Before joining the Collaborative Classroom family, I spent over a decade in the “out of school” space, building one of the largest and most competitive high school debate programs in the country, and eventually, overseeing the largest K-12 district-wide implementation of competitive debate in the world. I share that background with no intention to brag (I had lots of assistance), but to establish credibility that I have ample experience with real learning that happens beyond the school bells, and more often than not, beyond the school walls. In the short time I have made a home at Collaborative Classroom, I have gained so much rich knowledge about best practices in literacy instruction, the science of reading, the magical transformations our programs catalyze in teachers and students, and more. But thanks to a few revelatory conversations with some very wise folks, I have also been able to connect important dots between my extracurricular expertise and our mission of simultaneously teaching students to read, write, and think while developing irreplaceable social and emotional skills. I have summarized a few of these “epiphanies” below, with the hope that they inspire others to think creatively about how we support our students outside of the traditional school day.
Discovery creates discovery
While working on a special collaboration between Collaborative Classroom and South Florida’s Museum of Discovery and Science, their CEO shared how important literacy is to their mission as a museum—or more importantly, a site of discovery. He explained that not only do children need to be able to read and comprehend to interact with the exhibits, but that the museum’s goal is for students to be so interested in their life-size model planes, immersive ecosystem experiences, or adorable river otters that they want to learn (i.e., read) more about them after they leave. As a former high school English teacher and debate coach, I didn’t find this to be a novel concept. If my students fell in love with Romeo and Juliet, they would usually be more inclined to read more Shakespeare. If my debaters won a debate tournament using a nuanced argument about food deserts, they would be more inclined to (a) read more about food deserts, but more importantly, (b) take action about food inequities in their community. Essentially, when we can pique our students’ interest about something, they are naturally more inquisitive about that something. This concept is key when we have conversations about selecting texts, writing prompts, and providing ample independent learning time to let our students explore. One of my favorite things about our Collaborative Classroom programs is just that: our texts and prompts are mirrors and windows to a world that reflects our students’ realities while providing space to discover new ones. Imagine a perfect world where this rich learning is also happening beyond school in a space where our students are not bound by grades, standardized tests, and a bell.
“How” beats “what” most of the time
In Peter Brunn’s Lesson Planning Handbook, he makes a great argument that how we teach matters as much as (or more than) what we teach. (I know this is on its face contradictory to my last epiphany, but hang with me here.) In the world of competitive debate, students rarely get to choose which topic they debate; topics are selected by larger national organizations or one entity hosting a given competition. Further, most events require students to be prepared to argue both sides of any given topic. Debate rounds are won by how students argue and not what side of the debate or topic they are required to debate. In a classroom, the same can be true. Pedagogically speaking, the quality of lessons, materials, content, etc. that we put in front of students definitely matters (especially when it comes to issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion). But, the quality of our teachers and how well they are trained to be facilitating said lessons, materials, content, etc. matters far more in the grand scheme of things. If you ask a room of people what book they read in school changed their life, many will have an answer—but if you ask them what teacher changed their life, everyone will have an answer. And often, the teacher who changed their life will be connected to the first answer about the book. I have quickly learned that the educative nature of Collaborative Classroom’s programs makes us really special. We know that it’s not just a binder or box of SIPPS flashcards that will increase student gains. It’s the confident teacher (or paraprofessional or YMCA volunteer) on the other side who is confident in the process and, by proxy, their students’ biggest cheerleader. Imagine a perfect world where this rich teaching is also happening beyond school in a space where our students are not bound by grades, standardized tests, and a bell.
Extracurriculars can be equalizers
I was in high school (not teaching it) when I learned that I could “catch up” with my peers by staying after school to practice. This is also not a revolutionary concept. If someone wants to get better at anything—from playing the flute to passing a football to reading or geometry—they should spend more time doing that thing. Frequently, we think about out of school “care” in terms of keeping our children occupied while Mom, Dad, or Grandma finish work. What we don’t think about enough is that often the students who are coming the earliest or staying the latest at school need the most help. What we do outside of school matters and something as simple as access to a high interest, low readability level (Hi/Lo) library could be the difference between Sara staring at her homework for an hour or making major learning gains, or as previously mentioned, discoveries. We frequently offer out-of-school activities or clubs for students to engage in unstructured learning about things that interest them, but perhaps the unstructured part is where we are getting it wrong. Students can lead their own book clubs, practice their writing, or even utilize SEL conversation starters and structures they learn during the day to have even more productive (and often equalizing) interactions after school. Imagine a perfect world where this rich collaboration is happening in a space where our students are not bound by grades, standardized tests, and a bell.
Collaborative Classroom’s programs have reached over 40,000 classrooms across the country in 2021 alone. This is not by accident. We know that our research-driven, educative, and engaging programs are loved by students and teachers alike. But just imagine with me for another second if those 40,000 classrooms could multiply to not only more classrooms, but libraries, community centers, museums, gyms, playgrounds, front porches, and/or dinner tables … the possibilities are endless. For as any great educator knows, a classroom is but a classroom until we acknowledge all of the other places learning resides.