Six Simple Steps to Successful Collaboration

I am the Lead Teacher for the Library Services Department for Omaha Public Schools (OPS) in Omaha, NE. We currently serve 86 buildings with about 100 school librarians, K-12. We are the largest school district in our state with a student population of almost 53,000 in grades Pre-K-12. OPS is a majority minority district, and has been since 2002-03, with 73% of students identifying a racial/ethnic group that is not white. In the 2016-17 school year, 74% of students qualified for free or reduced lunch services and 37.5% had received ESL services at some time in their educational career with 114 different languages being spoken at home.

As Lead Teacher, I work with school librarians through curriculum development within library services and also in collaboration with other curricular areas. Additionally, I help provide instructional coaching, along with our Supervisor of Library Services. I have also just completed my seventh year of teaching a course for the University of Nebraska at Omaha's Library Sciences program on the instructional role of a school librarian's job, in which collaboration is one of our main target areas.

Collaboration has been a focus for our district for the last few years, especially through the development of collaborative inquiry projects with our social studies and English language arts (ELA) curriculum at all grade levels. In addition to capitalizing on these opportunities, our school librarians collaborate in a multitude of ways with a wide variety of people and organizations. Do you have a goal of being more collaborative in the New Year? If so, consider these tips and examples of how collaboration can become an integral part of your school library program.

While the examples below are from my experience as a high school librarian, know that collaboration can happen at every grade level. It just may look and feel a little different. Elementary librarians on a fixed schedule can still support classroom curriculum by working lessons into their instruction that mirror or expand on the classroom experience. Secondary librarians, or librarians on a flex schedule, can schedule times when lessons can be co-taught by both the librarian and the classroom teacher.

1) Start Small

Accept that you may not be able to collaborate with 100% of the teachers in your building. Plus, you probably don't have time to actively collaborate at a high level with all of them. I have found that the best route to take is to begin with a small group of teachers with whom you know you will be successful. You may work with one of the 4th grade teachers or one of the biology teachers on a project instead of the entire grade level or department. From there, if all goes well, you have a concrete example in your building to share with teachers about what collaboration can do for them. And, you may not need to say anything at all. Word of mouth marketing can be one of your greatest advocacy tools. If a collaboration goes well, then word will spread about the amazing project you helped teach or the great resources you provided instruction on for someone's students. Teachers may then even approach you to see if they can get in on the action. (Seriously, this has happened to me.)

Example: The first few years as a school librarian, I only worked collaboratively with a handful of teachers. It can seem frustrating that you are not making quicker headway, but that can actually be a benefit. The first few years, I was still learning what it meant to be the school librarian. While I had been a classroom teacher before, everything changed slightly in my new role. It was almost like being a new teacher again. I first needed to get to know the building, my students, and my fellow teachers. My measurement of success was simply whether there was growth each year; so don't focus on who you have not worked with, but instead look at the strides you have made.

2) Begin with a Guaranteed Yes!

For those initial collaborative efforts to be successful, it is good to identify teachers you know you can work well with and who are willing to try something new and take some risks. New teachers are always great to approach, because they are generally appreciative of any support they are given. I recommend sharing specifically how you can collaborate and what resources in the library support instruction, you can approach new teachers individually or present at a new teacher meeting. This will lay the groundwork. Then, when the time is right, approach them again to see if they would like to work with you on a project or assignment. You can also seek out veteran teachers with standards or curricular requirements you know you can support. Choose the veterans you have already built relationships with or that you know have curricular requirements that you can support.

Example: When our astronomy teacher retired, a veteran science teacher took over his classes. She was new to the subject area, and I reached out to offer some of our print and digital library resources to supplement her curriculum. We had not collaborated yet, but we had already built a friendly relationship. That initial offer of resources led to a co-taught lesson on constellations. That lesson went well and led to us collaborating on a lesson for her Earth science students on natural disasters. I knew going in that we would be able to work together in some fashion, but I was so pleased it developed into a close working relationship.

3) Get to Know the Curriculum

Your initial conversations with teachers will benefit from you knowing the curricular topics your fellow teachers are covering. If your school or district has curriculum or pacing guides, ask to see them. This will give you a good idea of what should be covered and when. Start reviewing curricular areas or grade levels for the teachers you have identified as possible "guaranteed yes" partners. This will help you prepare for a conversation with the teacher about how you can best support them and their students. If your school or district does not have official curriculum or pacing guides, speak with those same teachers as frequently as you can and ask what their students are working on or what they have coming up in their classes. This will also give you a good idea of where you might fit into their plans.

Example: When we began discussions about a district-wide inquiry framework, we knew from the beginning that social studies and ELA at the secondary level were natural fits for guaranteed inquiry experiences. We knew this because we knew their curricular requirements. Both subject areas required research projects for each grade level, 7-12. The library services department worked closely with the secondary supervisors for social studies and ELA to create curriculum writing teams to revise the former research lessons to incorporate our district-selected inquiry framework. As former school librarians, we were aware of the research projects and therefore could speak knowledgeably about how a collaboration between the classroom teachers and school librarians would be of benefit to them and their students. This same type of curriculum development can happen no matter the size of your school or district.

4) Come Prepared with a Plan

You never want to create more work for the classroom teacher, and it sometimes just does not pay to ask a teacher, "How can I collaborate with you?" Instead, after you identify curricular areas you can support, approach the teacher with an idea. "I see in your pacing guide that you are studying explorers next quarter. We have quite a few digital and print resources on this topic. I also noticed one of your essential questions is _________. I would be happy to show your students how to locate information in our resources that would help them answer that question. Let me know when you will be covering this topic, and I will add it to my calendar." This type of interaction works both at the elementary and secondary level and for collaborating but teaching individually or truly co-teaching together.

Example: My first year as a high school librarian, I worked with our biology teachers on a biomes project. I taught the lesson based on the requests made to me by the teachers and provided instruction on the resources I felt would fit best. The second year, I wanted to see if any of the biology teachers would be interested in digging a little deeper with the project. I wrote up a lesson plan and presented it to several of them. I had only one taker the first year. It went really smoothly, and the second year, I added two more teachers to the mix. I firmly believe my initial conversation with the teacher who was willing to give it a shot would not have gone my way if I hadn't had a clear plan in mind when we spoke. We made changes to my plan based on her knowledge of the course, but we would never have been able to do that without a rough draft to work with in the first place. Also, I made sure to never imply the original lesson was bad, I just offered them the chance to try something a little different.

5) Be Open to Possibilities

Don't forget to work with people in your building that may not immediately spring to mind for collaboration. Seek out other specialists in art, music, and P.E., as they may be just as jazzed about collaborating with another teacher as you are and may not have the opportunity to do so with the classroom teachers. Others to seek out are your special education teachers, counselors, ELL teachers, or anyone who might benefit from some extra support with instruction. And don't forget those who might be in a fringe topic area that may not have much of an opportunity to collaborate with others.

Example: You never know the amazing projects you might be able to do if you don't give them a shot. I was approached by one of the art teachers about a special sculpture class being offered that year. The students wanted to design a plaster sculpture for the library. I jumped at the chance to work with the students. They came to me with a concept, they listened to my feedback, and they created a work of art we displayed for several years in our library. A few years later, I asked our sewing class teacher about creating pillow covers for the throw pillows on the couch in our library. The idea of not being able to wash the pillows got to me after a few years, so we brainstormed a way to make them easier to clean. My sewing skills are slim to none, but the basic square pattern was something beginning sewing students could use for real-life practice. All of this helped open my mind to the possibility of working with our graphic design teacher. We collaborated on a lesson where I became the client for his students. They selected books with less than attractive covers and redesigned them for us. I came in about half way through the process to give feedback on the designs as any client would do. At the end of the project, we printed out the new covers and placed them under the plastic covers in the library. The best of the best were kept as the new permanent book covers. "Winners" were determined by students submitting votes in the library. We even ended up having other teachers bring their classes in to vote on their favorites in subsequent years. No graphic design course in your school? Elementary students in your library? No problem. You can still do this lesson but instead of using design software, have them draw their book covers by hand.

6) Look Outside Your School Building

Collaboration does not have to happen with people located in your school building. Seek out opportunities to work with people who can provide something that people in your building cannot. Work with another school librarian at a different grade level, in a different building, or in a different district, or at the public library on a project. You should also look for people in the community you can bring into your library to share their expertise. Think university professors, business people, medical personnel, newscasters, veterans or those currently serving in the military, folks working in law enforcement or fire and rescue, culinary or floral artists, interior designers and architects, scientists, construction managers, historians, or whomever you think would add to the curricular knowledge for your students. Make their learning come alive. Seek out opportunities to virtually visit with someone in another city, state, or country. It could also be something as simple as inviting community members into your library to do read alouds with your students for a literacy day or week.

Examples: When I taught high school English, I collaborated with my school librarian on a project where my students researched a person they considered a hero. They wrote a traditional five-paragraph essay, but they also created children's books using the same information. This way, students learned how information is shared with multiple audiences. Instead of just turning in the books to me for a grade, we partnered with a nearby elementary school's librarian to have a special read aloud event with some of her students. Our high schoolers went to the elementary school and read their books out loud to small groups of elementary students. Years later, as a high school librarian, I worked with the same astronomy teacher mentioned above to do a similar assignment where their books focused on astronomy concepts like comets, galaxies, and gravity. I provided feedback to each group as if I was a book editor, so they could make changes before their final version. I even read them to my first-grade daughter and gave them her feedback. Just as before, the high school students visited the nearby elementary school and read their books to small groups of students. Watching the interactions they had with each other was the best part of the lesson for me. (And, just an FYI, these were two different high school and elementary school partnerships in two different parts of our city. Also, middle school and intermediate elementary students can do a similar lesson for younger grades. Or, you can choose an outside audience).

Bonus: One of our former elementary librarians ran a reader's theatre group in her school. Each year, her students would walk across the street to a retirement home and perform for the residents. This gave the students an audience outside of the school and brought some entertainment and enjoyment to members of their community.

Finally, remember tip #1. Start small. You don't have to do everything your first year or your second or third. If you try to do too much, you may end up spreading yourself too thin and become burned out or without the time to provide the level or service needed for successful collaboration. Do what you can manage. Also, seek out opportunities more than once with people. People may not be in the frame of mind to collaborate this quarter or this year, but they may change their mind in the future. This can especially be true if they hear about how you are supporting their colleagues. Don't give up on people, but also remember there is a fine line between persistence and annoyance. And, finally, be sure to celebrate and reflect on the collaboration. You and your partner have worked hard to create this learning experience for your students. Be sure to take the time to reflect on what went well and what you might want to revise for your next collaboration why it is fresh in your mind.

About the Author

Courtney Pentland, MEd, is a lead teacher and research librarian for library services for Omaha Public Schools in Omaha, NE, and an adjunct instructor in the library sciences program at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She earned her master’s in secondary education and master’s endorsement in K-12 library science from the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

MLA Citation Pentland, Courtney. "Six Simple Steps to Successful Collaboration." School Library Connection, January 2018, schoollibraryconnection.com/Home/Display/2134734.

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