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Collaboration/ Differentiation/ Co-Teaching. The Journey

Laurie Forrester Teacher Leader, Learning Support, Asociación Escuelas Lincoln, Buenos Aires, Argentina

As a Learning Support teacher, I am on a collaboration journey with my colleagues in general education.  Like any journey, some facets are constant and familiar, and others present interesting twists and turns including a variety of partners.  Recently, a colleague (partner on the journey)* and I attempted to answer some questions we had about our collaboration journey.

  1. What is collaboration?

  2. Why did we embark on this journey in the first place? Why collaborate?

  3. What positive changes did we make on the way?

  4. Did these changes positively impact learning?

  5. What was constant about the journey?

What is collaboration? My partner and I found many definitions of collaboration from research on the subject, articles and presentations.  To collaborate means to co-labor, or work together.  Our colleague, Yau Jau Ku defines collaboration in a broad sense as “building toward a desired outcome through the interactions and input of multiple people”.  Author Marilyn Friend, states that collaboration is “a style of direct interaction between at least two coequal parties voluntarily engaged in shared decision-making”.  The common thread that we found in theses definitions was that collaboration is a process that involves interdependence and sharing of perspectives and goals.

Why collaborate? In order to answer this question, we looked to the school’s mission, vision and core values to see if collaboration fit into the big picture and would help us live up to these ideals.  The Mission Statement at AEL includes focusing on “academic excellence and developing confident, ethical world citizens”.  Check.  One of the Teaching Principles of our school addresses this question more specifically, “Our teaching must be purposeful and supportive of collaboration and differentiation”.  Check.

My colleague and I believe that collaboration in our classroom can be described in the following way: It is a partnership/alliance where resources, teacher experience and expertise are not only shared, but empower learning.  Meeting students’ academic and social needs in a differentiated setting is the driving force behind our collaboration.  Observation, sharing of resources, evaluation, reflection and flexibility are key factors which benefit an entire class of individuals with varied talents, challenges and learning styles.

What positive changes did we make on the way? We started off as two teachers in a fifth grade math class.  I (Learning Support teacher) was assigned to the class because of identified student needs:  one student with academic goals in the area of math on the Individual Education Plan; a new student (English Language Learner, L1 Hebrew) with documented visual motor integration deficits.  There were other ELL’s, newcomers and students with learning different learning strengths and challenges.  It looked like this:

At the beginning of the school year, we typically had a math focus lesson followed by independent work time, which was spent in the following ways: Responding to individual needs One teacher/one student One teacher/small group of students Or One teacher/1-2 students One teacher/5-7 students 5-7 students working together collaboratively

After a professional development opportunity focusing on differentiation with Carol Ann Tomlinson, my partner and I decided to make some changes.  We  began to look at all students in the community of learners as we planned the math class together.  We continued classroom observations with the change of careful documentation.  We were inspired to use and document formative assessments in the form of entrance and exit tickets.

We used this documentation when reflecting and co-planning differentiated activities.  While planning, we used Tomlinson’s K-U-D model, looking at what students needed to know, understand and do.  We used the Universal Design for Learning as well in order to assure that we were offering a variety of ways for students to access content, engage in the process and show knowledge.  Previously, our meeting times were unscheduled and happened when we had an open time.  With the changes in reflection and planning, we found that we needed to schedule weekly planning time.  Grouping within this inclusive setting was dynamic.  Assignment to groups was organized by teachers at times, and at other times by student choice.  Student self-reflection took on an important role and helped in our co-planning.

Interestingly enough, we found that, depending on the lesson taught, we were using the co-teaching approaches set forth by Friend & Burswick (2009).

We found the approaches outlined by Honigsfeld and Dove (2010) to be valuable in our inclusive classroom.  We used the following models: One lead teacher, one teacher “Teaching on Purpose” (short focused mini lessons to individual students, pairs, or small groups) One teaches, one assesses (This gave us observation data for our co-reflecting and co-planning) One teacher pre teaches, one teacher teaches alternative information (depends on readiness level to a topic) One teacher re teaches, one teacher teaches alternative information (depending on formative assessment data) Multiple Groups: Two teachers monitor and teach

My partner and I used the Multiple Group approach as our weekly “Choice Day” developed over the course of the year.  Activities from different skill areas were grouped and presented.  Students chose the set individually and formed groups accordingly.  Teachers monitored and taught as needed.  “Choice Day” evolved into “Choose Your Challenge Day” and included content areas other than math.  One student, a loyal supporter of Choice Day, wrote a letter to the principal suggesting that it be implemented school-wide.

Did these changes positively impact learning? We monitored learning through formative and summative assessments by units and found that the majority of student were mastering objectives expected for all students.  When they did not meet an objective, we’re taught the skill and monitored progress.  We also had the MAP testing results given twice a year.  In the area of mathematics, most students were falling into the High Achievement/High Growth quadrant comparing Fall to Spring results for the same group of students.

What was constant about the journey? We kept this model of collaboration from a presentation by our colleague Barbara Noel, with students present in every step in the process, in mind throughout our journey:

The Journey Continues My colleague and I continue on our collaboration journey with new partners and new knowledge.  Our new partners support the school’s mission and vision and are committed to inclusive, differentiated teaching.  My previous partner has incorporated Choice Day to include all content areas and is co-teaching with the ELL specialist during the literacy block.  I co-teach in the area of math with two different teachers and literacy with one teacher and interesting twists and turns have occurred.  Documentation of formative and summative assessments and classroom observation continue. We both have scheduled time with partners to co-reflect and co-plan.  In one class my new partner and I use stations to implement re teaching, skill practice and skill extension.  In another class, we use two approaches from Honigsfeld and Dove in order to impact learning positively: One lead teacher and one teacher teaching “on purpose”; one teacher re teaches, one teacher teaches alternative information.

As we continue on our journey, the number of people travelling with us increases, making the trip rich, interesting and fun.

*My colleague: Gabriella Dobson, 5th grade teacher, Asociacion Escuelas Lincoln


Friend, M. (2008). Co-Teaching, A Simple Solution That Isn’t So Simple After All.

Honigsfeld, A. & Dove, M. (2010). Collaboration and Co-Teaching, Strategies for English Learners.

Murwaski, W. & Spencer, S. (2011). Collaborate, Communicate and Differentiate! How to Increase Student Learning in Today’s Diverse Schools.

National Center for Universal Design for Learning

Tomlinson, C. (2014). The Differentiated Classroom, Responding to the Needs of All Learners, 2nd Edition.


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