Collaboration is a Mindset, Heartset, and Skillset

What is authentic collaboration? 

Many schools and educators value and promote collaboration through various structures and processes. Schools carve out time for collaborative planning meetings, child study team meetings, grade level meetings, department meetings, faculty meetings, etc. All of these meetings are based around the idea that collaboration is important both for us as educators and for the good of ALL learners. That it’s a necessary component of successful schools. 

And yet, so much of that precious time that we are supposed to be collaborating, we aren’t. Not really. We follow structures, discuss issues, use protocols, talk about students, and on and on and on. But do we really allow ourselves to be as courageous and vulnerable as we need to be in order to collaborate authentically?

Collaboration is defined as “the action of working with someone to produce something.” But we think it is so much more than that. Real collaboration is rooted in vulnerability, trust, and a shared mission. It’s purposeful and meaningful. It requires a special mindset, heartset, and skillset. True and meaningful collaboration is a rare thing indeed.  

We were fortunate enough to experience the power of collaboration a few months ago when we decided to collaborate together on a Digital Storytelling unit for multilingual learners in grades 5 and 7 at the American Embassy School in New Delhi, India. Even though we were teachers in different sub-schools (Shafali in Elementary and Megan in Middle School), we were able to connect to do this cross-disciplinary project. It was actually good for us to be working with someone from a different background, as it allowed us to share our own unique perspectives on teaching and learning.

The Collaborative Mindset:

A collaborative mindset is anchored in openness and flexibility. We were inspired in our work by the article written by Andrea Honigsfeld and Jon Nordmeyer in Language Magazine entitled “The Yoga of Collaboration”. In that article, the authors state that collaboration, like yoga, requires union, intention, awareness, letting go, and flexibility. They write, flexibility in collaboration allows us to adjust and move together with a trusted colleague.” We loved this idea of moving together toward a shared goal and attempted to put it into practice in our own collaboration on the Digital Storytelling unit.

Our shared goal for the unit was to offer our multilingual learners a platform to express who they are, what matters to them, and foster learning communities across divisions. We accomplished this in our digital storytelling unit using a process based approach rooted in the foundational principles of writer’s workshop – mentor texts, modeling, and mini-lessons. We worked tandemly to create lessons, scaffold documents, and provide multiple opportunities for students to give each other feedback. By making transparent our own collaborative efforts to plan the unit, the students became more open to working with others and sharing their ideas across classrooms.

The Collaborative Heartset: 

If mindset is our frame of mind, simply put, heartset is a frame of heart. In collaborative partnerships, that means the beliefs, instincts and feelings of two or more people involved. Paying attention to those beliefs and instincts allows for creative freedom and unique ways of problem-solving. It also offers psychological and emotional safety in which we are willing to experiment with ideas that we may have either discarded in the past or judged as having no value.

When we first met to co-plan, in fact, in all our interactions, we were sincerely interested in getting to know each other, what matters to us in our practice and understand each other’s vision so that we could find a way to nurture each other’s ideas and build a shared path forward. We went slow to go far, and put relationships front and center. We used various ways to connect both informally and formally, such as Slack, Zoom, Padlet, Flipgrid, and in person meetings over coffee. What mattered was not how we connected, but the way we connected – from the heart, with open minds and curiosity.

The Collaborative Skillset:

Based on our experience, we think that for meaningful collaboration to happen we need a range of skills and abilities. These might include clear and kind communication, trust and respect for each other, willingness to try new things, a reflective mind and being able to give ourselves and others grace when things don’t go as planned. We also brought with us past experiences of failed and successful collaborations, and a shared working knowledge of Adaptive Schools’ 7 Norms of Collaboration: pausing, paraphrasing, posing questions, putting ideas on the table, providing data, paying attention to self and others, and presuming positive intentions.

Even though we were collaborating for the first time (and trying out Digital Storytelling for the first time), we regularly reached out to bounce ideas off each other. When we had different ideas, which is both natural and expected, we put our ideas on the table and let go, knowing and trusting that whichever direction we would take, we would not lose sight of our shared vision. Our comfort and willingness to try new things, be it with technology or instructional practices, eventually helped us grow as educators and model for our students that we are lifelong learners, and that we have as much to learn as to offer them and to each other.

Conclusion: The Power of Collaboration

During the aftermath of the acute phase of the COVID pandemic, many educators were feeling burned out and disillusioned. But not us. It was spring of 2022, yet we were inspired. While digital storytelling is a great platform for communication of ideas, thoughts and stories in multimodal ways, what proved most energizing was the mindset, heartset and skillset we brought to this collaboration. Collaboration between us and collaboration between our learners.

This all may seem daunting or even impossible at first, to some, but believe that a collaborative mindset, heartset and skillset can be cultivated…even with strangers as it did for us.

This article originally appeared in TIEOnline. For more information on how to get started with digital storytelling in your own classroom, we suggest you check out the fantastic resources curated by University of Houston here.

Megan Vosk teaches MYP Individuals & Societies at Vientiane International School. She is also the chair of the AMLE teacher-leader committee. She can be reached on Twitter @megan_vosk.

Shafali teaches grade 5 English as an Additional Language at the American Embassy School, New Delhi. She can be reached on Twitter @ShafaliShafali.