Reflecting on My Recent Professional Development Effort: The Power of Teacher Vertical and Cross-Curricular Collaboration

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All professional fields incorporate professional development (PD) into the structure of their occupations. There are always ideas to share and experiences to be had with the intent of growing employees or to simply improve one’s self. The unfortunate reality–at least in education–is a great deal of professional development can feel inadequate at best and a waste of time at worst. It is with this understanding of my own PD experiences that I went into planning a professional development of teachers in my cluster of schools with trepidation. To be transparent, I was nervous I would let my colleagues down and planning a PD experience that lacked the right substance and the right balance of experiential learning and collaboration with some dreaded sit-and-get as well. This was not my first rodeo–I had developed and delivered PD for others before, but rarely do I feel I hit the mark or pushed a narrative forward. Well, this time, this PD, felt different. I walked away after three days of rigorous work with my colleagues believing we had all experienced a PD worthy of our time, energy and effort. Continue reading

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Worth Checking Out: DRAFT

I discovered this webtool thanks to my handy subscription to a Diigo bookmark group–‘Web 2.0’. There are many times I’ll blatantly ignore my weekly emails of what is shared with the group’s members, but for whatever reason this past week I chose to pause and click on the link simply labeled ‘DRAFT’.

What I discovered was a tool that, if it delivers on what it says it can, will potentially change student and personal drafting forever. When you first explore the site, it doesn’t come across as anything all that outstanding. The simple landing page is clean and simple and doesn’t reveal much to a passerby; however, if a web wanderer were to click on the ‘Features’ link at the bottom and scroll through the exposition, the wanderer would discover that there is one particular feature that separates this tool from all others–free, insightful copyediting. Why is this so big?

Students often times lose grasp–or never grasp it at all–of their audience, whom they’re writing for. I can’t blame them. When your primary, tangible audience is your teacher, well, lets just say it gets old fast. DRAFT provides a new audience and one that can actually help guide a student’s writing with advice that reaches beyond the often times limited feedback a teacher can provide. The program also easily uploads your documents from just about any source–Google Drive, Evernote, MS Word, etc. It claims to allow a user to easily navigate drafts, suggested editing, and decision making. Honestly, it almost sounds too good to be true!

So here is my caveat–I haven’t used it yet. I honestly don’t know how well it works, but my interest is highly piqued. I plan to use it personally before introducing it to students. When I do I’ll report back and let you all know what I found out, or you can find out for yourself of course by clicking here: DRAFT.

If you’re as interested in this as I am, you can follow both the program and its creator on twitter: @natekontny http://ninjasandrobots.com/

Singular Texts/Plural Authors: A Book Review

9780809314478_p0_v2_s260x420This was originally an assignment from one of my doc classes this summer; however, due to my high interest in collaboration in learning, I thought I’d share my review here. The book, Singular Texts/Plural Authors by Lisa Ede and Adrea Lunsford, was originally published in 1992, but what struck home with me is how relevant a read it is still today for educators and researchers in the field of writing collaboratively. Enjoy!

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When originally published in 1992, Singular Texts/Plural Authors: Perspectives on Collaborative Writing was considered groundbreaking in the field of writing processes and instruction by placing an onus on considering how workplace collaboration on high stakes projects relates to writing pedagogy. Ede and Lunsford have spent a professional lifetime together writing in tandem, which helps to originally inspire their research on collaborative writing that is presented in this text. Both had concluded that writing, especially in the United States, had been observed as a solitary act of individuals. They point out in the first chapter, “Old Beginnings”, that what little research had been afforded to collaborative writing, whether it be Flower and Hayes, Bereiter and Scardamalia, or Bruffee, showed the final act of writing as being done by an individual– alone. Seeking to understand the limitations of this previous research, the realities of collaboration in the workforce, personal experience, and a strong desire to develop collaborative writing pedagogy is what drives Ede and Lunsford’s research narrative. Each chapter of the book attempts to set a historical and concurrent context for collaborative writing, weaving a narrative through various quoted intertexts and essays that culminates in a revisioned understanding and perspective on research on collaborative writing pedagogy that is still relevant to today’s understanding of writing practices in schools.

The authors draw off of research conducted as early as the mid-70s. What Ede and Lunsford uncover is a limited assortment of literature that attempted to survey collaboration of any kind and mostly drew on observances of the workplace or even some literature in gender equality. As previously mentioned, what little collaboration research had been done in education only unveiled the reality that students were not truly writing together so much as they were aiding with revision or simple editing that was conducted either before or after a student individually wrote, not during the actual writing process. This becomes problematic to many in academia as the authors cite several sociologists who began arguing that claiming single authorship on a paper that took many to execute is a serious error in judgement and even devalues the research. It becomes clear in the first section of the book that the authors are taking a look at collaborative writing through a very broad spectrum–even saying so themselves–claiming the approaches are literary, sociological, anthropological, and psychological. The duo quickly tries to validate their new point of view on collaborative research by highlighting their understanding of the “dangers” involved in looking at collaborative writing in such a breadth of contexts, divulging that they must be careful not to misinterpret the data to support only their preferences. Their argument for such a broad style of research, however, is clearly stated here: “only such a broad interdisciplinary approach can begin to suggest the implications of interrogating fully our traditional notions of what it means to be an author” (13). Ede and Lunsford posit that with collaborative writing so prevalent in the workforce, shouldn’t teachers be preparing students for such an important part of their future jobs.

The second chapter of the text accentuates collaborative writing in the workplace. The chapter appears at first to meander through various professional contexts where collaboration is a normal function to daily activity but as the chapter finds its close, Ede and Lunsford corroborate these individual instances of collaboration “as models for imitation” (43). Always quick to qualify their claims, the authors highlight that someone reading the chapter’s internal essays might easily gloss over what is most important about these professional practices of collaboration, which is simply a “strong emphasis on efficiency–on collaborative writing as means to an end–as simple point of fact” (43). This idea resonates just as poignantly today as it did two decades ago; isn’t the purpose of collaboration of any kind to efficiently construct a final product? Although not the most pedagogical approach to collaborative writing, the authors present an important aspect as to why students will need collaborative writing skills as they phase into the workforce one day.  Another illuminating observation the duo expounds on is the acceptance of given constraints of a collaborative writing system prevalent in the workplace. In other words, co-workers appreciate and even praise various constraints put on a collaborative model but as the authors point out, not all collaboration is without tension or dissatisfaction and can even pull people apart rather than together.

The chapter culminates in a study using two surveys for seven total professional and academic associations in concern to collaboration. The results articulate an emphasis by participants on writing being highly valuable to the success of their organization, and collaborative writing being a common practice with fifty-eight percent of participants describing collaborative writing as productive or highly productive. The open-ended questioning in the surveys indicated several important points of interest for collaborative writing: time is a commodity, participants may feel a loss of control over personal work time, interpersonal skills and group dynamics play an important role in influencing both effectiveness and satisfaction of the product and process, and a strong desire/need for equitable division of tasks. Ede and Lunsford point out that although collaborative writing in the workplace appears hierarchical in nature, they did find evidence of a more dialogic and fluid process to collaboration amongst professionals. These modes of collaborative writing are important to what they explore through the rest of the book.

The third chapter challenges the DNA of authorship using four distinct sections (The Myth of the Solitary Author, Shifting Conceptions in the History of Authorship, Contemporary Criticism and the Problem of the Author, and Contemporary Discourse Practices and Challenges to the Traditional Concept of Authorship) to reconceptualize the understanding of what constitutes authorship both yesterday and today. Using examples as far back as the medieval  period of Europe, the authors note a desire for writers to protect their texts; they point out that during the Elizabethan period of England, a strong desire to create clear authorship amongst playwrights became a priority. In the end, it was about turning a profit and making a living. Until this time, though, authorship did not have the onus it does today. For a time, defining authorship enjoyed a period of clear understanding with little to no questioning, but Ede and Lunsford point out that since the 1970s, authorship has been problematized. Questions as to what constitutes the self, western feminism, and a dialogic polyphonic self alters the point of view that the author is a singular self or is even simply man by himself. Authorship, it would appear, is complicated. Part of this complication is simply related to recognition; in many fields of research where a team produced the data and prepared the overall report, only one individual is given authorship or no authorship at all is assigned leaving the paper in anonymity. The authors suggest that “these challenges [the nature of constructed authorship] have great suggestive power for writing teachers, who deal every day with student authors producing texts” (102).

Chapter four finally arrives at pedagogy. Beginning by providing a historical context, the chapter explores cooperative learning’s roots and traces them as far back as the colonial period in America. Here, the duo cites Piaget, Dewey, and others to set up the constructivist model of learning, citing psychology’s attempt at seeing social interaction as the basis for all knowledge, which in turn supports cooperative learning. Ede and Lunsford use this backdrop to give their readers a clear idea that the social context in which students learn matters. The issue, they posit, is that most university and college level courses still see writing in the traditional, autonomous sense, and even more revealing is that “the very writers most often associated with collaborative learning [researchers such as James Moffett and Peter Elbow] hold implicitly to traditional concepts of autonomous individualism, authorship, and authority for texts” (113). This is challenged, however, in the seventies when researchers and instructors such as Kenneth Bruffee devised implementations of collaborative writing in his university classroom and identified the benefits of developing co-constructed knowledge. Traditional writing instruction is criticized as well in the late eighties with researchers citing the mistake of seeing student writers as isolated and disconnected from culture or politics. The authors then proceed to clarify differences in cooperative learning and collaborative learning, which is presented as a clear difference in epistemological basis, claiming cooperative learning has “an extremely verifiable ‘reality’ which serves as stimulus for various responses” (117).  Still, the two try to make it clear that research of cooperative learning has important implications for collaboration and collaborative writing.

The last half of chapter four presents the challenges of collaborative writing and how its been used in the classroom.   There are two major issues the authors present to the reader. One, power in the classroom is almost always still attributed to the teacher and two, many students may have an inherent desire to claim sole authorship despite when collaborating. Still, the authors point out that collaborative writing “holds out the promise for a plurality of power and of authority among teacher and students” (120) and affirms that “real learning occurs in interaction as students actively use concepts and ideas or strategies in order to assimilate them” (121). It is at this juncture in the text where both the author–and even the reader–become frustrated. Ede and Lunsford point out that they had original intentions to develop clear and definite pedagogy for collaborative writing in the classroom, but this goal had to change as more questions of practice became evident. One such question is that of what makes a more effective collaborative writing assignment? One that is specific and carefully constructed to help get the job done, but will most likely stifle or silence student genuine collaboration? Or one that is open-ended and honest, but meanders and may lose focus? These types of questions plague the ability of the duo to develop one precise way of exercising collaborative writing; however, they are able to articulate several criteria for what makes for poor or quality collaborative writing assignments. Page 123 in the text provides a cohesive list of what must happen in order for collaborative writing to occur in the classroom with the caveat that there is no perfect or idyllic scenario. They also call attention to criticisms of such a list that lacks instruction on how teachers should structure collaborative writing and disagreements on the best ways to form collaborative groups. To address this criticism the authors make a call to teachers to find ways with their students to really question collaborative assignments, see their implications, and testing the quality of such assignments thus lending power to students and teachers as well as forming a process to build, maintain, and adapt collaborative writing for a classroom.

The fifth and final chapter of the book is titled “New Beginnings” and clarifies for a reader the true purpose of the text–not to attempt to answer or minimize collaborative writing’s questions and ambiguities, but to call greater attention to them in an effort to spark further research and understanding of research methods used when researching collaborative writing. Ede and Lunsford show a distinct desire to conceive of new ways of “experiencing and representing authorship” (131), not to agree to the end of the author as we know it. They make a plea to pay attention to the questions and difficulties of shifting authority in a classroom and taking a closer look at dialogic collaboration that is meant to alleviate some of the oppressive forms writing can take on various groups such as women. The authors conclude their long, interwoven narrative by illuminating an exciting–but even disheartening–truth: “that we have only begun to scratch the surface of what it means to describe writing as a social or collaborative process” (141). In their final thoughts, the duo reflects on how their personal groundings in writing together brought them to this point of research and realize quite happily that such research and new understanding allows them to appreciate the enrichment of their own voices not only within the multiplicitous self, but with all those in their lives in every faction and notation that lend voices to their writing and others’.

Anyone interested in understanding the complexity of authorship, its changing meaning, and how collaborative writing has become a function of the workplace that can and should be transferred to the classroom would benefit from reading this book. Simply put, Ede and Lunsford’s book is still a valuable commodity to today’s teachers, administrators, and researchers. The book, although not without its criticisms, presents a timeless framework and history of collaborative work and writing that clearly illustrates its complexities and its necessity to not just the teaching culture of the early 1990s, but today as well.

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Ede, L. S., & Lunsford, A. A. (1992). Singular texts/plural authors: Perspectives on collaborative writing. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Small Victories

My county’s SPLOST passed last week. The margin was actually much wider than I would have thought based on all the uproar happening on the local education blogs. In any case, a local professor had a great reflection on why it should have been passed anyway.

Rob Jenkins wrote: “… I think school officials have learned their lesson. They had to be sweating this one. And even if someone deserves to be punished for all those questionable [land] transactions, it’s not the teachers and students, who would have been the ones to suffer had we withheld our tax money.”

I’d tend to agree with him.

Now on to a different topic.

I had some great conversations with a few of my students today. Many of my sophomore PBL students have been frustrated this semester feeling as though they’ve been boxed in too much at that the topics for the class are too narrowing for them to enjoy the experience. (This year’s class focuses on world history and world literature, and many feel that looking at history is constraining.) Today, I looked to change some of those attitudes. It had been awhile since I’d had a really candid conversation with some of my students about their interests, and when I got to talking to them I found new ideas sprouting quickly and abundantly. It was a very cool day, and I feel like a small victory.

We were able to brainstorm how to fit more of the history into their interests. One group is going to design a series of t-shirts that represent the time period and the literature they’re reading. Another group is replicating tools and weapons based on the early Mongol civilization, while developing a short epic to explain the origins of the artifacts and yet another is developing an ancient ‘soda’ and developing a ‘what if’ scenario to show trade routes and diffusion amongst early civilizations.

Today was just a great reminder of the power of collaborative conversation and how important it is to the success of a PBL classroom. Time will tell, but I’m willing to bet we’re nearing turning a corner in year two of our PBL class.