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The Importance of Teacher Collaboration in Urban Education

Sep 17, 2012 | Comments (2)

The space for true collaboration amongst teachers is lacking in many of our Chicago schools. In some cases, leadership does not understand the value of finding the time and space for teachers to collaborate. In others, teachers do not see the benefit. As a result, teachers don’t learn from one another and develop their teaching expertise for the maximum benefit of students. Many children whose academic achievement could be furthered are instead, left behind.

My vision of successful urban education is one that builds upon the strengths of teachers and students. It is one that nurtures and educates all of our young people through the collaborative efforts of expert teachers.

Before joining the staff of the University of Chicago Charter School (UCCS), I had 15 years of experience teaching within other Chicago Public Schools (CPS). My experiences in CPS were all very different, some much better than others. I taught at schools in areas that were impoverished, crime ridden, and had little to no parent involvement. And though school may have been the only place of comfort and refuge for students, these students were not receiving the resources and strong teacher involvement they needed to succeed in college and life. On the other hand, I also worked at an effective neighborhood school that helped me develop my current educational philosophy: It takes a village.

With these contrasting experiences, I came to the University of Chicago Charter School. I knew that I wanted to replicate and expand upon the lessons learned from my positive teaching experiences. When I first began, the lack of collaboration between the four campuses of our school felt stifling. The campuses simply were not talking to each other enough. There was so much expertise and it was being closeted away in isolated buildings. My colleague, physics teacher Kafi Chase, shared my sentiment. Together, we decided to launch an experiment of sorts that would end up paying dividends for our students.

Though our vision of collaboration at UCCS was not where we hoped it would be, the school gave us the space to make it happen. From the beginning, the four campuses of the charter school believed in the value of innovation. Kafi and I saw that we could improve science at UCCS through innovative collaboration. We saw the immense capacity of science teachers across the network, and began to develop a vision for how to work together. In the fall of 2010, we approached Shayne Evans, then the director of the Woodlawn Campus. With his blessing, Kafi and I began to visit the North Kenwood/Oakland, Donoghue, and Carter G. Woodson campuses during our planning periods. We created strong relationships with the instructors. This developed into sharing ideas and concerns about how to best teach students science. We learned to work together to develop common practices, utilize the same curriculum across campuses and grade levels, and leverage resources that were effective in each of our classrooms. We began a small revolution of collaboration that expanded the following year when I was appointed Science Department Chair at the Woodlawn Campus.

As Chair, I decided to make cross-campus collaboration a central part of my mission. I was convinced by the synergy we had found the previous year and motivated by the potential for learning improvements that could follow from the work across campuses. Working closely with Rodney Bly, long time department chair at Carter G. Woodson, and supported by UEI’s Dr. Linda Wing, we created a shared curriculum map for grades K-12. Major success!

The momentum continued, when, with Dr. Wing’s assistance, the collaboration effort acquired additional private funding. This allowed us to attend professional development to strengthen our content knowledge, learn how to establish a professional learning community, and improve science resources for our students.

The UCCS Science Collaborative was born. And it has since illustrated clearly the benefits of collaboration across our campuses and of drawing upon the incredible expertise and talent that exists across our network of schools. As a result of our work, we now use the same text at both middle schools, share samples of student work, implement shared instructional practices, and evaluate one another’s lessons by making classroom visits.

Most importantly, these efforts are producing incredible results for our students. We have experienced a tremendous increase in all standardized science exams across the campuses. In 2010, ISAT scores varied over a range of 20 points between the different campuses, with three of our campuses with less than 70% of students meeting the standards. Now in 2012, the range in ISAT scores has narrowed considerably to 7.5 points and all campuses have more than 70% of students meeting the standards. Through our collaboration, we have closed gaps that existed within instructional focus, content delivery, resources, and alliances across the campuses.

In 2012-13, we will move into year three of this endeavor. I currently lead the collaborative with three invaluable co-chairs representing our other three campuses (Sarah Nowak, Jeanne Mills, and formerly Will Spotts). Our small revolution continues to gather steam and I am confident it will continue to improve outcomes for our students.

Today, the University of Chicago Charter School is a place that fully believes in the value of effective cross-collaboration amongst teachers. It’s a place where staff members learn, not only from one another, but also from other successful school models locally and nationally. It’s a place where finding the space and time for innovation is welcomed. A place where staff and students believe that success for urban students isn’t only possible, it is probable. It’s a place where I am proud to be affectionately called “the science lady” by students at all four campuses.

Is your school or network this kind of place? If not, why not create a mini-revolution of your own?

Posted in: Teachers & Leaders


Cynthia A. Banks said:

Hi Cokie, I am not at all surprised at your published piece. your energy and drive to deliver the best to students has always taken precedence over outside obstacles. Keep up the good work. Know that your hard work is making Common Core a much easier transition for your staff and students.

Kudos to you!

September 18, 2012 10:26 PM

Jimmie Julion said:

Mrs. Wright, I am also not surprised at your published article. You understand that teaching is art, which was developed over period of time. You have a gift to gather people together for one major goal. Your love for science and students is greatly appreciated. Please continue the great work!

September 19, 2012 9:52 AM

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