Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Time for the Self in Collaboration: A Story of the I in Us

Time for the Self in Collaboration: A Story of the I in Us

One of the largest questions teachers in a constructivist classroom grapple with is understanding the dynamic between independent inquiry and collaborative inquiry.  It extends the question at the heart of a democratic school, "What is the role and the responsibility of the individual in the group?"  to another level, "What is the dynamic that sustains the relationship between the individual and the group?"

 R and L work  side by side for many weeks  moving in and out of collaborative creation.  This is an observation of that dynamic.  

Stimulated by the class-wide exploration of sunflowers L. creates a 24 panel story of an epic battle in which a powerful sunflower-- through generation, regeneration  and colonizing --prevails over the evil intentions of a villainous human.  Then begins to represent the sunflowers in plasticine.

 Meanwhile R. works to replicate the green and brown of the sunflower stem and center by mixing various colors of plasticine with the goal of representing a sunflower.  Note the subtle green R. has succeeded in creating for the lower third of this construction.

When the teacher proposes the two combine forces to construct, what has become in their parlance, "colonies" of plants on the same island, they agree.  Here they are adding to their separate plans for a colony of corn and a colony of sunflowers on the island (cardboard) in front of them.

They go to Pippin's garden together to see the corn plants...

...and when they have created the sea to surround the island, they share their work in the classroom circle and then listen intently to observations and questions from their classmates about their representation. 

R: A colony of plants...
L: A colony of sunflowers and disintegrating sunflowers.
R: They are baby corns. The seeds fall down and they they make new plants
 L: A colony of plants is a lot of the same thing.
O:  Like a colony of people.

The questions and classroom circle focus them on creating water plants and creatures (inspiring others to move in the same direction) and for the first time, as they plan further elements of the sea, they spontaneously trade the pencil, drawing together on the same sheet of paper.  

R: I don't know if seeds can move on the wind.  Are kelp plants?
Teacher: Yes.
R: They won't drown because they live in the water.

 Now the work of their investigation which has been parallel labor seems like a consistent effort of co-labor.  The boys explore how seeds could have travelled to the island consulting with other children who are exploring seeds moving in the wind.  They test whether corn and sunflowers sink or float and when they have exhausted the exploration, they move on to create another challenging landscape for seeds--a gas planet.  But between and within each of these big project events both boys find their way back to their own drawing and construction, their own conversations with teachers and passers by and, presumably...their own thoughts. 

Observing the choreography of this relationship, the way the two boys, over the course of a month move in and out of spaces and ideas together, suggests an hypothesis on collaboration which would posit some children of this age need the their own time and space to develop the thought and wherewithal to feed the work of collaboration.  If this is true, HOW does having the time and space for one's own work feed co-labor? And HOW can teachers support this need?

And, through the lens of the school's 2012-13 Umbrella Project, an even larger question emerges that goes beyond the walls of the classroom--what drives the willingness to stay in relationship? Is it more than the desire for human connection?  Is it familiarity? Trust? Reciprocity-- that is, the value of another's support and/or inspiration? Does this suggest perhaps  a tacit question we each bring to relationship---"How can I keep connected but interested and inspired at the same time?"  


  1. What an illuminating post, Marty. Thank you for inspiring me and inspiring our students.

  2. This interplay of independent and collaborative work is a very interesting area to explore. The pictures of the boys together are amazing.