Friday, July 13, 2007

What's the big deal? - Why cross curricular collaboration is so darn good for kids

I teach with a phenomenal group of teachers on our team. And I mean PHENOMENAL. They are truly some of my closest friends and very much like those beautiful orchids you find growing in the old oak trees of the Florida scrub – rare and amazingly evolved. Did you know there are orchids who have evolved to have petals that mimic the color/shape of specific insects in order to propagate their species? There are orchids who look like bees or wasps, and these insects with either try to attack the flower or, embarrassingly enough, mate with it, only to be covered by the orchid’s pollen. Pretty ingenious, if you ask me.

Sorry about that. I get a little carried away when I take a moment to realize how amazingly diverse the planet we inhabit really is. Now, let’s get back to the real purpose of this post – team teaching. We teach our units through collaboration and integration. What does that mean, you ask? Well, the integration we utilize really is a representation of how we think rather than simply an intersection of curriculum. The terms “transfer” and “connections” are embedded in every portion of the vocabulary we use with one another as well as in our curriculum. Our goal is to demonstrate that transfer takes places when a student is able to apply knowledge in multiple situations – so not just while in math, but also using the same skills while in science or social studies. An example of this would be a student earning excellent grades in Spanish class for 4 years, but still not be able to communicate at an effective level if immersed in a Spanish speaking society. That is where learning is compartmentalized and provides a boundary or division between learning and transfer.

To compound our ambitions, we also employ the multi-grade model, where 7th and 8th graders are meshed together in a team area, all learning the same curriculum and taking the same assessments. There are several benefits of multi-grade grouping, including the formation of long-term relationships, continuity, and a family atmosphere. Our team embraces the philosophy of teaching our students to become self sufficient learners, as self-learning generates more confidence and autonomy in the students. Students on our team experience a stronger sense of community and security, especially amongst the younger students who are new to the team because there are older students who have the opportunity to mentor them and "show them the ropes" of our mutli-grade culture.

So what’s the big deal, right? I mean, collaborating with one another is very time consuming and who wants to do that, right? Well, it might take time, practice, patience and flexibility but it is SO beneficial to our students. And that’s why we do what we do, right? For the kids, I mean. The benefits to curriculum integration are very strong and time tested, such as:

1. Curriculum integration fosters the ongoing reinforcement of skills and information learned in one area of study when utilized in another area.

2. Curriculum integration provides students a richer academic experience by broadening the context and applicability of information and skills that are learned.

3. Curriculum integration maximizes the utilization of learning time by “borrowing” from one area to support another. This is particularly important in the public school system where educators face time pressures in all curricular areas.

What we want to make understood is that just because students read the novel Night in language arts and study the holocaust in social studies does not necessarily ensure that transfer is taking place. An integrated unit is effective and appropriate when it promotes progress toward significant educational goals, not simply because it crosses content areas.

Of course, as with any program, there are some impediments to implementation. But, we believe (and have witnessed) that meaningful interdisciplinary instruction can take place when motivated educators are provided with ample planning time to successfully create and construct integrated units.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

To My Everyday Hero

You always hear how people are brought into your life for a reason, and those individuals leave behind footprints forever embedded onto your heart. They leave their lasting mark, a reminder of who they are and what they meant to you when you were together. I have met such a person, and this post is dedicated to her.

I had only been teaching for 2 short years before I left SMS to propel myself out of my comfort zone. I remember the end of the school year 2006, when we had to clean up our rooms completely, and I recall looking around at the bare, empty, emotionless classroom and thinking that I wasn’t going to be here that following year. I don’t know what made me think that, but it’s honestly how I felt.

When I applied for a position at Brookside, I honestly had no clue what was to be in store for me. My only point of reference was SMS, and believe me, SMS was not a typical school by any means. So I really didn’t know what else was out there.

I was told the position was an 8th grade science position on the Academy of Technology. I had been teaching 7th grade, but I figured I needed to challenge myself some more. Also, the teams at SMS were named after animals – there were no strands, just animals. I always felt so left out when our team name was the Spinnakers. (It seemed like the Mustangs and the Tiger Sharks team names were more powerful and attractive to me.)

Needless to say, my interview went rather well when my future team leader shed a tear when she flipped through my portfolio and read the letters students had written me. One student who had written me a letter of appreciation was actually cut from my volleyball team, only to walk into my classroom and ask, “What do I need to do better so that I can play next year?” I put her right back on the team that afternoon. There was something about the team leader that really inspired me. She was a veteran teacher, but you could tell by the way she articulated the team philosophy that she was passionate about her profession. Far too often I have seen seasoned teachers lose the drive and determination because it just becomes too much work. I have taught with those teachers before and it is disappointing to watch because the kids are the innocent victims.

My team leader is absolutely amazing. I feel so incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to work with her for 1 year. She made me feel like my opinion mattered, which had never occurred to me or anyone else before because I was so inexperienced and many times my ideas involved too much effort. I have never felt more respected, valued and loved by a fellow teacher than when I worked with her. Her motivation, her insight, her experience – all of these things and more just motivates me to want to get to where she is someday and someday soon. She is like that wise sage who has tried everything, has seen the promise land and wants everyone to know how we can bring education there.

I know she feels like she could have done a better job this year, but what she demonstrated to me in those 180+ days was that she is an incredible educator. Thank you, Debbie, for being my inspiration, my coach, and my guide. I only wish I could have worked with you longer.