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Escola Americana do Recife Cooperates!

Escola Americana do Recife Cooperates! By Luke Walbridge and Sara Wicht

Escola Americana do Recife started the second semester this year with a three-day workshop on cooperative learning. The director and school board had the wisdom to create three consecutive days of in-service time for faculty at the end of the holiday break and before classes recommenced as a means for further equipping EAR’s teachers with the best tools for student learning. The school contacted Sara Wicht, formerly an English teacher at another American school in Brazil, who had shown outstanding results with her students that she largely attributed to her use of cooperative learning techniques in her teaching practice, to share her tried and true practices with the faculty in Recife.

Initially impressed by anecdotal evidence of her credentials, she rapidly won the faculty’s hearts and minds as she weaved the techniques she was teaching into the training, literally practicing what she was preaching. First tackling the rationale for using cooperative learning techniques then moving on to specific examples of techniques for class building, team building, developing social skills, decision making, knowledge building, processing information and extending thinking skills.

It was clear throughout the three-day training that teachers were steadily connecting Wicht’s strategies and tools to their students, lessons plans and instructional practice. This continued to be apparent after the three-day event as well.

In classroom visitations following the January 2015 training with Wicht, a change in teaching practice has been evident at every grade level and in every subject area. Desks arranged in rows, formerly the standard model, are now a rare configuration across campus. Students have daily opportunities to share and reflect in small groups, participate in content rich conversations and regularly practice higher level thinking skills. Student engagement and academic rigor is on the rise at EAR!

Ms. Martha Viegas, high school English teacher and a senior member of the faculty with more than thirty years teaching experience at EAR reported the following about the impact of January’s training:

Implementing cooperative learning strategies in my English 12 class has made a world of difference.  Using traditional methods first semester had turned me into a policewoman taking off points for infractions, and unlike my work with any senior class of the past, my efforts to help unite the group fell flat. It seemed like magic to watch “shoulder and face partners” in heterogeneous groups discover common ground in “We Like” activity.  Team building through seemingly silly TPR mix pair share with gestures helped everyone understand our goals of positive interdependence, individual accountability, equal participation and simultaneous interaction.It is usually hard for seniors, who for the most part have already been accepted at universities, to remain motivated during the last semester of high school. Thank goodness strategies have boosted morale and re-energized the group. Only time will tell whether increased learning results from our new attitudes and activities, but the fact that a previously cliquish class collaboratively wrote, practiced and presented a play proves to me that cooperative learning strategies are worth the effort. An A student commented, “I am learning as much as I did before, only now I can share with my classmates and get a wider view of the subjects.” A very bright auditory learner shared that “… activities [make] all of us interact, even with people we don’t like” and that “The team effort has definitely opened the minds of me and many others to respect others with their opinions and come to an agreement.”  I am thankful that cooperative learning attitudes and strategies help the Class of 2015 end the school year in a learner-friendly, happier, more united way.

Another note of evidence, this one from kindergarten teacher, Ms. Maciel:

I have been teaching for almost 12 years and that cooperative learning professional development with Sara was, doubtless, the best I attended. Currently, I teach 5/6 year-old-kids in my Kindergarten group. So, I had to adapt some cooperative structures once my students are still learning how to read and write. But you know what? The structures I have been using so far have worked SO very nicely. The strategies work as a warm-up exercise, to develop social skills and class spirit building and as oral language practice.

As a self-described “control freak,” Ms. Maciel shared that letting [my] students play the active part of the activity has been the one challenge. Sometimes I caught myself interrupting or making some points in the middle of the activity with no need.

The best of CL is exactly making the students independent in their learning process. Once they realize they are an active part in the process, they get more engaged and interested. As a familiar saying goes, “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn“.

At EAR, we are involving our students and faculty. The professional development time EAR’s headmaster and board afforded the faculty before the beginning of the second semester, combined with an abundance of “use tomorrow” instructional strategies shared by Wicht created a learning environment that is rigorous, relevant and FUN! We recognize that we are at the beginning stages of a multi-year process to build the knowledge and understanding of cooperative learning techniques in our faculty, but what a great start!

Luke Walbridge MS Ed is the secondary principal at Escola Americana do Recife in Recife, Brasil. Sara Wicht, MaEd. is an independent contractor with over 20 years of experience in K-12 education, and she is currently the senior manager for teaching and learning with Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, headquartered in Montgomery, AL, USA.


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