September has come and gone in a bit of a blur as we had a lot to figure out when we began this new school year. Making the transition from summer mode to a more demanding school routine is always a little difficult; however, this year, our school start-up was made even more challenging by adding an extra 100 students to our Greystone school community. To meet the challenge, we hired additional staff, re-organized teaching spaces, built a new timetable, ordered additional resources and furniture – and trusted in our incredible staff to make it all work out…and they did!
The challenge of finding places for our additional students enabled us to create some excellent opportunities for collaboration and teamwork. Teachers who were already finding the value in team teaching were able to explore this practice more deeply by bringing their students together into a shared learning environment. Our school was designed to embrace this teaching practice with several areas featuring removable walls and sliding “barn doors”; however, we pushed this even further by making over a couple of large spaces that were originally created for different purposes:
1. Media Centre
Our Media Centre (aka Library/Learning Commons) is one of the largest spaces at Greystone – second only to the gym. This huge area has high ceilings, large windows, comfortable furniture and is definitely one of the most inviting learning spaces in the entire school. While it was used regularly as a space for reading, book exchanges and quiet group work, it was highly under-utilized, often sitting partially full or even empty at times. Last year, we needed an area for our drama program so it became a shared space, at times, for book exchanges AND a drama class. The space is huge and because it is carpeted, many students can be in there at once and it doesn’t become too noisy. When we needed additional space for classrooms this school year, we knew that this was one area we could re-organize to accommodate our growing student population.
Two teachers, Trish Spink and Raeann Richardson, were becoming very comfortable working together last year and joined their classrooms often for learning opportunities so when I approached them to see if they were interested in sharing the Media Centre this year as they looped up to grade 6 with their students – they agreed. Not only did they agree, they brought the idea to their students and their families last year, highlighting the positive aspects of team teaching as a way to provide flexible groupings among their students allowing two teachers the opportunity to meet the diverse needs of their group. Everyone has responded extremely well to the new learning environment. We even added an additional half time teacher to the mix, Marge Rodgers, who taught drama in this space last year. Including the additional teacher on this team is allowing one of the teachers to be freed up for some time from her schedule to support inclusive education throughout our school. The result is three teachers, about 45 students, three classroom pets (a turtle, a gecko and a bearded dragon) and a dynamic community of engaged learners. This learning community keeps parents informed, regularly, of the learning that takes place via their classroom blog. The flow of routines, high expectations for learning and team teaching “synergy” that has already been established after only one month of school is inspiring.
2. Flex Lab
This large space within our school was originally designed to be an area where our older students would have the opportunity to explore construction technologies. It was actually never used for that purpose as it was always needed as a homeroom classroom space. It was used for art options but always with the understanding that flexibility was the most important feature and the space would be adapted for whatever the school needed in any given year. This year, the space was needed for not only one but two homeroom classrooms. Once again, two teachers who had become used to working very collaboratively last year with their two homeroom classes of grade 7 students looped with the students to grade 8 and moved into this large space in order to team teach and flexibly group their students to meet the individual learning styles and needs of their 50 students.
Brad Arndt and Jenna Wilkins spent a large chunk of time over the summer brainstorming possibilities for not only the redesign of the space but for ways they would work together with their students to provide inquiry learning opportunities that tapped into student interests while building their critical thinking, questioning, problem-solving and collaboration skills. This, combined with figuring out how to create mini-spaces for direct instruction and group work, was definitely a challenge. Then we added an additional homeroom class to the grade eight configuration and asked teachers to figure out how to meet the needs of ALL of the five classrooms (not just their own homeroom groups). We wanted to ensure that we were not “boxing up the learning” into short, disconnected blocks of time with kids moving from teacher to teacher, subject to subject, but were instead, having opportunities for deeper exploration into key concepts and ideas from the curriculum that had overlap between subject areas. This was an incredibly challenging month for all of our teachers as they worked together to get this figured out. Although we are only at the beginning stages of the journey for this learning community, in reading the 184 Days of Learning Blog post from this group, it looks like they are already seeing early success in their Flex Lab make-over.
3. Music Room
This classroom make-over was suggested by two of our Learning Community 9 Teachers, Peggy Bly and Christy Haggarty. We added an additional homeroom grade 9 class in July and these two teachers, who have a history of team teaching together, offered to share the classroom space in our Music Room to provide collaborative learning opportunities for our grade 9 students. The space they are sharing is the smallest of the three team teaching spaces we created this year so we added some furniture to the pod area that is right outside the doorway to their classroom. The teachers have access to the pod area all the time, allowing them to break out into smaller groups in order to meet the diverse needs of their learners. The pod space also has a sink which will allow for clean up from hands on science demos to be conducted in the pod area.
While these two teachers have had lots of experience team teaching with each other in the past, they have the added challenge, this year, of using an additional teaching area that is outside the walls of their shared classroom to allow for enough time and space to be devoted to collaborative work and direct instruction of small groups. This requires extensive communication between the teachers so that they both can support student learning not just in their area of expertise but in all core subjects.
We are excited about the opportunities that have been created for our students as a result of needing to be more intentional about teaming our teachers up. Working collaboratively with other teachers requires a lot of flexibility, patience, communication and openness. When the team gets past the initial growing pains and can move to a place where they start to gel, the energy that is created leads to increased engagement in learning – for both the students AND the adults.
I am looking forward to seeing how these three learning communities continue to explore the use of space, resources, flexible groupings and the powerful learning that comes from collaboration as the school year unfolds.