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Polyphony: Collaboration vs Coordination in the Classroom (Part 3 of 5)

"Construction" designed by Diego Naive at the Noun Project
Anyone interested in what successful collaboration looks like in a classroom might visit Deerfield’s American Studies class.  The integrated course has been team-taught by veteran teachers Frank Henry (English) and Bernie Baker (History) for over thirteen years. It’s two teachers in the same classroom with the same students for two periods in a row. They prep every class together, grade every assignment together, and even write comments on papers together; every returned essay has ink from two different pens on it. “There is no economy of time,” says Henry. “It’s not a more efficient way of teaching. But, the cost is negligible compared to what we believe students are getting out of it.”  

The American Studies course began in the late ‘70s and had been taught by a string of other teachers. Frank Henry began teaching it when he arrived at Deerfield in 1982, and Baker joined when he came to Deerfield in the late ‘90s. In earlier iterations, the course had been two separate classes: a history class and an English class that shared the same students and coordinated their syllabi. They ran side-by-side, which enabled the teachers to plan related material. The decision to move to a single, team-taught class ushered in a new experience. “While a lot of the material might be the same,” Baker says, “the dynamic changes: the way we think about structuring the curriculum, the way we think about assessing kids, the way we’ve learned to pick up techniques, ideas, attitudes from each other. All of that is possible when you’re in the room together and you’re thinking about the same group of kids because you’re spending so much time talking about [the work].”
It isn’t easy, and they’ll share their disagreements. “Especially if you’re going to do it for the long haul,” says Baker, “the closest analogy is a marriage. You’re constantly finding ways to negotiate, accommodate, and see how together you can build something that’s significantly greater than what each person would put together by themselves.”

Henry frames their differences: “I’m a big fan of particularity, and Bernie wants them to see an arc.” But planning classes and assignments hasn’t meant simply finding time for both of these approaches, it has meant integrating them. Over time, Henry and Baker have found a shared intellectual space, a course trajectory that incorporates both of their visions. “It’s constant—and by design—built-in professional development,” says Baker.  The result has been new ways of understanding the material and new ways of teaching. “We have, over the years, slowly developed more coherence,” Baker says. And Henry adds, “That coherence, that consistency of approach... is also one of those compounding effects of two being more than two.”  They describe a course in which the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

This kind of collaboration in the classroom is spreading in other interdisciplinary capstones that are emerging in Deerfield’s curriculum. Different voices are working together not only to bring niche expertise to particular problems, but also to achieve a synthesis of understanding—and of teaching practice. True collaboration like this stimulates growth. It isn’t simply a group of people working in concert towards a common goal. It’s a collective broadening of thinking, an interchange of perspective, an arrival at an unknown place. 

Next: How Can We Imagine This in the Curriculum?


This is the third in a five part series about collaboration.

These posts appear together as an article in the Winter 2014 issue of Deerfield Magazine.
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