Collaborative Classroom Practices Build a Winning Combination of Trust, Accountability and Achievement

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By Oscar Corrigan, History Teacher, Health Sciences High and Middle College

Students benefit from hearing their classmates’ ideas. In my experience, they are more likely to be honest about what they do and don’t know, and to be engaged when discussing an assignment with peers compared to speaking with a teacher. My students are willing to struggle, and willing to fail because they feel comfortable in the classroom environment we’ve created, and they trust that we are going to grow together.

A collaborative classroom prioritizes building trust and accountability between students, educators and families. The benefits of collaboration are what drove my school, Health Sciences High & Middle College, to require teachers to plan for 50 percent of their classroom time to be spent on peer-to-peer learning and collaborative classroom practices.

There are several things teachers can do to help ensure that their students’ peer-to-peer interactions are productive, respectful and effective.

Step One: Establish classroom norms that hold students accountable for their own behavior

At our school, students have a voice in everything we do. At the beginning of the school year, students create classroom norms during a participatory discussion. During this process, I have students consider including participation in classroom discussions, working with their peers and listening to one another. After we’ve identified which norms we’ll be following for the year, a contract is drawn and all of the students sign it.

Involving students in the rule creation process can be a powerful motivator when creating a collaborative classroom environment. By giving students a voice, they become accountable to the rules they have created, and to one another. If one student breaks the rules, they affect the experience of the whole class. At the same time, teachers have to remember that students are learning— and use broken rules as teachable moments.

Step Two: Assess students’ reading level with a systematic approach that makes it easier to differentiate instruction

In order to create productive student groups and plan for effective collaborative classroom experiences, it’s imperative to have an accurate assessment of their reading ability. This, in turn, can be used to form student groups and selection of grade-level reading content that matches their reading level.

We use the Achieve3000 literacy platform because of the accuracy of its assessments, in Spanish or English, and the extensive library of differentiated content. With this, it’s easier to locate reading materials that match students’ reading ability and cover the standards-aligned subject matter.

Step Three: Build trust and confidence with balanced discussion groups

Once I’ve got my students ranked according to their reading level, I will create groups that include readers who are below, on-track and above-grade-level readers. But, in order to make sure that everyone feels comfortable participating, I assign students to sit in a seat next to a reader who is a little bit stronger than they are on one side, and another who isn’t as strong on the other side. This is where peer-to-peer learning truly shines.

With a strategic seating arrangement, students end up naturally helping each other, and you have a group that allows everyone to participate. Some of our students can be really down on themselves because they assume that they aren’t capable enough to read our course materials—we use a lot of primary source articles and it can be challenging—but what they come to understand is that reading is about practicing. The more you read, the better you get at it. When students are grouped according to their reading ability, they can see this progression more easily.

Step Four: Practice close reading before and after your small and whole group discussions

Prior to implementing a collaborative classroom approach, it was difficult to facilitate productive conversations between students because not all of the kids understood what they were reading. Now, I give all of my students a printed copy of the same article, tailored to their specific reading level. After reading on their own, we have a discussion and they all jump in to contribute because they have an understanding about what the topic is. Together, we determine the main idea, key details and clarify any external inferences that may be unfamiliar or confusing. After this exercise, students go back to reread the article and complete the rest of the lesson, answering text-dependent questions and using evidence from the text to support their opinions.

Step Five: Assess students’ work during and after the collaborative discussion period

One of the reasons I love small-group, collaborative student work is because of the insights I gain into my students’ learning and understanding. During class discussions, I roam the room and listen, keep a checklist about participation and engagement and support the conversation when needed. These impromptu conversations allow me to quickly assess students’ comprehension of what they have read.

After the discussion, students have to complete a writing assignment to evaluate what they learned. As the school year goes on, their writing becomes increasingly detailed, which is a great indicator that they are learning. When I show them a sample of their writing from the beginning of the school year, and we compare it to something they’ve completed recently, the students are further emboldened by their own progress.

Every classroom is unique, and this process will unfold differently based on grade level, subject, teaching style and students’ personalities. Following this five-step framework is an effective way to embrace peer-to-peer learning, drive achievement and build a collaborative classroom.

For more insights on implementing this type of framework in your classroom, check out this video of Oscar demonstrating his work with students in his social studies class.