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Building Trust in Collaborative Learning Groups

EducationWorld is committed to bringing educators the practical tools they need to make good decisions, engage in effective leadership and implement strategies that work. To further this commitment, we have formed a content partnership with Stenhouse Publishers. EducationWorld is pleased to feature a variety of book excerpts as part of this collaboration. Check back frequently as we feature additional excerpts from Stenhouse titles.

The following excerpt comes from From Literature Circles to Blogs: Activities for engaging professional learning communities, by Susan Church and Margaret Swain (Stenhouse Publishers, 2009). The book retails for $21 and is available on the Stenhouse Web site.

This excerpt offers 10 rapport-building activities to help ease the transition from the workday to collaborative group learning. See two more excerpts from this book: Co-Teaching Tips and Better Book Study Groups.

Even when schedules align and teachers are freed from their teaching responsibilities to focus on their own learning in collaborative groups, making the transition from the busy workday to a learning context can be challenging. Outlined below are a number of suggestions for opening sessions in order to facilitate this transition, as well as to build trust and rapport in the early stages of meeting together. Initially, the principal or a designated group leader will need to take responsibility for these transition activities. Once the group has become more self-directive, however, members can take turns fulfilling this leadership role.

Transition activities such as those described should be brief (no more than five minutes), and non-threatening. They are designed to bring all participants into a positive frame of mind for learning and they should be varied and adaptable to sustain novelty and interest

About Stenhouse Publishers

Stenhouse publishes professional development books and videos by teachers and for teachers. Their titles cover a range of content areas -- from literacy and mathematics to science, social studies, the arts, and environmental education -- as well as a variety of topics, including classroom management, assessment, and differentiation.

Word of the Day
Post a sheet of chart paper in the meeting area and write a word in the centre of the paper. The word can be related to a specific topic being explored (e.g., [it] book, comprehension, rubric, algorithm, spelling, and so on), connected more generally to student learning (e.g., [it] behavior, engagement, differentiation), or open-ended and non-specific (e.g., [it] why, flow, success, and so on). Provide markers and ask participants to write or draw a response to the word or to someone else’s response. Encourage the use of lines, arrows, and other graphics to show connections among words. Debrief quickly by reviewing what everyone has recorded.

Finish the Sentence
Prepare word strips with sentence starters and ask participants to complete each sentence and then post the strips around the room. The starters can be the same for everyone or there can be sets of different starters. Here are some examples:

The best thing about teaching is ________________________________ .

The worst thing about teaching is_______________________________ .

Today I feel_________________________________________________ .

This morning I laughed about ___________________________________ .

My students are _____________________________________________ .

I like to _____________________________________________________ .

I don’t like to ________________________________________________ .

Classroom Photo Montage
Take photos in classrooms and create a montage that demonstrates the many positive ways in which students are engaged in learning in the school. Invite participants to make comments on post-it notes. Give everyone an opportunity to read the comments and to talk about the photos.

Write a “Can-Do” About a Colleague
Record the names of all the participants in the professional learning community group on small slips of paper. Invite each person to draw the name of a colleague from a hat or a bag and then write and share a “can-do” (a list of three or four things that the person does well) about the person.

Surprise Packages
Occasionally, place a small wrapped gift (a pencil or pen, sticky notes with humorous illustrations or captions, a small plant, specialty tea bags, etc.) at each participant’s place at the meeting table. Have recipients guess what is in the package. As an alternative, create a grab-bag of small gifts from which participants can draw as they enter the session.

In an article published in 2009, Bunting describes how a school established a story hour for teachers—a time when they could come together and tell stories about their work. She writes about how the story hour evolved as teachers moved from entertainment and community building to sharing personal narratives that helped them make sense of their work. For these teachers, stories

…spoke about the cost of lost purpose, the power of reflection, and the rewards of taking responsibility for your destiny as a teacher. Stories intertwined thinking with feeling, purpose with action, and self-reliance with community.

Professional learning communities can adapt this approach as an ongoing introductory activity for individual sessions or as a way to establish trust and a sense of community when teachers first begin to work together. Participants can volunteer to be the storyteller of the day, and the session can start with a story. The invitation can be open-ended so that the storyteller can choose a topic. Alternatively, volunteers can be asked to tell a story related to the topic selected as the focus of the group’s current inquiry.

Practicing Mindfulness
Open the session with activities designed to divert the mind away from the distractions of a busy day through progressive relaxation, breathing exercises, visualization, or simple yoga stretches.

Have each participant bring in an artifact that represents something significant about them as a teacher. Artifacts can be found or hand-made. Examples might include a favorite song (recorded or performed by the participant); a poem or work of visual art (by another writer/artist or by the participant); an object; a book; a cartoon; a photograph; a plant or flower, and so on. Encourage creativity and a diverse range of representations.

Post a quote from a book or an article that the group is reading. Distribute small sheets of paper or file cards and ask each participant to respond briefly to the quote in writing. Have teachers share their responses with a partner.

“Ain’t It Awful!”
When school life has been particularly busy or stressful, it can be helpful to release pent-up emotions by allowing everyone a few minutes to vent about what has been difficult in their lives. These “ain’t it awful!” sessions are remarkably powerful in clearing the mind so that participants can make the transition into a productive work session with a more positive focus.


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