Teacher Innovation #8: “True Collaboration: The Magic of Planning, Designing, and Teaching Alongside Colleagues”

Adobe Spark (8)

The 8th post of my Summer Teacher Innovation Series comes from another ELA colleague, mentor, and friend, Nadine Bell. Nadine has been teaching nearly 30 years and shows zero signs of slowing down! I had the pleasure of working closely with her the last two years, working alongside her on the 9th grade ELA course team and as regular collaborator for academy-related planning. Nadine is everything you would want from a veteran teacher–knowledgeable, collaborative, wise, and reflective. She also breaks all the negative stereotypes often unfairly lobbed at veteran educators. As you will read in today’s post, she hates the idea of her practice being left to stagnate, so when you come to her with a harebrained scheme of how to start changing a few teaching paradigms in your school building, well, she says ‘yes!’ The practice Nadine shares today is hopefully the shape of what is to come in our schoolhouse where teachers bring classes together to co-teach content based on those teachers’ strengths. I am very excited to share this post. Enjoy!

Previous Series Entries: Part 1 // Part 2 // Part 3 // Part 4 // Part 5 // Part 6 // Part 7

by Nadine Bell

Jeff Spence is the former COO and president of Innovolt, a specialty company who patented intelligent electronics management technology, and current CEO of NexDefense, and is an expert on facilitating collaboration as a business model in the corporate sector. As I listened to Spence share his partnering with Gwinnett County Public Schools to introduce this model into the classroom, I couldn’t help but think this is what should be happening in the co-taught setting (the least restrictive environment for a special education student where the general education teacher works with a special education resource teacher to meet the needs of a student(s) Individualized Educational Plan (IEP). However, anyone who has been in the classroom for any length of time and had the opportunity to have a co-taught class knows that typically, at least at the high school level, the general education teacher provides the instruction and the special education teacher is often simply a behavior monitor at least and at best a teacher who will initiate small group instruction as a form of remediation or ensure compliance with small group testing.  Of course there are exceptions, but generally speaking, seldom is the co-taught classroom one of true collaboration.

Seizing the opportunity to try something novel for after 29.25 years of classroom teaching I have seen it all and desiring never to become that stagnant teacher, the one who everyone whispers, “she needs to retire because she is so out of touch with how to reach the students of today,” I partnered with a somewhat novice teacher, my colleague and friend, Ryan Proffitt, and we planned 4 lessons for our upcoming Shakespeare unit on The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. Initially, Proffitt was to teach lesson 1: an introduction to the themes of Romeo and Juliet; I was to teach lesson 2: the language of William Shakespeare; lesson 3 and 4 were abandoned because State End of Course (EOC) testing mandated we stop our pilot and prepare our students to be successful on the BIG TEST.  However, lesson 3 was to be taught by me and was to focus on actually reading Shakespeare, and Lanier’s media specialist was to assist in the design of literacy stations; and lesson 4 was to allow students to experience Shakespeare as it was intended, on the stage.  Proffitt in collaboration with the media specialist, who also had once been a drama teacher, was going to direct reader’s theater.


So, from the beginning there was true collaboration, and we immediately realized that our instructional planning was not anything different than what we already did almost every Tuesday during course team meetings. This time the big difference was relinquishing control. One of would teach our combined class of 70 students while the other would be the support, and we were struggling with the logistics of how this would look.  As said earlier, we all believe we know what a co-taught classroom should look like but few of us have truly experienced it. The decision as to who would teach what specifically came from the collaboration model that says the most experienced or the expert teacher should lead; yet, the collaborative teacher should still be an integral part of the instructional process.  I was eager just to try, and Proffitt was anxious and needed every detailed mapped out and rehearsed.  We were breaking the ice and wanted to be successful, but more important we didn’t want to feel like our efforts would simply be a show for observers and we were wasting instructional time.  Would our students cooperate? Would they be engaged?  70 kids in one room…oh my.  We did not anticipate we had to set the stage for such an undertaking.  Both of us being pretty laid back in style assumed our students would do as we told them, so we opted to give them very few preliminaries.  We were merely honest in telling them we were trying something new and innovative.  As Proffitt and I were still working out the details, they were only given the gist of what they could expect.

Finally, the big day arrived.  Dr. Gresham, Lanier’s principal, and also our LSTC, Rhonda Stroud, volunteered to be the extra support we felt we needed.  Without hiccup, Proffitt executed his plan.  Using video clips from the film The Notebook, students were introduced to the theme of love at first sight.  In groups of approximately eight, students were assigned the task to argue for or against love at first sight.  Proffitt and I ,along with our principal and the LSTC, rotated to observe and to facilitate while Dr. Kyle Jones, sought to capture in picture the dynamic duo in action.  To prepare students for the TEST and the anticipation of an argumentative writing prompt, Proffitt and I had decided that we didn’t just want the kids to be entertained by some video clips, but that this session could also be used to review argumentative writing, so each group had to present a claim, counterclaim, rebuttal, and logical appeal for their argument for or against love at first sight.  A jury was assembled, and based on the arguments presented, had to decide if love at first sight exists.  Whereas, Proffitt believes it does and I do not, we permitted our principal to break the tie. The students were completely engaged in the pre-writing activity and were able to connect to the theme and the standards of the lesson.  Additional themes were introduced but not exhaustively explored during this session.  The overall student response to this collaborative environment was phenomenal. My students loved Mr. Proffit’s energy, and Mr. Proffitt’s students appreciated having a second teacher who was involved in the process.  All 70 students were honors and/or gifted, so there were no behavioral issues but typical of the nature of the Honors/Gifted student, they were chatty and the competition to outdo the other class was high.  We did not assign the groups, yet many gravitated to their classroom peers or students in the other class who they knew and were more like them in personality.  The dynamics were awesome.

The Notebook Clips used to show love at first sight:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1gDTFygaSws (Noah Meets Allie)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M526tFIaWcw (I Wanna Go Out With You)


A week later, it was my turn.  My warm up activity was a powerpoint on twenty words we owe to Shakespeare.  To their surprise, they knew most of the terms. I over-planned to keep students engaged and wanting to cover as much as possible so as to also keep in mind we were not yet reading the Shakespeare text but setting the stage while the clock was still ticking for the State EOC. This over-planning took the shape of collaborating with the school’s media specialist, Suzanne Gordon, to create a literacy station to prepare the students to read Shakespeare. At this station, students read the Balcony scene, watched several film versions of it (BBC, Zeffirelli and Luhrmann) and then posted in the nearpod created for this activity a response to which version helped them with comprehension of the text.  Proffitt predicted the students would relate to Leonardo DiCaprio in the Luhrmann film (he uses this contemporary film), and I predicted students would relate to the Zeffirelli film because the images in our textbook are from this film (and I am somewhat a traditionalist). We were both wrong: The BBC version won.


Results from the Nearpod Experience

In addition to the literacy station, Proffit manned a pun station and I manned an insult station.  Students created insults using an insult creator handout and the website http://insult.dream40.org/ and students practiced the art of puns at https://www.sporcle.com/games/tags/pun  after perusing one of two prezis on puns in Romeo and Juliet: https://prezi.com/mn5jorts8lup/puns-in-romeo-and-juliet/ & https://prezi.com/zm4itjrb29gg/romeo-and-juliet-puns/

After students rotated through the three stations, they were given an opportunity to share in whole group the best puns and the best insults before seguing into a final language activity. With a partner, students worked to identify figurative language from selected Romeo and Juliet text (some of the literary terms were new and some were familiar).  Here the students struggled even with the literary terms they already knew. Many hit a brick wall trying to apply terms they knew to text that was so very foreign. Having two teachers to circulate the room was critical to keep the students on task, but when we returned to whole group to review the answers, students were challenged not just to give an answer but to defend their choices. Students were rewarded with candy.

The objective of all activities (puns, insults, and figurative language) was to make Shakespeare accessible by examining the craft of his writing.  If students can anticipate that the language of Shakespeare is more an art than a foreign language, they are typically less anxious to read the standard 9th grade text.

Again, the true collaborative classroom was a success, but to an outsider the class was chaos. This chaos is what frightens teachers today who are concerned that if an administrator were completing a formal observation they would not fair well. In debriefing, the students walked away having had a day of excitement and were indeed more receptive in the classroom during the reading of the text than the classes which had not experienced a collaborative introduction to Shakespeare by two teachers who brought a level of expertise and comfort to the standards.  At this point, one may still be wondering what expertise did Proffitt have and what expertise did I have.  Proffitt is a former Hollywood actor.  He is young and daring.  He knows films and can always think of something contemporary that students can relate to.  I would have not considered using The Notebook to introduce Romeo and Juliet.  Whereas Proffitt, a third year teacher has not quite mastered a comfort level with teaching the language of Shakespeare, I am a veteran teacher and have taught this dramatic work for 29 years.  Proffitt would not have spent a class period having the students simply explore the language techniques; whereas, I believe to read Shakespeare is to appreciate the richness and craft of his language.

The collaborative experience was new, it was innovative, it was engaging; the teacher truly became the facilitator who had to gradually release control and let the students figure it out having been given opportunities to explore the language, themes, and the process for outlining an argumentative prompt.

Even with our success, Proffitt and I recognized the areas for growth including building a culture of collaboration and establishing classroom norms for the collaborative environment.  As critical as both he and I were on ourselves, we were reminded that we tried something new and at the end of a school year.  And having received the best feedback from Jeff Spence, we accept we have broken the ice and opened the door for continued true collaboration at Lanier High School. The student comments below as transcribed from Jeff Spence’s notes demonstrate that true collaboration is indeed worth continued efforts:

  • “I normally don’t like asking questions in class but in this kind of class I do. I definitely feel more involved here.”
  • “Most of the time the question I have for the teacher I know is not the same question other people have. But when I only have one teacher the whole class has to stop. That’s why I never raise my hand.”
  • “There’s so much more going on in this class but it seems like there’s less distraction not more.”
  • “This would have been great for math. Math is too boring to have in a normal class.”

Below is a video that captures some of the combined classroom experience from Nadine’s lesson. As a fair warning, the video was shot to simply capture what was happening so both camera work and general editing are not professional quality. But, the video does provide a clear look at everything that Nadine described above:




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