We spent last Saturday enjoying the beauty of Colorado. We started the day with a 4 mile snowshoe through the mountains. The mountains are beautiful, but they do present a challenge. At least half the trip is uphill. At 10,000 feet, we were breathing heavily by the time we reached the summit. The view made the struggle worth it – but it definitely took stamina to complete the climb.
We next headed to Breckenridge to view the annual snow sculpting contest. Teams of artists were provided a 10 foot by 10 foot by 12 foot block of snow and given the opportunity to turn it into a piece of art. Although the warm sun was definitely effecting the sculptures, their beauty was inspiring. It was impressive to view what these artistic groups had accomplished together.
Driving home, I reflected on the two experiences. The snowshoe excursion was an example of stamina – the ability to do something even when it is hard. Although we had encouraged one another, it took a personal effort to put one snowshoe in front of the other. The sculptures were an inspiring example of collaboration. Working together, people had turned a simple block of snow into a beautiful piece of art.
There is a constant tension between stamina and collaboration in elementary classrooms. As teachers we realize the importance of students demonstrating their learning independently. Frequently asked to complete both classroom and standardized assessments, we desire our students to develop the confidence and skills needed to demonstrate what they know independently. We define the term stamina as the ability for a student to persevere through a difficult task.
However, many students desire to work with others. “Can we do this with a partner?” is a phrase frequently heard throughout elementary classrooms. When asked if there are any questions about a new learning engagement, this is often the first question that is asked.
At a recent staff meeting, we were involved in a discussion with teammates concerning math instruction. As we discussed the math learning in our classrooms, a fellow teacher remarked, “I can’t remember the last time my students did something entirely on their own. They complete everything together.” This comment led me to reflect on my own classroom practices. How much do I have my students work on together? How many opportunities do I provide for them to demonstrate their learning completely on their own?
I brought the question back to my students. At Morning Meeting, I posed the following questions to the children.
What are some positive attributes about working with others to complete a task?
What is negative about working in a group?
Do you prefer to have a group assigned to you or choose your own partner?
My goodness, they had many things to share!
Some positives included:
It’s more fun to work with a friend. It makes work feel less like work.
If I get stuck, friends can help me understand what I’m supposed to do.
I love to talk and I can talk with a partner!
Some negatives about working with a group:
When I work with a group, some people mess around and I get stuck doing all the work.
I get distracted when I work with other people. It’s really easy for me to be off task when other kids are around.
Sometimes members in my group aren’t prepared. I can’t learn anything new because I’m waiting for them to catch up.
After I work with a group, it can be hard for me to work alone.
I prefer to choose my own partner because I know who I can work with best.
Sometimes it’s hard when we have to choose our own partner. I don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings.
It stresses me out to have to choose a partner. I worry no one will work with me.
As I listened to the students’ responses, I was impressed with their honesty. The students were thoughtful as they reflected on their own learning. The question for me as a teacher was how to help both the students and myself strike the best balance.
As a teacher, it is often difficult for me to watch the students struggle. Encouraging students to work with a partner provides a struggling student with another explanation while helping other students solidify their thinking by explaining it to someone else. Collaboration plays a vital role in our learning. While collaboration is an important skill, we must remember that students can only go as far as what they have learned.
However, as educators, we know it is also imperative that students learn to work independently even when things are difficult – they need to build the ability to stick with a challenging task. It is unfair to suddenly ask students to work independently in an assessment situation if we have not provided them time to practice.
We are currently working on both stamina and collaboration in writing. We often brainstorm together, gathering ideas from one another. Using prompts, we determine both the topic and big/main ideas for planning. As we learn about different genres, the writing is a collaborative process. However, once skills are learned, the writing becomes more and more individual. While students are still sharing their drafts and learning from one another, the writing has moved to being independent.
The balance between building stamina and working collaboratively varies both by day and by student. As with all of teaching, this balance is a work in progress. I am looking forward to talking with my students as they reflect on this balance in our classroom.