Day 10: Dreaming about Connections by @guster4lovers & @Thomasson_engl #12DODEditor's note: We will have a #12DOD chat this Thursday, December 20, at 7:30 PM EST. We will be talking about our dreams and how to make them a reality. In the meantime, enjoy this great post about the power of collaboration!
This August, as each of us finished our first day of school, we collapsed into chairs and stared at our computer screens, much like we had on every first day of every previous school year.
But there was one major difference on this first day of school:
On that screen was a person, a partner, a friend, a collaborator, one who understood us and understood exactly what had happened in our classroom because they were the one who helped to plan and prepare it.
Three months after meeting on Twitter, we decided to team-teach. This meant starting over with curriculum maps, syllabi and methodology. This meant finding a way to work together from 2,500 miles apart without ever meeting face to face.
As a result of that decision, we discovered that we now had access to a collaborative partnership where lessons were planned, frontiers were traversed, troubles were shot, and problems dealt with jointly. And slowly, the difficulties and challenges from previous years began to disappear.
But we needed to know why, needed to be able to explain the machinery at work behind the scenes. We knew that collaboration was important, but our transformation entailed much more than that. Both of us had collaborated in the past, and we even had an extensive PLN on Twitter, but no collaboration had ever fixed the root issues: teaching isolated us; creating an effective learning environment was difficult; meeting the needs of each individual student was near-impossible; we weren’t doing well enough, and often, we weren’t even doing enough, period.
Those problems still exist and will probably always exist. Unlike past collaborations, however, this one gave us direction and insight. Now we had someone to accompany us on the journey, where we could face problems together, plan lessons together, and even work with students together.
In trying to figure out how this worked, we stumbled upon a way of thinking about teaching, learning, and collaboration that mimicked the process we had gone through and provides a way of replicating that process. We call it The Equation:
Develop Relationships → Ignite Passion → Build Skills → Take Ownership
On the first day of school, we were not aware that the equation even existed. We just lived it and figured it out along the way. As we discovered The Equation, it gave us the ability to see it as a transformational process, but one that can happen in any classroom or collaborative partnership.
With The Equation, our process, the one that made us less isolated, and allowed us to be better teachers, can happen anywhere.
If only we had known that from the beginning.
Despite having the most solid curriculum and plan we had ever had for the start of school, at six weeks into the year, we kept running into the wall. Our heads hurt from ramming the brick wall so many times, without getting any closer to breaking through.
We just didn’t understand why all the things that had transformed us - relationship, passion, skill and ownership - wasn’t working in our class the way we knew it could. We searched for answers, but it felt like throwing a dodgeball against the same brick wall; for everything we would try, the ball just kept sailing back at us with no visible improvement, not even a loose brick.
Instead of breaking down the wall together, that wall started to break down our relationship, our passion, and our ownership over the situation. We, of course, didn’t have the perspective to see that, so we just assumed it must be our own lack of skill that was the problem. Many times, we wondered if this was even worth it; with the amount of time and energy we were spending, our classrooms should have been magical places of transformation. And they weren’t. This collaboration was difficult, perhaps the most difficult thing either of us had ever done in our career.
For every step forward, it felt like we were pushed back five steps. Every victory was marred by some failure or imperfection.
Added to that, we were both already broken when we met. But the collaboration we discovered and nourished over those first few months was helping to heal those deep wounds left from years of failure.
And now, the first six weeks of school reopened those wounds and nothing we did could make them go away again.
So we ignored it. And things just got worse. We were still friends, and we still planned and de-briefed lessons together. But the alchemy that our collaboration brought us over the first few months had disappeared and we didn’t know how to get it back. We wondered if it was even possible, or if it really had been a dream...one that ended with us waking up, being back to where we had started.
Frustrated, broken, exhausted and overworked, we stumbled into Thanksgiving break. In that state, Cheryl took a day trip with another Twitter friend and high school teacher, Karl Lindgren-Streicher. They met up for lunch and then drove to some of the vineyards in the Napa Valley. Along the way, they called Andrew and within minutes, a day off became the spark that reignited everything: the passion for our students, our flipped class, and our relationship.
That is when we realized that we had been Doing It Wrong. The equation never was meant to stop with us.
It had to be flipped too.
Our students needed to experience what we experienced over the summer. And just like with teachers, the equation doesn’t work on people in isolation; no, our students needed to be transformed through their relationship with us, and with each other. Only then could our classrooms become the kind of community that in and of itself had the power to transform.
It was then that we finally understood that we had neglected building relationships with our students. Yes, we were working with them one-on-one, and talked to every student, every period, every day. But they didn’t really know us, and we didn’t really know much about them, apart from their academic ability in reading and writing.
We had done it backwards. We were so frustrated by how little ownership the students had over the course that it blinded us to the truth: before they could be responsible for their learning, they needed to care about us, care about the subject, and build their skills.
Just like we had to do when we started working together.
We have a term for when what we do matches the process we expect of our students: it’s the MetaFlip. In the MetaFlip, we deconstruct the actual process we as collaborative partners had gone through, and then plan backwards to ensure that our students can repeat our process successfully. And this time, being successful meant starting over at the beginning.
So we deliberately built activities that would allow our students to get to know us, and for us to get to know them. We threw in the most high-interest and real-world-relevant content to engage their passion for literature, writing, and arguing. Then we used that content and leveraged that relationship to build their skills in all those areas.
Although it’s taken an entire semester to get there, our students are finally back to where we wanted them to start: taking ownership of their learning. During the most recent project, not a single student asked how or even if they would be graded. Students are designing the final unit and preparing all the content, as well as making the assessment and reflecting on their learning.
So how did it take this long to figure it out? Well, there’s a darker side to the equation. The darker side is the anti-catalyst. The forces that we can’t control, but that affect us every day, whether we are in the classroom or not.
There is the Socio-Emotional anti-catalyst. This one can be a death in the family. An accident or injury. A break-up. A physical or mental health crisis. A traumatic memory resurfacing. A friendship in decline. These are the things that our students carry with them daily, often unnoticed to anyone else, but that weigh them down under the force of sorrow, anger, or fear. These are the things we carry as well, both for ourselves and for our students.
There is also the “I Know How To Play School” anti-catalyst, which actually often works in tandem with the “I Don’t Know How to Do School” anti-catalyst. Much like socio-emotional issues, these affect teachers as much as students. We have all been conditioned into the factory model of education, and flipped learning represents a major departure from that model. We are now asking for critical thinkers, not machines to rival Google’s knowledge. We now want creative, innovative thinkers, not someone who can twist a knob or pull a lever on the assembly line.
But neither we nor our students know what it’s like to not live in that model. So when grades aren’t all that matter, and when learning is the focus, the transition is going to be challenging. There are lots of questions for which we don’t have definitive answers:
How do we grade?
What are we assessing, and what SHOULD we be assessing?
How do we develop intrinsic motivation?
How can we measure creativity and innovation in an A-F world?
How do we build academic behaviours but still keep the focus on the Real World?
These anti-catalysts are so dangerous because they are often ignored; when you are neck-deep in the ocean, you’re working hard not to drown.
The truth is, we’re all drowning.
But that’s why we need each other.
The equation starts with relationship for a reason. The most powerful solution for any problem in the classroom, or in life for that matter, is relationship. It is what saved us from throwing in the towel on this collaboration when it got difficult. It is what motivates our students to keep going after they fail. It is often what gets us and our students to school every morning, whether or not we feel like it.
Relationship and community are what gets us through unspeakable tragedy, loss, and grief. It is what gives us the strength to keep going, and hopefully, to heal.
Relationship has to be the glue of a classroom, and our flipped classroom, with cross-country team-teachers, needs a hell of a lot of glue. Our country and our fellow educators also need a hell of a lot of glue right now.
Once our students believe in us and we invest in them, our community can then shift to finding and developing passion for learning. We can get them excited about thinking, reading, writing and speaking about the Big Questions in life, and about the stories that make up our cultural heritage. Through that passion, we build their skills so that they can not only understand but participate in that culture.
Finally, we transfer ownership for the learning from teacher to student. At that point, we finally flip our class - after all, if a flipped classroom is student-centred, the real flip must be in giving students the responsibility to succeed or fail together, as a community of learners.
And through this process, we keep pushing back against all the anti-catalysts - the narrative that reminds us we aren’t good enough, that there is too much broken, that no one cares, that we are wasting our time, talent and treasure. In pushing back, we are creating space for grace, hope, and possibility.
It is that sacred space - where there is affection, passion, skill and responsibility - that takes our dream and makes it a reality.
The equation creates alchemy. And what is alchemy, if not taking a dream and making it tangible?
Dreams can only guess at what is possible. But what seems possible isn’t always what’s real.
Instead, our dream of what we wanted our classroom to be, and what we wanted for our students, is nowhere NEAR as powerful, as beautiful, as transformational as what we have now, together.
We couldn’t dream up a relationship where who we are matters more than what we do.
We couldn’t dream up a passion that inspires each of us, unites us together, and drives our students.
We couldn’t dream up a person who would help us get better at teaching and would help our students get better at learning.
We couldn’t dream up a classroom where our students are partners in their learning, where we get to learn as much as our students, and all together, we make our classroom into a collaborative community.
And while we couldn’t dream of a world where our collaboration is possible, we couldn’t dream of a world where what happened in Connecticut this past week was possible either.
Where this kind of transformational relationship and community is not just possible; it’s essential. Where isolation is only a memory, and in community, we somehow find the strength to deal with tragedy.
Unlike that teacher we both were once, standing alone on the first day of school, we no longer need to face trouble and tragedy on our own. By reaching out on Twitter to someone we still have never met in person, we found the only thing that has the power to change us, our students, and our lives.
We found an end to isolation. Someone else who would stand with us through our darkest hours, and remind us that we are not alone. But fixing us and our relationship isn’t enough.
Our dream is that all students can find the same thing. And for that to be possible, our dream has to start with our fellow educators.
We want all teachers to feel the strength of community supporting them, encouraging them, challenging them, and helping them heal.
Our dream is that none of us feel isolated. And none of us has to be alone.
Our dream is that the equation starts transforming lives now.
Just like it has transformed ours.
Both Andrew Thomasson and Cheryl Morris teach English at the high school level. Andrew is a 10th grade teacher at Forestview High School near Charlotte, North Carolina, and blogs atwww.concertedchaos.com (on Twitter – @thomasson_engl). Cheryl teaches 11th and 12th grade at Redwood High School in Marin, California, and blogs at www.morrisflipsenglish.com (on Twitter – @guster4lovers). They operate a website for their students at www.tmiclass.com and can be reached through their joint email at firstname.lastname@example.org. More information on how they are team-teaching from across the country can be found at their blogs and www.tmiclass.com, and their instructional writing/reading videos are on YouTube.