When I was teaching second grade two of my grade partners and I wanted to integrate our curriculum through learning stations. We planned for three thirty-minute stations twice a week, with creative hands-on activities in reading, writing, math, science, social studies, and art, all thematically connected. Groups of 4 – 6 students would circulate between the stations, some of which children would work independently, others manned by the teacher or parent volunteers. It took the three of us several years to develop and fine-tune an entire year of thematic station activities, but the results were powerful. Our students loved the activities, which they often just thought of as “fun,” unaware of the wide breadth of experience and knowledge they gleaned from them. And the parent volunteers left each time energized and delighted in the learning they saw taking place.
The other thing we learned from this was that, in terms of teaching, of creating and improving instruction, two heads were better than one – and three were better than two! Each of us came at our objectives a little differently, bringing our unique strengths and insights to the task. As time went on each of us grew as a result of the others’ contributions.
Encouraged by this, we decided to experiment with team teaching. Since the instruction of writing was always something of a challenge, we decided to discover how we might complement one another by working together – and not just in planning instruction – but by actually sharing in the implementation of it.
We quickly realized that this demanded a greater level of mutual trust than planning our learning stations had required. Having a colleague observe and consider our inevitable instructional shortcomings, procedural missteps, and classroom management blunders felt a little like a trip to the dermatologist for the dreaded all-over body check. Despite our friendship and mutual respect we felt somewhat exposed and vulnerable. But, in time, standing in that discomfort paid off.
Here are some of the ways we made team teaching in writing work for us:
1.) We began with frank discussions about what we felt was working or not working in our writing instruction, what skills our students were struggling with. When we identified a common challenge we decided to try to tackle it together. (At first this was the least intimidating way to go – it built an immediate rapport and a feeling of “being in it together.”
2.) We’d select a lesson and talk it through prior to class, deciding loosely which of us would introduce and initiate the lesson, who would do questioning and charting during the modeling, etc. (We worked in pairs for the actual team teaching, with the third grade partner sitting in as an objective observer.)
3.) We decided to combine our two classes for the team-teaching – a decidedly risky move. If teaching 24 kids was a challenge, how would we manage 48?? But, we prepped our classes, presenting it as a huge privilege that could only work with
their complete cooperation. We established clear rules and stuck to them. The visiting class brought their chairs and we arranged them as strategically as possible. Each class was excited to be with the other, and the novelty of the situation was fun for them.
4.) As the lesson began we encouraged one another to jump in, and felt free to interject, make suggestions, or ask questions in a flexible free-flowing way. During modeling we’d both observe and interact with students, discovering a variety of ways to better elicit and interpret responses. Typically, just one of us would do the charting during this shared writing, but encouraged the other to jump in with suggestions.
5.) After the session we’d set aside a time to debrief, discussing what worked and what
felt cumbersome, what surprised us, what we noticed in terms of student responses, and affirming what we had learned from the other. Invariably the lesson would take unexpected turns, and each of us playing off the other yielded surprisingly positive results. If a third teacher observed, her objective perspective shed still more insightful light on what had taken place.
Over time we became ever more open and candid about our team-teaching, more willing to try something out of our comfort zone, to admit what we were struggling with, and to be receptive to new ideas. We were better able to diffuse (and laugh about) our frustrations, and encouraged one another to ever-higher levels of proficiency. And, best of all…it was fun!