One Looks Inward, Many Look Outward: The Reflection in the Collaborative Mirror

By Yvonne de St. Croix, PhD
For two of the past three year, the class of students I serve has had no classroom. For the past three years, I have served a student collective. We are not brought together by academic subject, instructional interest, or intellectual ambition but rather by program identification. In my role as talented and gifted educator, I frequently find myself uniting students with diverse levels of interest, readiness, and learning strengths to approach similar curriculum goals. It has taken a tremendous amount of effort of design standards-based programs of studies that center on the interests of students gleaned through multifaceted measures.

Yet, the intent of embedding collaboration into these programs is not lost. Indeed, in 2018, the Bureau of National Affairs shared that through collaboration, the emerging skills gap could be closed. While the goals my students are working towards may move together in their process, the divergent thinking expressed that accompanies our learning strengthens our learning outcomes. Like the various seating options I provide in my classroom, I aspire to promote flexible mindsets within the context of my classroom using these four practices:

1. Model the collaboration you desire for your students

Being an approachable learner makes me a more receptive listener and more productive leader. There are times when as a professional, I get stuck in what my next step should or could be and no amount of personnel reflection is going to help my students transcend to where they want their educational progress to lead. It is during those times, I ask other teachers, coaches, administrators, and community members for their ideas and input. It is not uncommon for my students to know a project I am working on and with whom I am collaborating. By modeling collaboration in a professional, on-going context, students recognize the benefit of collaborative discourse and the power sharing ideas has on strengthening outcomes. Along with posting what my learning objectives are for my students and examples of their learning progression, I post the learning goals I have for my projects and then the progress I'm making. We are all learners in my classroom and we welcome the insights gained from interactions with others. I suggest:

- inviting the input of others through multiple methods of collaboration
- modeling authentic dialogue through collaboration with other professionals, and
- providing visual examples framing your thoughts and reflections of a goal you are trying to attain.

2. Provide a positive and inclusive climate for your learning community

It is part of what I view as my professional responsibility to set a positive tone at the start of collaborative times in our learning process. Because of the structure of my lessons, students have the opportunity to collaborate in face-to-face conversations, whole class discussions, small group forums, and as part of modeling and design processes using technology or artistic mediums. To effectively execute our goals, the climate for my learning community must remain positive and inclusive. I have found that through providing, referring to, and reiterating when necessary the boundaries and expectations of our learning environment, my students know what is expected on them during a given learning task progression. I keep our expectations posted in the classroom and reference the expectations as the start of new learning opportunities because it is easier to set expectations high than institute expectation mid-process and acquire unanimous student support.

3. Express in a caring and responsive way to the collaboration as it occurs

As a facilitator of student collaboration, it is important for teachers to understand students as individuals and recognize the diverse backgrounds they come from. Students in my class reflect like mirrors as they determine how to approach a solution. Where one initially looks inward, many impact the look outward. Through diverse student groupings based on my knowledge of the students I teach, I am able to structure students into productive seating arrangements utilizing the skills I know the students feel most comfortable in. How can I ascertain their individual level of comfort on a given curriculum task? First, I survey the students independently on their comfort regarding a curriculum of study. Second, I ask and inventory what skills they feel they can most readily contribute. Third, I act flexibility and responsively to the needs of the student as an individual. In promoting the student's individual contribution to a goal, I proactively support the collaboration necessary to enrich the goal.

4. Share your successes and challenges with those outside your classroom

Lastly, before, during, and after collaborative activities take place, we take the time as a class to share our successes and challenges. We share our process through multiple ways - some public, some personally reflective - to retain and supportive and inclusive environment. Students do not receive a grade for this class, rather there exists an investment in our collective achievements and our personal achievements. Our productive collaborations as based on the goals we were able to attain and the cumbersome challenges we rallied to overcome over the course of a unit of study. Because each curriculum we partake in includes social emotional wellbeing goals we decided as a class to add and because we also add goals that exist to better global citizenry to each unit, there is an intrinsic authenticity based within the objectives of the curriculum. The cumbersome challenges we face are purposeful steps my students view as necessary for new learning to be acquired. So we share the successes and challenges resiliently and perseveringly in individual reflection surveys, quarterly newsletter articles, and through our class website.

Indeed "through others, we become ourselves" as Vygotsky's theorizes. Ascertaining goals through the pathways they set for themselves informed by communication with other students demonstrates how cooperation leads to problem-solving. While the students I serve once had no classroom, we did have norms, expectations, and structures established that made us of community of learners. And the flexibility that was derived from the problems we solved collaboratively increased students' sense of belonging, strengthened student relationships, and provided a basis for the development of soft-skills needed to embrace their future goals.

Bloomberg next.: Building tomorrow's talent: Collaboration can close emerging skill gap. The Bureau of National Affairs Inc (2018)
Vygotsky, L. S. (1987). The genesis of higher mental functions. In R. Reiber (Ed.), The history of the development of higher mental functions (Vol. 4, pp. 97-120). New York: Plennum.

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