Guest Post: Alchemy in the Midst of Chaos: Collaboration and Community in the Flipped Classroom

If you had walked into our rooms the first week of school, you would have seen chaos. Complete and utter chaos. Students lining up to take their picture on our laptops for a class directory. Students wandering around campus, taking pictures that define the way they view school. Students watching a video on their smartphone while writing responses in a Google Form. Students gathering around the extra classroom computer, entering their questions for Blank White Page. Students doing their chemistry homework, because they had finished a week’s worth of English in two days…but their chemistry homework was due next period.

You would have seen thirty separate learners, on thirty separate trajectories, but all pointing towards one learning goal.

Yes, our flipped classroom is chaotic. And yet it is a concerted chaos – one that is managed and structured and organiszed without any of those things taking precedence over the learning. Even though students are working on different tasks, they aren’t working in isolation. They form small groups, un-managed and independent, share resources, trade devices, and answer each other’s questions.

You could be forgiven for mistaking our classroom for independent study. And though the flipped classroom model we use allows for independent learning, there is a larger force at work, holding all the individuals together, unifying them, forging between them something that is stronger and more enduring than our classroom walls, or even the learning that happens within them.

And that force is the alchemy that neither of us, nor our students, truly understand: when a group of learners enter into a flipped classroom together, the individuals are transformed into a community in which the learning is self-paced, managed by the premise that you can work ahead, but you cannot get behind.

This alchemy can’t be achieved through independent study or group work. It must be created, intentionally, through a process of modelling collaboration and learning, and creating the environment where those two things can flourish. It must be created by teachers who are open to showing their own mess, making mistakes openly, and working in collaborative relationships to clean up the mess and find better ways through failure.

Being the “sage on the stage” isn’t going to do it. Neither can taking ideas from the other amazing teachers who have flipped their classes. There is no shortcut, no magic bullet, no I-Do, We-Do, You-Do that will turn a class based on group work into a class based on collaboration.

It is only after we experience for ourselves the transformation that is possible through collaboration that we can help foster that kind of collaborative relationship between our students. The kind of collaboration that changes both partners; one that gives you both a way out from under the isolation by which too many teachers (and teenagers for that matter) are crushed.

It is within that kind of collaborative partnership that alchemy can happen. And that alchemy cannot help but change our practice, and through that, the experience of our students. And while it happens around and through us, we can’t manage it, we can’t manufacture it, and we can’t maintain it.

The way we experience alchemy in our flipped classrooms, the one that takes disparate individuals and forges them into one community, is through collaboration – with each other, with our students, and by helping our students collaborate with one another.

But the essential question is: How do we get there? What has the transformational power to move individuals into community, into collaboration, and into friendship?

And the answer is not what we expected. We thought that by working together, dividing the load, being nice to each other, etc. we were collaborating.

Until we realised that collaboration lies not in what we do, but rather in who we are.

Three months ago, we were two individual teachers, trying our best to manage our careers and make up for our failings. We met by chance – both of us tagged on a tweet about making flipped English videos. So initially, we approached this partnership as group work. Each person would contribute half the ideas, do half the work, and take half the credit.

But we realised quickly that each of us doing half didn’t add up to enough. We were trying to turn relationship into a transaction, where we traded our own individual roles and responsibilities for what the other person had. We were approaching this like the group work we had assigned our students for years.

And it wasn’t good enough.

It had to radically change. We had to radically change.

We had to invest time and energy not only in the work, but also the friendship, because the work may have started the friendship, but the friendship is far more valuable.

We had to stop seeing ideas and products as coming from two people, and instead see them as a natural outpouring of our collaboration, and belonging to both of us and neither of us.

We had to stop trying to coerce the other person to walk down the path we were on, and navigate a new one, together.

We had to experience alchemy.

That we, as two separate individuals used to teaching in isolation, developed into a collaborative partnership that fundamentally changed who we are as teachers, but also as human beings.

That we would come to see that collaboration is not what we do, but who we are. That we can do this alone, but it’s never as good as what happens when we work together.

That we had to be transformed, and through our transformation, our classroom was also transformed.

For those reasons, after knowing each other for about five weeks, we decided to team-teach. Even though we both are at new schools. Even though we live 2,500 miles apart. Even though neither of us knows how to do this.

And like any alchemy, if you tried to break it down into a step-by-step process, you would lose the essence of what makes it work.

You would lose the alchemy that comes from two people, sharing the mess of their lives and careers, and helping each other build a collaborative community around the mindset and pillars of the flipped class. We don’t know how the alchemy was created, but we know that it’s worth fighting for. It stops the isolation from winning.

And perhaps what is more transformational about this alchemy is how it shows our students that who we are is more important than what we do. That what we learn is more important than the grade we receive. That collaboration will change the way we teach and the way we learn.

Now, can you be a good teacher without being collaborative? Sure.

But you cannot become a great flipped class teacher without collaboration. Collaboration is essential for flipped class teachers, because there is no way to do this alone.

The entire premise of the flipped classroom was built on the collaboration between two innovative teachers working together to figure out a better way to reach their students.

It took two people, working together, taking a risk on something untested, something that probably seemed crazy to everyone else.

At the core of the collaborative whirlwind is two friends, teaching, learning, collaborating.

And now, we are caught up in that same whirlwind. It’s exciting. It’s terrifying. It involves trusting that collaboration can be simple, but it’s not easy.

It takes commitment, it takes friendship, and it takes experiencing, but not accepting, failure.

It takes creating four versions of a blog post or a video to get the one we feel communicates what we wanted it to communicate.

It takes being willing to throw out the to-do list to attend to the needs of the other person, because the friendship is more important than the work, and in fact, friendship and collaboration must be inextricably linked.

It takes risking failure, but risking it together. Understanding that while there is magic in alchemy, for the process to take place at all you need to throw out a lot of rubbish first.

It takes a constant process of adapting and changing and growing.

And at all times, it takes commitment. Commitment to each other, commitment to the work, especially when the magic is nowhere in sight and there lies only an endless series of tasks ahead.

And finally, commitment to The Narrative upon which all else is built:

This – with all the mess and all the chaos and all the hard work – is better when we walk through it together. That all those things are what makes the alchemy possible. That it’s not just about what we believe or what we produce; it’s about how we live, how we teach, and who we are.

And therein is the most magical, powerful, transformational thing: We are Not Done Yet.

Both Andrew Thomasson and Cheryl Morris teach English at the high school level. Andrew is a 10th grade teacher at Forestview High School near Charlotte, North Carolina, and blogs at www.concertedchaos.com (on Twitter – @thomasson_engl). Cheryl teaches 11th and 12th grade at Redwood High School in Marin, California, and blogs at www.morrisflipsenglish.com (on Twitter – @guster4lovers). They operate a website for their students at www.tmiclass.com and can be reached through their joint email at tmi@tmiclass.com. More information on how they are team-teaching from across the country can be found at their blogs and www.tmiclass.com, and their instructional writing/reading videos are on YouTube.

Note: there are many things that we agree on, but one point of disagreement is spelling. Cheryl spells things the British way. Andrew spells things the right (i.e. American) way. So we collaborate and use a hybrid of the two, ergo, the odd spellings.

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