Collaboration between teacher educator and kindergarten teacher: a 4-year action research study to improve our own professional practices.
Parker Palmer (1998) states:
If we want to grow in our practice, we have two primary places to go: to the inner ground from which good teaching comes and to the community of fellow teachers from whom we can learn more about ourselves and our craft. (p. 141)
Professional Learning Community
While most classroom teaching activities (instructing, planning, and assessing) are done alone, working in "community" requires an extra effort, including time, space, and a commitment to coordinate with others (Dufour, 2004; Gilbert, 2005; Shank, 2005; Woodilla, Boscardin, & Dodds, 1997). Elementary educators often use before- or afterschool horizontal and vertical grade level planning meetings to share ideas. Collaboration also takes the form of team teaching in multiage classrooms, or when special educators and other specialists team up with the classroom teacher. In elementary teacher education, collaboration is found in the more formal triad of cooperating teacher, student teacher, and university supervisor. Another formal arrangement for collaboration is the professional development school (PDS)/university partnership (Hooks & Randolph, 2004).
Educators also can choose to work outside of these traditional structures and voluntarily create an alternative collaborative partnership solely for the purposes of improving their own practice. When this type of collaboration is formed between two educators from the two extremes of the education spectrum (e.g., kindergarten teacher and university professor), it brings a fresh component to the enterprise of improving practice. Each partner needs to differentiate for his or her own particular circumstance while helping the other to explore the "next step" for improvement that is specific to that person's own teaching level. Such informal or non-traditional collaborations can provide a new sense of empowerment to the partners just by the fact that it is equitable and voluntary. This helps to avoid some of the conflicts occasionally found in the more traditional collaborations between organizations (Bullough, Draper, Smith, & Birrell, 2004; Day, 1998).
Such voluntary alternative collaborations can fit specifically within the interests of highly reflective practice (Reagan, Case, & Brubacher, 2000), are in accordance with national standards for professional conduct and principles of behavior for new elementary educators, and have strong continuing applicability for educators at all levels (ACEI/NCATE elementary standards 5.2, 5.4, www.acei.org; INTASC principles 9 & 10, www.ccsso.org). Collaboration fits within the domain of action research when done with a pre-planned arrangement and using methodology for data collection that will inform future teaching (Fraenkel & Wallen, 2003). Johnson (2003) defines action research as "a systematic and orderly way for teachers to observe their practice ... also a type of inquiry that is preplanned, organized, and can be shared with others" (p. 1).
Background on the Teacher Educator and Kindergarten Teacher
In the summer of 2001, the first author, after many years of experience within early childhood and elementary education, accepted a position as an assistant professor of elementary teacher education. She was immediately involved in creating preservice methods courses to meet current national accreditation requirements. As a reflective practitioner, she was interested in being able to document how her new courses could be improved after each semester. At the same time, the second author accepted a new teaching position as a full-day kindergarten teacher in a newly opened magnet school that operated on Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences. Among his reasons for joining this new school was a desire to widen his teaching skills and to search for additional professional development opportunities at the education department of the nearby university (the new magnet school is on the campus of the university).
As coordinator of elementary education, the first author was able to spend several hours a week observing classes and teachers; she immediately decided that many of the magnet school teachers could be described as delightfully "enchanting teachers" (Richards, 2004). After a year spent developing a good working relationship, the two authors decided to engage in an action research project specifically related to their own teaching practices. They felt they had much to offer each other and agreed to establish certain times to meet and assess what each was doing in their respective roles, with the intention of using collaboration to improve their respective practices. Both considered themselves to be reflective practitioners, and so were philosophically and theoretically in sync and ready to engage in an ongoing project of practice improvement. The following details their action research, from their own point of view.
Steps in Our Collaborative Action Research Plan
1. Identifying the Research Question(s)
The primary focus for our action research centered upon improving our professional practice. After considered discussion, we agreed to the following specific questions: How can a teacher educator improve her practice of teaching introductory methods courses at the preservice level through collaboration with a kindergarten teacher? and How can a kindergarten teacher improve his practice of inquiry-based instruction at the kindergarten level through collaboration with a teacher educator?
2. Gathering the Necessary Information
We next needed to decide upon the methodology we would follow for data collection to document changes in our practice and demonstrate improvement. We agreed to: 1) hold detailed meetings regarding our respective content planning, prior to the beginning of each university semester and during each semester, as well as similar assessment meetings at the end of the semester, accompanied by detailed E-mail communications and journal entries; 2) take digital photos and/or videotapes of our classes involved in varied activities that would provide visual evidence of our practices in evolution; 3) continuously reflect and act on the feedback we received from our respective students (in response to open-ended questions in verbal and written formats) relating to the practices we employed, as well as from our respective teaching colleagues and the audiences with whom we shared our work at two ACEI conferences; and 4) have ongoing written and verbal feedback regarding our specific classroom instructional practice from each of our administrative supervisors (for the first author, the chair of the department; for the second author, the principal and superintendent).
3. Analyzing and Interpreting the Information
Each semester, we analyzed all of the information gathered in step two and determined how, or if, our teaching practices had improved based on the data obtained to that point. We also considered what we had learned from the data that could inform our future practice. We agreed that we could gauge our progress by reviewing: 1) journal and E-mail notations; 2) digital photos/videotapes; 3) feedback from students and other sources (colleagues and audiences); and 4) our respective supervisors. We decided that we could feel secure in proceeding with our action planning for the next semester if the majority of our data verified that our evolving practices had shown improvement.
4. Developing an Action Plan
Each semester, we would jointly discuss the next steps we would take to incorporate any modifications, based on our ongoing analyses of each of our programs, and we would share with each other our proposed instructional plans.
Highlights of Our Collaboration
The following is a summarized/condensed narration of some of the identified improvements/modifications in our practices.
Fall 2002/Spring 2003
First "Story": Why Does the Snow Get Dirty? Our collaboration was enhanced by the triadic relationship of sharing a teacher candidate, whereby the kindergarten teacher was the cooperating teacher and the teacher educator was the university supervisor. This gave the teacher educator the additional opportunity, by spending time in the classroom, to witness the evolution of the kindergarten teacher's practice from following traditional thematic units to venturing into a project-based inquiry approach (Helm & Katz, 2000; Maple, 2005). The following description is from the journal of the second author, which documents this evolution:
"We had a snowstorm in November that closed schools the Wednesday before our Thanksgiving break. When school reopened, my student teacher had started a thematic unit on 'Old Favorites'--nursery rhymes, Mother Goose, fairy tales. Jan Brett's version of The Mitten was certainly an appropriate choice to study as the snow continued to fall throughout most of December. However, rather than continue in the 'Old Favorites' theme, I switched gears and went into my winter/snow unit to take advantage of what was going on in the children's world around them ... we brainstormed lists of things we do in winter and snow, and we wrote about winter and snow. All the while, white, powdery snow continued to fall and turn brown in front of our eyes. Black paved parking lots were slowly turning into frozen sand-covered deserts. I knew why and how this was happening, but apparently the 5-year-olds in my class did not and, unbeknownst to me, they were beginning to think about it.
During vacation I worked on a teacher web on 'Snow.' I listed all the possible topics branching off from snow, wrote down the needed materials, decided where the curriculum goals fit in, and determined possible field trips. I spent the rest of my vacation planning and collecting more books on snow. I had it in my mind that my students would want to learn about snow and how it is made up of six-sided crystals. I also thought the children would want to learn more about snow sports. I contacted a local ski resort to see if I could arrange a field trip. I planned and organized lessons designed to build a common background of shared experiences for all the students in class. Finally, I looked for experiments that would involve making predictions and inferences. I was ready, I thought!
In January we returned to school.
I kept a running list of the children's comments and questions about the snow on chart paper.... What kept coming up revolved not around skiing or how many sides a snow crystal has, but rather how snow is slippery, how it turns to ice, why school is closed on snow days, why cars get stuck in the snow, why we shovel snow, how we get around when it snows, and why the snow turns so brown and gets so dirty. I realized I needed to refocus my efforts in response to the interests of the children. In other words, focus on snow removal, not snow crystals.
So I made another trip to the library and found Katy and the Big Snow. We read the story together and held more class discussions. The children made illustrations of plows. We began webbing all our ideas on snow to see how they related and fit together. The children were discovering that snow could be both fun and dangerous. Slowly, by answering some of our questions and asking others, sharing our experiences and insights from the experiments, we narrowed down our question to the final one; 'Why does the snow get dirty?' All of this discussion was driven by the children's interest, not the teacher's."
The teacher educator was delighted with this progression in the kindergarten teacher's practice and was able to specifically refer to his "story" as a wonderful example of project-based learning, which was actually one of the six models of instruction discussed in her preservice methods course. The reference to this very immediate example of how a teacher "evolved" in his planning and so was receptive to trying something new and different was a very fine teachable moment and added a measurable positive enrichment to the teacher educator's practice. It also allowed the teacher educator to reinforce the following previously taught key concepts to her preservice teacher candidates; she emphasizes the following concepts when providing professional development workshops for inservice teachers:
* Using the Wiggins and McTighe (1998) Backward Design Model is critical to optimal planning, because all units of study come from the mandatory state and local standards. These standards drive a project-based unit and all developmentally appropriate grade level planning is based upon them.
* The "Big Idea" and "Essential Questions" (Wiggins & McTighe, 1998), such as, Why is it important for the future of humanity for humans to be concerned with other living things in their environment?, could be seen as part of the Pre-K to 12 district-wide spiral curriculum; this kindergarten unit is an integral part of what students should know and be able to do by the time they graduate from the district.
* Project-based unit planning is a most economical way to plan, because you get the most "bang for your buck" in that multiple standards are addressed simultaneously in an integrated fashion and because the students are so engaged and motivated that they absorb the concepts more quickly. These units save planning time, because they can be built upon (as we did over the four years) and have an extended "shelf life," because they are never discarded (as some textbook pre-packaged thematic units often are).
* All good teaching requires being flexible and tweaking your plans based upon student outcomes (continuous assessment is essential); ongoing reflective planning is part of this process.
Second "Story": The Baby Lamb. Our collaboration during the next few months offered another exciting situation that expanded both of our practices even more. The kindergarten teacher received a lamb for his classroom, and decided to try another project-based inquiry unit. The lamb immediately imprinted on the kindergarten teacher and would follow him everywhere he went. As part of a lesson on using project-based learning, the teacher educator invited the kindergarten teacher and the lamb into the university preservice class. There, they engaged the preservice teacher candidates in brainstorming about the kinds of lessons that might come out of such an opportunity. The preservice candidates learned about everything the kindergarten children had done in the first few days of the inquiry unit, including learning to prepare the formula for the lamb. It was decided that the teacher candidates would join the kindergarten children in a joint activity relating to this new "lamb unit" of instruction.
After several collaborative discussions, the authors decided to have the two groups come together for an "expert" presentation of the spinning process, and about the products that can be produced from wool. Preservice candidates were paired with kindergarten children; together, they practiced a form of spinning called "drop spindling." The simultaneous co-teaching and facilitating greatly enriched our own teaching practices. We were able to visualize what a "spiral curriculum" means as we watched the kindergartners and the preservice candidates explore and discover, each at their own level, using the same content and topic of exploration.
Fall 2003/Spring 2004
Adapting to Change and Making Modifications. Our collaboration continues despite some changes. The kindergarten teacher returned to his home district and created a new "lamb unit" in his new setting (unfortunately, the original lamb had a genetic intestinal problem and died). He acquired two new lambs and has now partnered with a 3rd-grade enrichment class. (At his new location, it is no longer feasible to work with the preservice candidates.)
The teacher educator continued to relay the story of the snow unit to her preservice methods class as an example of a project-based inquiry approach. This time, instead of just telling the story, she showed slides taken during the original snow unit. Also, the kindergarten teacher visited the preservice class and shared what they had accomplished the previous year with the original lamb unit and how he had modified this project at his new setting. While it might have been preferable for the teacher candidates to have been directly involved in the lamb unit as before, we concluded that slide presentations and the ensuing discussions surrounding the necessary modifications in our practice provided a valuable teaching opportunity.
Sharing With a Wider Audience. We shared our collaborative action research at the 2004 and 2005 ACEI annual conferences (Kremenitzer & Myler, 2004, 2005). The audiences were delighted with the collaborative spirit of our presentation and their questions inspired us to consider how to improve our practices. This was very helpful in moving our collaboration ahead, as the teacher educator was planning for more ways to expand her practice and the kindergarten teacher was growing more and more comfortable with the project approach. We both also discussed our collaborative project with our colleagues in our respective institutions and shared their comments and suggestions. In addition, we acted on the ongoing feedback from our respective supervisors regarding the modifications in our practices. The methodology of gathering data, data analysis, and planning continued.
Fall 2004/Spring 2005
Assigning the "Lamb Unit." After one of our analysis sessions, the teacher educator decided to add a new twist to the usual collaborative group project assignment for her preservice methods class. Rather than have the teacher candidates choose their own integrative unit essential questions for their group project, she presented the original lamb scenario to them as follows: "Suppose you are in a full-day kindergarten and your principal offers you the opportunity to have a baby lamb in your classroom. How would you develop an integrative unit of study around this particular scenario?" This time, she asked the preservice candidates to create a unit that could be compared and contrasted with the kindergarten teacher's original unit. Each of the five groups of teacher candidates would work on a unit presentation that eventually would produce a variation on the original theme.
The kindergarten teacher attended these simulated presentations and shared his original and extended units through a slide show. Some of the concepts that the teacher candidate groups came up with added to the kindergarten teacher's repertoire, such as incorporating sign language. The preservice candidates overwhelmingly enjoyed this opportunity to make the connection between theory and practice. Just as important, the kindergarten teacher described how his unit of study was modified in his new setting, thereby demonstrating the need for flexibility in planning.
Assigning the "Snow Unit." The teacher educator was pleased that the process of having her class work on one of the kindergarten teacher's units was successful. Consequently, she discussed with the kindergarten teacher how she would have her spring semester class first learn about the "lamb unit" before they would present their group integrative unit project. This time, she assigned them a snow unit theme to work on, but would not present the original unit. Instead, she had the kindergarten teacher present his unit after the teacher candidates did their presentations. Again, based on feedback from the teacher candidates, having the lamb unit as a model was found to be helpful for planning the snow units.
Onto the "Ducks"! The kindergarten teacher then shared with the teacher candidates, as he had previously done with the teacher educator, that his next unit project would involve the incubation of 12 duck eggs. The next batch of teacher candidates would have their assignment! The teacher educator and the kindergarten teacher invited the candidates to present at a district-wide inservice kindergarten workshop about their collaboration, to serve as an example for other teachers considering more inquiry-based unit planning, as well as to encourage the concept of collaboration as a tool improving teaching practice. We both shared the specifics of what we each taught to our respective students, and also how we were able to improve our own teaching practices in the process and the systematic way we were able to document our progress. We believe we also were able to serve as good role models for demonstrating the creativity that can come out of collaboration (Jalongo, 2003; Kluth & Straut, 2003), as well as provide an antidote to the complacency that can occur from blindly following familiar practices (Doecke, 2004). We hope that others will consider forming voluntary alternative collaborations to improve practice.
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Janet Pickard Kremenitzer and Thomas Myler
Janet Pickard Kremenitzer is Assistant Professor, Elementary Education, University of Hartford, Connecticut. Thomas Myler is a kindergarten teacher, Newington Public Schools, Newington, Connecticut.