Rethinking Coteaching

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I spent most of my teaching career as a special education coteacher.  It’s one of those things that can either be fabulous or hellish.  My fabulous years were ones in which I found true partnerships with the other teachers with whom I shared kids.  Those kids were always at the center of our decision making and none of the team(s) forgot that for a moment.  The hellish years were when I was treated as a teaching assistant – my sole purpose was to ‘circulate and assist’ (shoot me now if I ever have to do THAT again…).  The fabulous years outnumbered the hellish ones by about two to one.  Color me grateful for that…

There are a couple of partners I would teach with again in a heartbeat. It really is the most professional fun I’ve had – to work with a teacher who totally loves kids, loves teaching, and loves anyone else who feels the same way.  And, even though it was really fun for us to teach together, the true beneficiaries were our students.  They got to have two teachers to turn to with questions, concerns, or struggles.  They got to have two different kinds of feedback for everything they did. They doubled their chances of getting the kind of teacher they needed to have.  Lessons had double the amount of thought and preparation so the kids’ chances of remaining engaged were doubled as well.  (Besides, it’s hard to zone out with 4 eyes watching instead of two!)  When it really, really worked, I know we changed kids’ lives in a way that we could not have done nearly as well on our own. 

So, knowing what it takes to make a great coteacher, it should follow that this year as I move to the general educator side of the equation, that I would be the best coteacher ever, right?  Well…not so much.  Although I did not hesitate to have my coteacher, Mike, make his home in our classroom, provide him with a desk of his own and space for his things, and put his name on the door alongside mine, we are not really utilizing the ‘power of 2’ that I believe so strongly in. 

The power of two means that a classroom lucky enough to have two teachers in it should look considerably different than a classroom with only one.  The possibilities for instruction are doubled, for goodness sake, so why not take advantage of this gift?  Splitting the class in half so you are only teaching 12 kids instead of 24, using small group instruction with flexible grouping to bring kids along more quickly or to enrich kids ready to move on, conferencing with kids about their reading and writing while the other teacher monitors the rest of the class,  setting up stations where each teacher gets to work with a small group, and so on and so on.  I know these techniques.  I’ve used them successfully in the past.  And yet it’s almost semester break and we have only done one or two of these strategies!

I’ve allowed myself to fall victim to the same resistant forces that many of my coteachers did in the past.  I worry about covering the standards for the quarter, and grades, and testing, and the ridiculous notion that I need to do it myself in order for it to be done correctly.  Note to myself:  YOU ARE WRONG!!!

Today Mike was absent and I had to handle our two blocks on my own.  It was not pretty.  My first block ended up with everyone at their seats working silently (a first for this school year in any block).  I could not take the under-breath comments, the rolled eyes, the talking during work time another second.  So everyone, guilty and innocent, had to leave the beanbag chairs, the adirondacks, and the pillows on the rug and return to their seats to work silently. 

I was especially incensed because I had created an opening of which I was quite proud – they had to come in the room and sit at the team table that best described their winter break –

  • Read a great book (c’mon – I’m an English teacher)
  • Saw a great movie
  • Got the BEST present ever
  • Traveled out of town
  • Family visited
  • Went skiing, sledding, or skating

Then I gave them 5 minutes to talk to their tablemates. They got to nominate the most interesting story from their group to share with the whole class.  Pretty clever, right?  I knew they’d want to catch up on their first day back from break and this would give them a chance to talk – but with a purpose.  Well, they talked all right – but even when they went back to their home teams, they kept right on talking.  Mini lesson on similes and metaphors – talking.  Reading Lit.Circle books – talking.  Checking vocabulary – talking.  You get the idea.  I got ticked off. 

None of this would ever have happened if Mike were there.  First of all, the boys (our combined classes have 5 girls and 32 boys)  LOVE and respect him and will rarely do anything that might disappoint him in any way.  Secondly,  he is a no nonsense kind of guy.  One raised eyebrow from him and they straighten up. But equally important, I would not have reacted as I did because Mike would have said something about these rowdy rascals that would have made me laugh and see the humor in trying to teach a room full of kids who were not the least bit interested.  Having another adult to bounce things off makes such a difference!

So, here’s my pledge.  When Mike comes back to school, we are going to start again, we are going to do things the right way, we are going to fully utilize this gift of two teachers in our room. 

We are going to make a difference. 

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Fresh Starts

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I LOVE New Year’s Eve! It’s my favorite holiday.  Weird, I know, but it’s been true for decades now.  I love the idea of starting over with a clean slate.  I love the possibilities a new year brings – this year I can get it right!  I love the idea that all those mistakes are SO last year – no way I’ll do those over again, right?  The celebration aspect appeals to me, too.  Everyone excited and happy together, ready to welcome a new year with new opportunities. 

I’m not a fan of resolutions – we all know they don’t work – but reflections are another matter.  Looking back, what went well?  What can I improve?  Work with the National Writing Project and National Board for Professional Teaching Standards over the years has impressed upon me the value of this kind of reflection.  It’s made my teaching better for sure, more thoughtful, more responsive to the needs of the kids sitting in my classroom, more in tune with best practices and research based instruction.

So, here are my top three reflections going into 2013:

1.  Less grading, more feedback – I spend way too much time grading my student’s writing and way too little time sitting beside them, talking about their work.  I know that is my favorite kind of teaching – all the kids busily writing away while I sit in the back talking one on one to a student. I love how close it makes us, how sharing writing and thoughts about that writing really connects us in a powerful way that nothing else can do.  It’s also the single best way that I have found to get my students to really revise – to see their work in a new way and then go about finding a way to communicate that on paper.  They love that I love what they wrote – my kids e-mail me their writing all the time and there is ALWAYS something wonderful about it.  But they also know there is ALWAYS something to improve – word choice, figurative language, structure, voice, etc. and when we sit together and they tell me what they meant to say then I can help them find a way to do that more effectively.

2. Less teacher talk- more student talk:  I pride myself on knowing a lot about cooperative learning.  I’ve been trained by Kagan and know how important it is to have kids actively engaged.  But I find myself more and more doing the talking.  For me, it’s a slippery slope because there is so much material I have to cover and I’m afraid it won’t get done if I don’t tell them what it is.  This is ridiculous – I’m cringing as I write that last sentence.  I know that’s not true and yet I do it anyway!  Even something as simple as ‘Turn and Talk’ where I pose a question and they talk to their neighbor about it for a minute – how simple is that?  That means I have 100% of the kids actively engaged instead of the 10-20% who would actively be listening to me drone on. 

3.  Less literature circle, more real book talk – I got talked into doing literature circles by the English team.  I’ve never really liked them – mostly because I have never found a way of doing them that convinced me that it made readers out of kids.  Even when they choose their lit circle books themselves, they are never as engaged with the book as when they have chosen it independently.  I’m not sure where the  process breaks down, but it always breaks down.  This time I even let the kids design their own ‘Ideal Literature Circles’.  They spent a lot of time figuring out what would work best for them.  Yet here we are again, some kids reading ahead, some kids not reading enough, and discussions that put me to sleep. 

I think when we finish this cycle (please let it be soon) I am going to try letting them read their own books, and then having them come together by genre and discuss what they are reading.  I haven’t got it all worked out yet, but my goal is to make them readers, and the only way I know to do that is to have them choose their own books.

So, there you have it – my reflections for the New Year.  My wish for you – may all your reflections be merry and bright!