At round tables, students and educators buzz with conversation. On screens at the front of the conference room, timers alert participants that less than a minute remains.
The teams on this side of the room have been handed what conference co-host Mr. David Ross, calls an America’s Got Talent challenge. Mr. Ross is returning to the classroom after 20 years of leadership roles - as an author and former senior director of the Buck Institute for Education (now called PBLWorks) and former CEO of P21. Mr. Ross asks the teams to present their work with as much flair and personality as possible. The teams rehearse, keeping one eye on the timer.
It’s a summer afternoon on the University of Pittsburgh’s Oakland campus, and teachers and students from across the greater Pittsburgh region have convened to think and talk about equitable collaboration. What does the term mean, and how can it be achieved in schools?
This half-day pre-conference event, Bringing Equitable Collaboration to Schools, was convened at the Personalized Learning Leadership Conference by Collaboration Nation, a new non-profit that is dedicated to nothing less than changing the world by helping educational leaders and stakeholders to re-imagine and re-make learning in schools.
Along with approximately 25 principals, district administrators, coaches, and teachers from 14 different school districts, 8 educational service providers, and 4 universities, 19 high school students are here. The students are participants in the Learn & Earn Summer Youth Employment program, offered by Partner4Work, Allegheny County, and the City of Pittsburgh.
The students are enrolled in a course, Perspectives in Education, taught by Dr. Tyra Good, Professor of Education. Her work focuses on creating equitable school district conditions and community partnerships.
Dr. Good brought the students to complement their in-class learning on engagement and equity. “We’ve also been talking about, as a student, how do you speak up and advocate for yourself?” Dr. Good says. “I asked them to be fully engaged and present today and to share their thoughts, because a lot of time what happens is that seasoned adult professionals are making the decisions, and the students don’t understand what these decisions are or why they’re being made.”
The timer goes off. A team at the back of the room volunteers to go first. “When I say, ‘Got,’ y’all say, ‘LIT’! Got!” prompts Dr. Stanley Whiteman III, Acting Elementary School Principal at the Duquesne City School District.
His teammates chime in with the refrain: “LIT!” Then, working as a team, the other educators and students at the table unpack the “Get LIT” peer-feedback strategy developed by The TeamBuilders Group:
Other teams give their most AGT-worthy performances. At the end the “judges”—the audience members themselves, voting by applause—deem the first team worthy of the “six-digit prize” promised by Ross: 100 Grand candy bars.
The Role of Student Voice
Now that energetic collaboration has occurred, the moment is ripe for reflection. Our session co-host, Dr. Jordan Lippman, who is Research Director for Collaboration and CEO of the TeamBuilders Group, solicits feedback from participants. What was the collaborative experience like? What did team members notice?
A student volunteer said that it was strange working with people—teachers—she normally wouldn’t collaborate with. It was hard, a teacher says: “Five minutes isn’t enough time to make a plan with people you’ve never met before.”
In a subsequent debriefing session with Dr. Good, students reinforce that interpretation: “They were actually listening to us,’” a number of students tell her. “Our teachers don’t even ask us for advice and they were asking us what we thought and what we felt.’”
Dr. Good adds, “The ‘Get LIT’ activity was fun for the students because they always see teachers as knowing everything, but students told me, ‘The teachers were confused like we were confused. We thought teachers knew everything.’ They wished their learning in class was more like that.”
It is telling that many students found that the adults at their tables enjoyed and appreciated their presence while other students felt the teachers were talking at them or past them without honoring their voice. Clearly, there is much work to still be done, if student voice is not honored in a session about equitable collaboration.
“A lot of teachers said to them, ‘This is awesome. I’m so glad you’re here,’” says Dr. Good. “It made the experience more tangible instead of being in spaces where you’re talking about a group of people or a population, but the people you’re talking about don’t even have a voice in that conversation.”
Indeed, in the run-up to the Get LIT activity, Candee Nagy, assistant principal at Baldwin High School, calls Dr. Lippman over with a request: she needs students at her table!
Nagy is expressing a widespread sentiment among the adults in the room: that student voice is absolutely invaluable for understanding and achieving equitable collaboration.
According to Dr. Lippman, “We were hoping that a key takeaway from the Pre-Conference session would be that educators would rethink the unintended impact of specific learning models within the school, such as their behavior management approach on students. We learned this is a conversation that cannot occur without student voice at the center of it.”
When it’s time to share responses, a student raises her hand. Working with teachers was uncomfortable at first, but because they were all tackling the same challenge, she grew more relaxed and ended up seeing them in a different light. Others report that they got the message that they should take risks in their group work, and that the AGT challenge was intended to let them get to know one another better.
Once the candy bars have been distributed, Dr. Lippman asks participants to reflect silently with a couple of questions:
In how many groups, did everyone participate?
Were all voices heard, or were some silent?
Only about half of participants’ hands go up. A discussion develops around the question of the extent to which the teams’ collaboration resembles what occurs in schools. It’s an opportunity, Dr. Lippman says, to think about how the tasks students are given make room for equity . . . or not.
This call to be more thoughtful and intentional harkens back to the definition of equitable collaboration that session organizers presented at the start of the event:
“An evolving perspective on the conditions and experiences needed to cultivate equity within the processes and outcomes of learning - so everyone is welcomed and challenged to grow while shared goals are accomplished.”
With this new perspective in mind, each team tackles a new set of questions:
What messages about learning, intended or unintended, did they notice in their teams’ collaborations?
How were those messages communicated, and how do the messages reflect the current practices of schools?
Research on Educator Collaboration
Dr. Lippman anchors the experience in “Three Things to Know,” summarizing the findings of research he and his colleagues have done at Collaboration Nation.
Dr. Lippman emphasizes three key points:
Educators tend to define collaboration in terms of the outcomes it produces, rather than the process itself.
Educators cite unequal participation in groups as the biggest challenge for students.
Explanations for challenges in collaboration often blame students, which leads to less empathy for the students.
Bridging the divide between this kind of academic work and actual practice is a crucial challenge, says Mrs. Mary Claire Arena, TBG’s specialist in literacy, early childhood education, and outreach.
“What does this mean for schools?” she asks, and goes on to stress that participation and collaboration, though often treated as synonymous, are not the same thing.
What’s needed instead, she says, is to "slow down and create the necessary conditions for equitable collaboration," chief among them the sharing of a common language. She introduces the Educator Inquiry Process used by TeamBuilders to support professional learning and system change.
Educators or education leaders interested in participating in the 2019-2020 study of Equitable Collaboration PD please sign up at CollaborationNation.io.
In an activity designed to bring out examples of Learning Models that exist within school ecosystems, table teams had the opportunity to collaborate again.
Drawing a “T” on large sheets of paper, teams list on left side the various learning models (programs and practices such as Project-Based Learning or PBIS) that exist in their schools, and on the right ideas of how equitable collaboration might enhance those models.
After hanging their masterpieces for all to see, students and educators rise and stroll the “gallery,” engaging silently with others’ answers and posting pink sticky notes with questions and responses aimed at deepening these important conversations and pushing them forward.
The pre-conference culminates with participants writing postcards to themselves, offering reflections on the day, key insights to keep in mind, and resolutions to keep the day’s work going.
Before the day is over, though, Ross makes an announcement: he can’t remember when he’s ever worked with a group where students spoke up so much, or made their voices heard so clearly.
“Can we have a round of applause for these students?” he asks.
The adults clap loudly for the students at their tables, their partners in thinking hard about what equitable collaboration might mean, and working together to try it out for themselves.
Adam Reger is a Pittsburgh-based writer with a focus on education.
Collaboration Nation is a non-profit organization composed of educational leaders, academics, organizations, and networks who are committed nothing less than changing the world by re-imagining and re-making education. We do this through research and professional development on equitable collaboration.
Photos courtesy of Dr. Tyra Good.