Some Thoughts on Collaborative Teaching

Work has been something else lately, which accounts for the radio silence around these parts.

Insert crow caw-caw sounds here

Not to return on a slightly negative note, but something has happened repeatedly this semester, that I wanted to consider.

The issue is, to put it in Kindergarten terms, playing nicely with others.

Little kids playing in a pile of leaves

Play as nicely as these children, who are totally not chucking leaves in each other’s faces. As seen on the hilarious blog It’s Like They Know Us –

So here’s the deal. I’m a teacher (though we’ll get back to that term in a second). If you’re reading this, you might be a teacher (*waves hello*).

And being a teacher is, in many ways, a solitary pursuit. We are in positions of control in our own defined space – we’re the top of the food chain in the classroom. Our vocabulary can hint at this – that is your classroom, these are my students. We are vested in this classroom situation, we take ownership of it, and much of our focus is how we, ourselves as individuals, can best reach learners. And this can hold true for non traditional educators as well; I might not have had a classroom at my museum job, but I still had students and a learning environment that I worked to create (me, me, me, right?).

And yet. A huge part of teaching involves being beholden to and answerable to and subject to outside forces – school boards and principals, parents, fellow teachers, departments, budgets, professional organizations, and so on. And an equally large part of teaching involves sharing our classroom, with observers, with campus partners who are engaging with our students, with guest speakers, with co-teachers, with testing days, with fire alarms, with so many things. There is this incredible tension in being a teacher, between control and subjugation, between solitary activity and cooperative activity, between individuality and the group.

Hosting a Visitor 

I know how difficult it can be to open up your teaching space to someone else. When I taught at a museum I would often make way for other teachers, people who were training, guest speakers. There were times when I cursed the arrival of a visitor since my lesson plans were in flux for the day and I couldn’t introduce a visitor into chaos; I had to plan ahead. And, when the visitor or trainee got started, there were times when I would bite my tongue thinking, I wouldn’t have done that, or, I would have explained that differently. And almost always, the visitor or trainee or whoever was great. It’s just that it wasn’t necessarily what I would have done, and I wasn’t the one doing it.

It isn’t easy to open your space up and to open yourself up to collaboration when you don’t know the person or group all that well. I’ve been in situations where I’ve known my collaborators or visitors very well, and then it was fun, and at times a relief, to hand things over, knowing that I could completely trust my learning environment and my students to this collaborative partner/partners.

Being a Visitor

But I’ve also been on the flip-side of this. As a librarian I’m generally the guest, the visitor, the interloper. So while I understand the issues that can arise with having someone come to your class, I also see how teachers can often have a hard time playing nicely with others.  Over the years I’ve been teaching, in museums and in libraries, I’ve had teachers and professors take up time I was supposed to have in class with other activities, change assignments on me at the last possible second, interrupt class, demand that I cover certain items rather than consult with me as a partner, refer to a class as a “presentation” or a “demonstration” rather than what it actually is: teaching.

Some Thoughts on Cause and Effect

Part of the problem, which I’ve experienced on both sides of the spectrum as both the regular teacher and the guest teacher, is that tension I referred to above between teaching being a fairly solitary pursuit and teaching being a group effort. I love collaborating and working with people when I have the chance to know them. Having a visitor imposed upon you from the powers that be can be a cause for anxiety, aggravation, and concern, even if the guest is in fact completely amazing. It’s still someone coming into your space.

Building up collaborative partnerships and relationships can help make classrooms a more dynamic and fluid place and can help the control freak in all of us teachers (I might be projecting here, but bear with) simmer down.

I firmly believe that learning can and should be a community process. Forging institutional partnerships, personal relationships, and professional ties with other educators can be both inspiring and useful. It was one of the reasons I loved working in museums so much, because the museums I worked at did well with building partnerships.

But the other part of problem I noted with both welcoming someone in and visiting someone else’s classroom is two-fold. It’s a problem of experience and a problem of recognition. And it seems to be acute in a university library setting.

First, experience. The fact of the matter is that many people doing some form of teaching at a university (professors, staff, librarians) have very little teaching experience prior to teaching at the college level. And this lack of experience, can, I think cause issues with playing nicely with others. It takes some degree of experience to comfortable cede control, or at least give the impression of comfortably ceding control, just as it  can take experience to talk with other educators as collaborators, to plan lessons out in advance but to still leave wiggle room for flexibility and contingency plans should things go awry (they will, don’t worry). At colleges, the first year students are often taught by the least experienced teachers and those teachers are typically the ones who have to share class time with other campus partners.

Second, recognition. There are many people who do some form of teaching on college campuses (and in non-school environments like museums and libraries and camps and non-profits for that matter). And many of these people aren’t always seen as teachers by other teachers and by outsiders. At least when I was at a museum I had the word “educator” in my title. It might not have been a conventional teaching position but most of the K-5 teachers I worked with recognized me as a fellow educator. Not so much in library-land. And this is a problem with instruction librarians in terms of how we explain who we are and what we do. And it’s also a problem with the environments we might be working in (such as colleges) where people don’t bother to ask what it is we do exactly.

Ideas and Actions 

So, what to do? First, librarians and other educators, traditional and non-traditional, need to keep advocating for themselves (as I noted in an earlier post). Second, librarians and other traditional/non-traditional educators should seek out and encourage partnerships. Because those personal relationships are key, in my mind, to making collaboration, shared class time and the guest speaker day and easier pill to swallow. In fact, it should be something fun not something to be dreaded.

Feel like this

And not like this.

And third, we (librarians and others) should really embrace our identity as teachers and seek out opportunities for professional development, learning, collaboration. To me, things like constructivist learning principles, and other educational views that advocate collaboration, shouldn’t just be about students, but about educators as well – how can we work together, learn from each other, and strengthen our own individual teaching?  How can we develop professionally even as we provide connected and meaningful opportunities for our students to learn from a whole range of people and places? (As a sidebar, I think that MacArthur and Mozilla’s City of Learning initiatives are on to something in terms of community collaboration).

In an ideal world all educators, traditional or not, would work to respect one another, recognize one another, reach out to one another. After all, it’s not easy to play nicely when someone else isn’t playing nicely with you.


Learning to Teach and Teaching to Learn

Greetings and happy Friday! I’m settling back in after a ton of summer travel and summer conferences. Well, if by settling back in I mean feeling overwhelmed and how is summer almost over and the first-years are coming, is that the Jaws theme song I hear?


Last week I attended a week-long teacher training workshop in Land of Maple Syrup and Ben & Jerry’s Vermont with a lot of fabulous academic librarians. I’m still processing all the new things I learned, but there have been a few takeaways in particular that have stayed with me this week.

At one point during the workshop we spent time (as teachers do) going over learning styles and learning theory. I know some people don’t think all that much of learning style tests and categories (I certainly don’t swear by them), but I feel that having some level of self-awareness about how you like to do things can never hurt. For my part, I made an interesting self-discovery during all of this – my teaching style is actually quite (and in some cases dramatically) different from some of my learning style preferences.

As a learner I favor time for writing and note taking; as a teacher I favor discussions and group activities. Someone mentioned to me at this training, that teaching, after a time, can diverge from, or even shift, a person’s learning preferences, which is something I hadn’t really thought much about before.

This got me thinking about how the act of teaching is itself a learning activity and how I could perhaps use teaching as a learning tool in the classroom.

I first started teaching in museum environments, which favor hands-on learning. And it was in museums that I rather quickly learned the value of activity-based learning and developed a style that is heavy on group interaction. Since the act of teaching was such an invaluable learning experience for me, I wonder if I can find ways to use it in the classroom now.

I posted a while back about the idea of letting students drive/take charge in the classroom to build confidence, give them a stake in their own learning, and help them approach material in a new way. Teaching something can definitely give you new insight into it. But I now wonder if mixing in activities where students are teaching each other, or me, can do more than give them added insight into the content we’re covering. I wonder if teaching can give students some insight into how they process, use, and share information. If my main goal is to teach my students information literacy and critical thinking skills, and if those skills are all about processing and using information, then perhaps the act of teaching itself can be a vehicle for building information literacy and critical thinking skills.
Aside from giving students time to demonstrate skills and teach one another, I also want to start being more transparent (and, dare I say, meta) and sharing my own teaching practices, learning outcomes, and overall thought processes with my students. Perhaps highlighting the ways I deal with and share information will spark some interesting conversations and will encourage my students to think about how they themselves handle information.

Credit Where Credit is Due: Teaching About Plagiarism and Online Culture

I regularly teach an Avoiding Plagiarism class at the library where I work – something a lot of academic librarians do (it’s one of those learning-about-research gaps we leapt to fill en masse, it seems). I do the usual spiel about how plagiarism is bad (trying to not sound like Mr. Mackey from South Park when doing so), why we cite sources, how you can cite sources properly, tips of paraphrasing, etc. But most of the content I cover is related to the omnipresent research paper. There can be serious consequences for plagiarizing in college and it’s a content area that many of my students aren’t really aware of when they arrive on campus.

I really like teaching my plagiarism classes – we play games like “cite it or not”, do group paraphrasing activities, and talk about real world examples (and I rather shamefully become quite gleeful when another notable person becomes embroiled in a plagiarism scandal – Rand Paul was a goldmine, let me tell you). It’s pretty fun.

But I always feel like there’s an elephant in the room, though I’m often the only person aware of it – what about plagiarism in online environments? And as much as I know my students are at an academic institution where they have to write old school research papers, I also feel quite strongly about teaching them about the wide world of the internet – copyright debates, online etiquette, proper use of hyperlinks, how to attribute sources on a blog, why people get mad on Tumblr when they aren’t credited for a GIF set. Some days I feel like internet culture is the most valuable thing I can teach them about (which might be more of a “me” issue than one of the profession, but I do often ask – what are educators, particularly librarians, teaching kids about technology and how can we do more?).

At any rate, places like Mozilla’s Web Literacy Map touch some upon issues of sharing, privacy, collaborating, etc. And the blog-sphere erupts periodically often with discussions about good attribution practices (see the 2012 curator’s code and the ensuing debate) and what constitutes plagiarism online. Places like Tech Dirt keep up a steady stream of, often infuriating, news about problems with copyright and patents and how problematic laws affect ordinary individuals online. Part of being an information literate individual means, in ACRL’s opinion (though those ACRL standards are currently being revised) as well as mine, being able to understand the ethics of information and how it’s shared and that entails, in my opinion, understanding the debates surrounding how we share and consume information online as well.

And this means, to me, that I can, and maybe even should, to do more to inform my students about information ethics in environments like Twitter rather than just the confines of the academic research paper. Information literacy doesn’t begin and end with the research paper, and neither should my instruction.

For next semester, I hope to revamp my plagiarism classes to include more about internet culture. Is anyone doing this type of education in their classroom? Share below!

Backseat Driving

I first heard the phrase “let someone drive” in relation to using a computer, and not actually driving a car, during an adventurous period in my life when I worked briefly at a tech company doing… techy things. (Needless to say I soon headed off to library school and was a happy camper). I found the phrase somewhat odd at the time, but I find it somewhat profound now, oddly enough. Letting someone drive is about control – being confident and comfortable enough to let someone else take over.

I’ve started hearing the phrase more and more in relation to teaching – let students drive! We can learn so much from them! As trendy as it is, and as unpopular as it might be to confess the opposite, I think that many educators, myself included, really struggle with handing the keys over to our students. But why is this?

First off, it can be terrifying to fly without a net – leaving a neatly planned lesson/activity/lecture behind and veering off script into discussion-land (which I’m generally fine with) or, even worse, student-led-demo-ville (a particularly harrowing experience in a library research skills session where you are working with things like wacky databases) can lead to the unexpected, the chaotic, and the disastrous. Suddenly nothing is going as you envisioned! You’ve lost control! The inmates have taken over the asylum and they’re doing everything wrong!

This leads me to my second point/concern – worrying about a loss of control is really a worry about two things – your end destination and the route you take to get there. Letting someone else drive can mean sacrificing your vision for how you’re going to reach a certain goal, and, in an education environment where you’re worried about learning goals and outcomes and the need to prove that you’ve actually reached your destination, relinquishing control can be alarming.

And finally, the reluctance to hand the keys over can also be a reflection on how we see ourselves and how we see our students. A lot of teachers (definitely including myself here) have a bit of a showboat quality. When we can’t do our lesson it can be disappointing – we were all set to go on! We were going to dazzle! And, even worse than the audience being deprived of our brilliance is this – the understudy might stink.

Thinking about letting students drive got me thinking about driver’s ed and how it’s portrayed (stay with me here). It’s a pretty common trope to see a teen in a TV or a film have a driver’s ed disaster – like Cher in Clueless. Those adults were right to not let those kids drive! The kids are a menace! Maybe we too sometimes think that our students can’t handle “driving.”

That cyclist really did, like, come out of nowhere. But she, like, offered to leave a note, so it’s cool.

Having the confidence to let go, having the faith in our ability to guide our students, and believing in our students’ ability to rise to the occasion doesn’t always come easy. It’s something I’m really working on in my own teaching – I feel fortunate to have a good foundation in this, having come from a museum education background which emphasized hands-on and discovery learning, but it’s still sometimes scary/exhilarating/hard to turn things over to my students. Check out below for some ways I’m trying to let my students drive, beyond my usual open class discussion!, and chime in the comment section with your own ideas.

Letting Students Drive: Some Ideas

  1.  Student run search session: I tell students what I need help finding (typically something like information on a current event or even a new pair of jeans or a puppy). They take the wheel and work together in groups to find what I need. We talk about what they did and why they did it. Then we regroup and go again, this time with a more academic topic. Standing back and letting them make mistakes or do things inefficiently can be really difficult, but the experience can open up great conversations and give students something concrete to refer back to once we start going through (together this time) optimal ways to conduct research. It’s basically taking some inquiry based learning principles and engineering ideas about iteration, where it’s okay to make mistakes, and running with them in a non-science environment.
  2. Student developed rubrics: This idea of student self-assessment (which I plan to blog about more later) is discussed by, among others, the great Buffy Hamilton. A type of self-assessment could be where students actually write their own rubrics to assess their research skills. Doing something like this can help students be invested in what they’re working on and letting them compare their own criteria with one of my rubrics can open up great conversations.
  3. Polling sessions: Using something like Poll Everywhere or even Google Forms, students tell me what they want to hear about. I deliver. As much as I might think, but they need to know about such and such!, I also think, in certain instructional scenarios, like orientations or an in-class research workshop, it can be useful to let students play a role in determining the content I cover. Plus, it’s really nice not having to prep a lesson plan in advance. Letting students drive = timesaver.