. Each station had a box with the activity, the answer sheet, the key, and an insect stamp with a stamp pad. When a group finished an activity, the older students would quickly "grade" the activity and stamp the group's card (if they were successful). At the end of the period, the groups turned in their cards and got refreshments and prizes (compliments of the PTSA). The next day, in their classes, the most successful groups were rewarded with an extra prize.

This day was a great success and we are determined to repeat it. Students were running over the campus, finding stations, engaging in the activities, talking over their answers and enjoying the competition. All it took was several meetings, a spirit of "Can Do" among the biology teachers, a supportive principal and PTSA, and a nice sunny day!

My challenge to you is to find a way to involve your teachers in productive collaboration. It sure beats the old faculty lounges where teachers complained about everything!


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