Learning By Design: Respectful Collaboration

This post is part of a 5 part series on our Learning Design Principles. To see the rest of the series click here.

Written by Jennifer Mattu, Guest Blogger.

“How do you get your sixth graders to work with and talk to one another like that” seems to be the question I have been answering the past few years. Our students do not come to us knowing how to talk to one another. Although we, as teachers, would be forever grateful if they did, respectful talk and collaboration doesn’t just happen. There is a tiered process that occurs to get our students to deep and meaningful talk and collaboration.

1. Respectful collaboration is a classroom expectation
I teach in a collaborative classroom environment. There are no desks and chairs; there are tables with four chairs at each and my students face one another. From day 1, they are in that cooperative-learning setting. It is my expectation that in my class, all students will learn how to respectfully talk and collaborate, and then implement those strategies for the remainder of the school year.

2. Mistakes and errors are expected and respected
If my goal is to have a respectful and collaborative classroom, I want my students to know that they are free to make mistakes. My classroom is a judge-free environment. As a group, when an error is made, it is my students’ job to engage in meaningful discussion to inspect the error and find the correct solution. In that time, the expectation is that while correcting the error, students are explaining to one another in detail both the error and the correct way to solve the problem.

3. Purposefully, teach them how to talk to each other
Like I mentioned above, my students don’t come to me with the capability to talk to each other about what they are learning. As the teacher or facilitator, it is our job to teach our students how we expect them to talk and interact with others in our classroom. I choose five communication structures each year that I feel are most important for my sixth graders to learn and master throughout the school year. I give each student a sheet of “Ms. Mattu’s Top 5” to affix at the beginning of their binder. The top five structures for my classroom next year are: Affirm, Disagree Respectfully, Elaborate, Question, and Hypothesize. Under each of the structures are three or four sentence frames and starters that act as a reference for my students.

4. Lead by example
From day one, I do mini lessons on respectful talk and collaboration. These lessons are five to ten minutes in length, but are extremely informative and powerful. I expect my students to have their “Ms. Mattu’s Top 5” out in front of them and I model exactly what I want to hear and see in their collaborative conversations. Next, I have students model for one another and the rest of the class. Although there is a bunch of scripted material and repetition within these mini lessons, this is how my students become successful at respectful talk and collaboration. My mini lessons occur every day for the first month of school and then periodically throughout the year as I feel needed.

Each year, although I secretly hope they do, I know my new students are going to arrive without the proper skills to talk, discuss, and collaborate effectively and respectfully. It is my job to expect, teach, and model for my students so they gain the necessary skills to be successful. When my students master “Ms. Mattu’s Top 5”, I know I’ve done my job.

About the Author: Jennifer Mattu a Pittsburgh native, living the past 13 years in Sarasota County, Florida. She earned her Bachelor’s Degree in elementary education from Slippery Rock University, Master’s Degree in Reading and Math from Walden University, and Ph.D in math from Walden University. She is currently in her 13th year with the School Board of Sarasota County as a math teacher, department chair, and lead teacher at Heron Creek Middle School. Her passion is teaching children, future teachers, and current teachers! Education is the most important thing any child can have, so her goal is to continue sharing her love, passion, and knowledge for it.