What can a law professor learn from a kindergarten teacher about supporting collaboration? A surprising amount, found out Teacher Scholar Brook Pessin-Whedbee when she presented the results of her inquiry project at our yearly Inquiry in Action Forum.
One evening in May, in a small classroom at Mills College, I sat among Bay Area educators sharing research from our year as Teacher Scholars. I had presented my work on how Kindergartners collaborate in strategic partnerships to write stories. Among the handful of listeners was a Berkeley law professor, who approached me afterwards: “This was eye-opening,” he shared, “Listening to you present has gotten me thinking about how my colleagues and I can do a better job with similar pedagogic inquiries with our own law students.” I was astonished. In eight years of teaching, the most common comment I hear from people when they learn that I teach Kindergarten is “How sweet. They are so cute.” And here was this law professor making connections between our students, hoping that his work teaching twenty six year olds to collaborate might be informed by the practices of my five year olds.
Writing Story Plays in Strategic Partnerships
In my classroom students work together to write Story Plays. In strategic partnerships, they plan a story, draw it, tell it, and then make revisions as it is acted out by their peers.
Children are natural storytellers, but most five year olds have very limited skills in writing mechanics. I created Story Play Time because I wanted my students to see themselves as authors, with rich and complex stories worth hearing and reading. I hoped that this process would support the development of their oral language and story writing skills. And, with the increasing focus on technology and individualized learning, I hoped that this process would support the complex skills involved in collaboration.
When my students wrote stories alone, I noticed that some children—like my focal student, Ana—just drew pictures of sun and rainbows, seemingly stuck and unable to imagine an original story, despite advanced literacy skills.
Others, particularly English Language Learners like Dani, had elaborate ideas, but little structure to organize them.I wondered what story might emerge if these two worked together. I hoped their strengths would complement each other’s challenge areas.
And so I began my inquiry this year, setting out to collect data that might help me understand the intricacies of the collaborative writing process.
While Ana and Dani were creating fierce crocodiles and powerful princesses together, I spent the year transcribing, coding and analyzing videos of their conversations during planning, drawing, and dictation.
The Collaborative Process: Confronting the Challenges
I wanted my students to produce structured narratives with a strong beginning, middle and end.
I wanted them to engage in a collaborative process in which they shared ideas and took turns, listened to and built off each other’s ideas.
When they first began working together, Ana would silently draw and Dani would dominate, talking over Ana, not listening to her ideas and, at times, not even allowing her to draw. When they ran into conflict or ran out of ideas, they would draw rainbows. I had hoped that Dani would inspire richer story content from Ana, instead, she was keeping her from talking at all. I regretted pairing them together. I considered giving them new partners. But, instead, I made some changes in my teaching.
We began talking explicitly about different ways partners work together. Some pairs, we discovered, liked to both draw at the same time, while others liked to take turns, one drawing while the other talked. Some pairs took turns dictating the story, one telling the beginning and the other the end, while other pairs dictated jointly, often finishing each other’s sentences. Before they set out to create their next story together, I had partners think about these examples and talk about how they planned to work together.
In addition to this explicit and detailed focus on how partners work together, my students’ collaborative process was strengthened by having multiple opportunities with the same partner. Dani and Ana’s partnership lasted over several months of Story Plays.
With each session, they grew more familiar with each other’s style, and rather than moving on to a new partner the next time, they had to develop a relationship, working through the challenges they faced. I, too, worked with them through these challenges, supporting them in their process, which I had grown to understood intimately from watching hours of video of them together.
Stronger Partnerships, Stronger Stories
By late November, the dynamic between Dani and Ana had shifted considerably. They were listening to each other talk, watching each other draw, and incorporating and building off of each other’s ideas. Dani would talk about a plan for a story and Ana would draw and add on to that plan. Dani would watch her ideas come to life in Ana’s drawing and then elaborate with more details. Ana, whose original story idea had been short and simple, would end with a long and detailed dictation that incorporated her own ideas as well as Dani’s, developed through the drawing and talking process.
As they learned to work more collaboratively, their story content grew stronger. Instead of just rainbows and disjointed series of events, there were elements of character, setting, problem and solution. They had a clearer plan from the start and stuck with it through drawing and final dictation, as the queen was eaten by crocodiles and brought back to life by the princess and her magic wand.
While there is still room for growth in their work, I am convinced that the narratives that emerge from this collaborative process are richer and more complex than those that come from any one child alone.
Through Story Plays—when students have opportunities to work with a partner, talk and draw together, then see their story play acted out—they are exploring and experimenting with what makes a good story and developing important oral language skills that are the foundation for reading and writing.
So how do we teach students to work together—to listen to each other, build off of and add on to one another’s ideas? How do we teach collaboration? Unlike Ana and Dani’s princess, I have no magic wand to wave over my students so they will join together and create rich and detailed Story Plays. But through collecting and analyzing authentic data from the students in my classroom, my teaching practice has deepened. From slowing down and zooming in on their process, I have learned to notice patterns in the partnerships and to adjust my teaching to facilitate more collaborative relationships. I have learned that it’s ok for partners to struggle, to stick with a difficult pairing and to do the hard work of learning how to work together.
It is complicated and difficult supporting children in the complexity of collaboration. But if they do not learn, now, at five, how to work together with others, they may find themselves, at twenty-six, struggling in a partnership in a law school classroom.
Brook Pessin-Whedbee is a Transitional Kindergarten teacher at Rosa Parks in Berkeley, California. She is currently in her third year with Mills Teacher Scholars and is continuing to look at how her students work together to develop oral and written language through the Story Play process.