We’ve all been there. You invite an outside expert into the classroom, eager for her to inspire your students and share her expertise, only to find that your students have suddenly forgotten all the expectations you have worked so hard to establish. Or they are more interested in the fluff stuck in the carpet than what this authority has to say. Or the expert misses the mark on the values you’ve cultivated in your group, perhaps suggesting that some things are only of interest to girls and others to boys. Maybe you wondered why you ever thought it was a good idea in the first place.
In this post, we will reflect on why it is indeed a worthwhile venture to invite local experts into your classroom, by examining the collaboration between Cold Spring School (CSS) and the Yale School of Architecture (YSoA). (Read more about the project here and here.) We will also consider what steps can be taken toward ensuring the experience is a positive and educative one, for all people involved.
As teachers, we know it is not our job to have all the answers, but rather to model and practice with our students the process of pursuing the questions. We teach the scientific method, we teach research skills using texts, we teach about gathering and analyzing data, but what about the strategy that we adults use perhaps most often – seeking the input of someone with expertise in the field? When we have an issue with our pipes, we call in the plumber. When we are wondering what kind of enrichment the soil in our garden beds will need, we contact the agriculture center. Making use of your local resources not only takes away the burden of having to become an expert in every field; it also teaches our students about how to tap into the wealth of knowledge held within their local community.
Imagine the hours of research it would have taken CSS 4th/5th grade teachers to acquire the knowledge shared by YSoA students here (and keep in mind this clip is a small fraction of the YSoA presentations), and consider how much is gained by the Cold Spring students in their study of Native Americans and habitats:
By bringing in outside experts, we create the opportunity to broaden and deepen our students’ thinking. Those with expertise in a field can draw from a well of knowledge to engage students in more advanced questioning and wondering around a topic, or to expand upon their initial inquiries. They have the potential to become coaches to our students. Assuming that you have done the front-end work with your expert to establish some common understanding of your goals for the project and how your students learn best, you will now have two (or more) teachers to guide small-group work. In the case of the CSS and YSoA collaboration, each class was able to have approximately FIVE coaches, in addition to the classroom teachers. Notice the ways in which these YSoA students so effectively coached the CSS students to deepen their thinking around the design challenge:
So, yes, seeing such an effective partnership in action can reaffirm for us the potential value of collaborating with local resources. The legwork required to ensure that such a collaboration can reach its potential, however, can be significant. Cold Spring School is unfathomably lucky to have Laura Sheinkopf in the position of Integrated Programs Coordinator. Her job is devoted to supporting teachers’ efforts in developing projects and bringing them to fruition. One of the ways in which she does this is by connecting with community around student work. She works to coordinate everything between the school and visitors, from big-picture planning around who and why, to the details of scheduling, to communicating around school culture, to organizing materials. You might dream of having such a resource in your school, but of course you alone can create meaningful partnerships within the community, even if you don’t have a colleague committed to supporting your visions! With you in mind, I asked Laura for her insight and advice regarding the essential factors to ensuring a successful collaboration with outside resources. Having been a classroom teacher herself (at Cold Spring) prior to serving as Integrated Programs Coordinator, she affirmed that there is much you can accomplish through community partnerships with proper attention to detail, foresight, and commitment to clarity in communication. Here is my take on what she had to offer:
- Overarching goals: It goes without saying that the linchpin to a successful visit from an outside resource is ensuring that everyone is on the same page regarding the purpose and goals of the visit. What we sometimes overlook, however, is how greater specificity around your expectations may immensely enhance the lesson. It’s easy to imagine that in the excitement of having access to students from the Yale School of Architecture, a teacher could have simply said to them, “We’d like you to share your expertise with our students, connect with Native American architecture, and create a design challenge for them that relates to our school.” This probably would have made for a fun, informative experience. What came from the CSS and YSoA partnership, however, was beyond fun and informative – it was educative in the Deweyian sense. Read more about that here. This required a great deal of communication between CSS teachers and YSoA students/coaches prior to and throughout the process. Through emails and in-person conversations, the YSoA coaches developed an understanding of what the CSS students’ previous learning experiences had been, how their architectural expertise could contribute to curriculum, and what the CSS teachers were hoping their students would gain from this project. So, as they planned for the design challenge component of the project, the CSS teachers decided that they wanted the students to all operate within certain constraints (site, materials, and culture) to design a fort (rather than a general structure). Caitlin, the primary contact for the YSoA team, was equally thoughtful about how to make the experience relevant to the CSS students. Prior to the first visit, she inquired about what specific social studies material had already covered, such as whether the students had learned about any particular tribes in depth. Throughout the YSoA coaches’ presentations, they were able to make references to material with which the students were already familiar and connect it to new information. It is not always the case that partnering experts will think so thoroughly in advance about students’ background knowledge, or be able to envision how their own expertise can most effectively connect to students’ work – this is where it becomes essential that our goals for the project be communicated thoroughly, or, better yet, as was the case with CSS and YSoA – developed collaboratively.
- Checking pedagogical thinking: Your visitor may have a wealth of knowledge on a specific topic, but you are the expert on this age group, your students, and how they learn best. One of the number of reasons that this partnership between Cold Spring School and Yale School of Architecture developed was that students of the YSoA were interested in developing an educational program could serve New Haven public schools. CSS was happy to serve as a trial school for the YSoA students to try out ideas and receive feedback. Part of Laura’s role was thus to check the pedagogical thinking of the lessons crafted by the architecture students. Laura made sure lesson plans were sent to her (by the YSoA team) in advance so she could communicate if a concept was going to be too abstract for 4th and 5th grade-aged students, and help them find another way of getting at the same idea. If Laura saw an opportunity for the CSS students to understand a concept through a hands-on experience, she and Caitlin would collaborate around that as well. Together, the hosting school and partnering resource worked to ensure each visit was developmentally appropriate and presented in a highly engaging way.
- Communicating around school culture and expectations: This is a best practice that often seems unnecessary until an event occurs that hits you over the head with its relevance. I once had a visitor who stated that boys like certain colors and girls like other colors. It wasn’t the end of the world, and served as a talking point later in the day, but I did wonder whether there was some proactive step I could have taken to avoid this. Laura has taken this on as part of her job in connecting with the community around student work. She makes sure to talk with local resources about what the school is about and what it values. This helps to avoid uncomfortable situations that fly in the face of the school culture. Would it be helpful to you to write a document specific to your school or classroom that describes your community’s principles and beliefs, which could then be shared with the experts you may invite in?
- Logistics: When you went into teaching, did you know that part of your job would entail event planning? If you are coordinating a visit with a single outside resource, the planning is pretty straightforward. However, don’t let a fear of logistics keep you from coordinating with other colleagues whose involvement could enrich the project. Some of the visits from the YSoA took place in Cold Spring School’s Tinkering Lab. Not only did the Tinkering Lab have ample materials for the students to use in their model building, but being in that physical space helped open up the children’s minds to make connections across disciplines. The involvement of the Tinkering teacher, Lior, made it possible for the students to continue their work beyond the YSoA visits and deepen their thinking. Coordinating timing and negotiating for space required some extra legwork from Laura, but greatly enhanced the project.
- Organizing materials: We all know that the organic flow of children’s work can come to an abrupt halt if necessary materials aren’t organized in such a way that children can access them when they need them. When an outside visitor is involved, there may be an expectation on your end that s/he will be bringing all the materials s/he needs. However, he or she may expect you to have the materials on hand. It may be useful to create a checklist of all the materials students may need for the project and share this in advance with your visitor, asking which materials s/he plans to bring, what you have available already, and whether there is anything supplemental you could help to acquire. If you are planning on multiple visits with the same guest, it is helpful to discuss which materials can stay at school between visits. Of course, if your guests are volunteering their time, see if you can reimburse them for materials costs!
- Continuing conversations with students between learning experiences: You know you’ve crafted a meaningful project when the learning takes on a life of its own. At CSS, the teachers helped breathe life into their students’ learning by ensuring that the YSoA lessons were not isolated experiences. Conversations continued between their visits to help children further digest concepts that were introduced or to practice some of the skills they were acquiring. Teachers set up word walls that included vocabulary introduced by the YSoA coaches, facilitated classroom discussions about the school’s culture (one of the constraints for the design challenge), and provided them with class time to work on their models, plans, and presentations. The more that the visits from local resources can be woven into class time and across disciplines, the richer the learning becomes.