Setting the Table for Collaboration: A Tool to Deepen Teacher Collaboration

I had the pleasure and honor to attend the Pardes Center for Jewish Educators – Teaching Tanakh in Jewish Day Schools Conference on Nov 13-15, 2016 at Pearlstone Retreat Center

I was asked to facilitate a 3-part collaboration track for teachers of Tanach. Our goal was to explore how collaboration with colleagues could improve the teaching and learning of Tanach in Jewish day schools.

Our working definition of collaboration for these sessions was:

  1.  Deep, rich and ongoing back and forth exchange of ideas.
  2.  Generates new options.
  3. Includes the possibility that you will be changed by it.
  4. Takes place with other adult colleagues*

We explored three guiding questions:

  1. Why collaborate? With whom?
  2. How can you take your collaboration to the next level?  What will it take to create a shared culture within your institution to enable effective collaboration? Are there tools that can be helpful?
  3. What role can collaboration play in achieving your own professional goals once you leave the conference?

In preparing for the event I was inspired by an article I read in the Hayidion Fall, 2016 issue, devoted to the subject of collaboration.  The article titled “Dialogue Across Difference: The Power of Collaboration When Colleagues Disagree” by Lauren Applebaum and Sivan Zakai advocates for the benefits of collaboration between professionals who do not necessarily have shared perspectives.

Applebaum and Zakai use the metaphor of a mirror to describe the outcomes of collaboration with like-minded colleagues and a microscope to describe the outcomes of collaboration with diverse colleague. We are naturally drawn to colleagues who are like us.  Collaborating with a colleague with whom you share perspectives and values is both useful and important and provides a mirror to see your work more clearly.  For example, you may both be committed to supporting students’ development of textual skills and can share and compare assessments and student outcomes.

However, Applebaum and Zakai point out that there are many assumptions not tested and questions not asked when working with someone who mirrors your perspectives.  Collaborating with a colleague who does not share your beliefs and values is more challenging — which has both positive and negative implications.  For example, if you are collaborating with someone whose focus is helping students make personal meaning from Tanach, and your focus is the development of textual skills, it is more difficult at first to understand each other’s work.

Nonetheless, the challenge of being understood by someone who is different also encourages you to dig deeper, think harder and examine questions you might not otherwise consider.  The metaphor of a microscope points to the details that become visible and open for examination when you collaborate with someone who holds different assumptions.  Research shows that unlike pairs produce new thinking that is stronger, richer and more innovative.  In the case of teacher collaboration, the result of collaborating with more diverse colleagues can be the ability to successfully reach more diverse students.

I developed and then piloted this Setting the Table for Collaboration Tool at the Pardes Tanach Conference. The tool engages teachers in exploring assumptions about working with colleagues who have different perspectives. It could be used in schools at the beginning of a collaboration as part of a conversation about norms. Taking the time to discuss and agree upon norms can establish an environment and culture that is safe, respectful and welcoming to all perspectives. The result of fostering a rigorous and productive collaboration culture is sure to maximize the learning outcomes for teachers and students alike.

Please click here to download the Setting the Table for Collaboration Tool along with instructions for how to use it.  Find yourself a collaborative partner and give it a try. Feel free to share the experience and tools with others.

Read more about norm development from the National Staff Development Council.

I am grateful to the Pardes Center for Jewish Educators, authors of the article, Lauren Applebaum and Sivan Zakai, Prizmah‘s Hayedion, and Suri Jacknis of The Jewish Education Project.

*While there is much to say about collaboration with and between students, that was not the focus of this series of sessions.

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