Tips and Tools to Encourage Classroom Collaboration

Students need opportunities to do more than just sit passively in the classroom. We need to create learning experiences where students can collaborate, problem solve, build their social-emotional learning skills, and go beyond simply learning the content. With the power of technology, we have more resources available to facilitate collaborations between students and teachers, whether in the same classroom and school or globally.

With Project Based Learning (PBL), one area that I’ve tried to focus on more in my teaching recently is peer collaboration, specifically how students collaborate with one another beyond the physical classroom space. My hope is to enable students to build critical skills for their future and while doing so, build their comfort and confidence in the classroom. Students benefit by working together in class because I believe it truly fosters a more positive classroom culture through the building of relationships.
Understanding that not everything can be accomplished during a class period, I made a shift to using more technology as a means to open up ways for students to communicate. We need to be purposeful in our use of technology, and for communication and global collaborations, this is where I believe it can be extraordinarily useful with a real sense of purpose.

Learning beyond the walls

I have used various tools including collaborative boards, messaging tools and learning management systems over the past few years. Over the  past year, I made a shift to tools such as Flipgrid and Synth, to connect my students with students from Argentina, Spain and Missouri, because I wanted them to have access to more authentic and meaningful ways to learn. These tools transform the how, when, and where students communicate and collaborate.

Our interactions are no longer confined to being in the same classroom, let alone the same school. We can quickly set up collaborations between students across the globe and can interact on a schedule that works for us. Students can now drive their learning and collaborate on their own terms. Time and place don’t matter as much as purpose and connectivity.

Thinking Bigger

I recall driving home one day and trying to come up with innovative ways to have students create with the language.

While I liked the idea of projects, I wanted students to do more than create a project based on the same topic. Entering my second year of project-based learning I wanted to take it to another level with my Spanish classes. After attending and presenting at EdmodoCon, I was amazed at the power of technology to connect educators from around the world and knew  that I needed to create these connections for the students in my classroom. I tried two ideas. First, I took a chance with designing a multi-level Spanish project. Each of my Spanish courses, levels I through IV were at a place where I thought it would be great for them to do a team project. I was not sure how or if it would work, but we know that students need  to see that it is okay to take risks with learning, to make mistakes, and experience failures. When doing PBL, we want students to face challenges, have opportunities to reflect and to plan again. I hoped that a project like this would connect students more and show them the power of technology for collaborating. I designed a cross-level, cross class team project where students would be independent and have choices in learning and then work together to create a product of learning.

How this team project worked

I started with an overall theme, similar to what you can do with PBL. In my case, I  looked at the vocabulary theme for each class and then designed a task. The topics, in order of Spanish  I to IV were: House and chores, Neighborhood and Community features, Planning a trip and travel, and Careers and planning for the future. Taking all of these themes into consideration, I decided that one student in Spanish IV would be the ‘Team leader,’ and their ‘mission’ would be finding a job and moving to a Spanish speaking country. They had to create a collaborative space, could be using Padlet or Google Slides or another format, and share it with the their ‘team.’ Team leaders had to write a list of requirements to their “Travel Agent,” “Community Specialist” and “Realtor” (students from Spanish I, II, and III) to let them know their travel needs and preferences for moving abroad. The team members would use this information to plan the travel, a tour of the new neighborhood, and find a house.

Challenges and Problem Solving

It was a challenge because the students had to work outside of class, and likely had no time to meet. However, I distributed the list of teams to students. I placed the list on the board and left a space for the team leaders to leave their notes.

There were problems at first as students were frustrated at not being able to “work together” in class if they were in different levels of Spanish. However, they figured out how to leverage the technology and to use the physical classroom space to interact, even when they were not in the same space together.

Communicating came down to using Google documents and the comments feature, or using the messaging app, or simply writing notes on the board. Ultimately, I wanted the students to practice the vocabulary in a more meaningful way, but I also wanted them to learn to work as a team, towards a common goal and without having to be in the same physical space or during the same time. This project gave students the chance to drive  their learning, to be creative, to problem solve, and to engage in a different type of learning.

Giving the students a choice in how they show what they know and can do with the material and being open to their ideas was crucial to the success of the project. When planning, keep in mind that even if things don’t turn out the way you had planned, if the objectives of the project are met (whether academic standard-based, soft-skill, or something else), then the project has to be considered successful.

Looking back and reflecting

Students enjoyed being able to learn with their classmates, and see the result of their collaborative work. When the project was ready, team leaders created a Padlet and the team members added their “proposals.” The team leader reviewed the “proposals” and then evaluated their team members’ work. Students had to accommodate the requests of the team leader and also work with the other members  of the team. It was worth taking a chance to do a project like this, because students had an uncommon learning experience. For many, it was the first time collaborating in a Google document, and also, for working on a group project, without having time to actually meet in person. Beyond the content, the students experienced what working in the “real world” is like for many, and besides knowing more vocabulary, they learned about different cultures, their peers, and the power of student-driven learning.


About the Author:

Rachelle Dene Poth has been teaching at Riverview High School in Pennsylvania for the past 21 years.  Rachelle currently teaches Spanish and a STEAM course What’s nExT? In Emerging Technology. Rachelle is an attorney and has a Master’s Degree in Instructional Technology. She was President-Elect of the Teacher Education Network and Communications Chair for the Mobile Learning Network and was selected as one of “20 to watch” by the NSBA and received the PAECT Outstanding Teacher of the Year for 2017. At ISTE 2017 San Antonio, Rachelle received the Presidential Silver Award for Volunteer Service to Education.  She is a regular blogger for Getting Smart and Kidblog.  Find Rachelle regularly on Twitter @Rdene915.



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