Entry #9: Collaborative Learning

These last two entries are now officially out of my experience when we’re talking about the ICT/digital domains.  So I’ll have to resort to some metacognition about collaborative learning and “maker” activities that are a bit more traditional.

While I was teaching, I had the good fortune of being a part of Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education (CAPE).  In this program, community artists partner with classroom teachers to co-teach academic content through the artist’s particular medium.  Three things make this program lightyears ahead of the rest.  First, the art is not an “extra” or “add-on”.  The artform and its particular methods are used as ways of learning the content.  Second, the artist is not a mere guest who comes to visit once a week.  The artist is a co-teacher in the classroom of the artistic content and to a lesser extent, the academic content.  Third, the teacher and artist commit to establishing a long-term relationship — one meant to last years, not just for the length of a unit.  By the end of a CAPE unit, students understand the academic content more deeply from processing it through making the art, and they know how to “do” that artform.  The teacher knows new methods for incorporating different kinds of art to teach content, and the artist knows more about the academic content that was taught.  Over the years I learned how to create murals and create found-object installations by working with local muralist and painter, Bernard Williams, as well as how to produce shadow puppetry by working with two artists from Red Moon Theater.  

For any CAPE partnership, the process is the same.  When beginning, the teacher meets with CAPE staff and discusses the content they’re interested in teaching and through which medium.  CAPE then sets up an appropriate partnership with a local artist.  The artist partner and teacher attend a certain number of professional learning sessions about how CAPE works, why it works, and the organization’s expectations for the partnership.  Then there is protected time for the teacher and artist to meet and start planning.  After these professional learning sessions, it is up to the artist and teacher to set regular planning times to develop the co-instructional unit and individual lessons.  The first few “CAPE days” (which usually become “Bernard days” or “Sarah  days”), the artist comes to teach the some of the necessary artistic concepts and skills students will need.  After that the artistic application moves rendering the academic content artistically.  Finally, an installation or performance is also required to take the learning and art public — beyond the classroom itself. CAPE staff continue to support both artist and teacher throughout the process.

My CAPE experiences were, hands-down, some of the most powerful teaching and learning experiences I’ve ever had.  And the most memorable.  To start with, the relationships I forged with the artists I taught with and learned from were foundational to the units we taught together.  All the art we created — murals, installations, shadow puppetry — all seemed overwhelmingly difficult to me when we started.  But my confidence grew as  my relationship with the artists deepened over time.  Mutual respect developed between us as we came to know the depth of each others’ expertise.  Trust developed.  Friendships formed.  Plans were made.  Over the course of that process, I can confidently say, that while I would prefer to work with an artist co-teacher, if I can’t, I could incorporate any of these kinds of artistic projects into my curriculum and execute them successfully on my own.

CAPE artists are working artists, not educators.  So starting with a new artist was like having a student teacher in the classroom for a while until they got the flow of unit & lesson planning, structuring the classroom for the lesson at hand and managing the kiddies when they’re up to their eyeballs in paint and cardboard and canvas.  Or shifting them from the “fun” of making a puppet to the “work” of writing a script for the show.  At the same time, it was fulfilling to see my partner artist develop as educators teaching the techniques and theories of their art.  So too with their developing their own understanding of the academic content the art was meant to evoke.  As a teacher who relies heavily on formative assessment, it was fascinating to watch and listen for the levels of understanding develop in both the students and the artists as we worked.  The same was true for me to learn the art right alongside our students.  It’s difficult to describe how exciting it was to hear kids discussing and debating the content as they manipulated the artistic media; and as they manipulated the media, their manipulation of their understanding of the academic content.  It’s equally difficult to find prouder moments as a teacher as when my students performed, installed or presented their artwork and then took questions from the audience about the content the art represented.  What could leave a stronger imprint on them than not only for others to see them as the experts in the room, but for them to see themselves that way too?

I’m certain I was aware of it at the time, but it bears articulating here.  As I look back at these experiences, everyone in the classroom inhabited all roles at various points of time over the course of the unit:  teacher, learner, novice, practitioner, expert.  We were all in it together.  Each and every one of us was learning something new.  That made for a more equitable distribution among all members of the power dynamics that develop in a classroom.  To a very real extent, we were all learners learning together, supporting one another in a spirit of discovery and aiming towards a common goal.  No one wanted to leave class on a “CAPE day”.  

Including the teachers.

(While I’ve been out of the classroom for a number of years, Bernard has continued to do amazing work with other Chicago schools.  You can see more of his work here.)

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