How Do You Collaborate From A Distance, In-Person?

While there are many things that my teaching partner, Paula, and I have grown to love about our classroom this year, we’ve noticed one particular problem that we’ve been trying to work around for a while now: collaborating face-to-face, but from a distance. For kindergarten students, especially at the beginning of the year, it’s not surprising to see them only wanting to create artwork, write stories, and make items to bring home with them. Children of this age are very “me-centred,” and while they love talking about what they’ve done and showing it to others in the classroom, they also want everything just for them. Over the past five years, Paula and I have often tried to begin collaborative projects early on, and with limited success. As soon as kids find out that this artwork is not going home with them, the interest wanes. By this point in the year though, most students have started to contribute to a collaborative piece or two, and they start to feel the joy that comes from making something for someone else. For being part of something that’s bigger than just us. This year though, with the understandably numerous COVID restrictions, even starting these projects has been a challenge. When children need to be at least a metre apart with their own materials, how do you work on something together?

I know that leveraging technology would be an obvious answer, but we actually don’t have a lot of tech in our classroom, and considering the age of our kids, we’re not looking to get more. Even if we did have multiple devices in the classroom, with most of our students still learning to read, there would be limited options for collaboration online. There’s also the issue of feedback with some video conferencing tools. We could get full classes to connect with other full classes using a tool such as MS Teams, but we want to be responsive to individual students and individual needs. We didn’t do a lot of full group instruction and collaboration even pre-COVID, so why would we start now? While we realize that in-person collaboration is limited at best, we wondered if there was a way to create something together, but with individual supplies. This is when our Tree of Life Project was born.

Since the beginning of September, we’ve been studying numerous artists in the classroom including Kandinsky, Picasso, Paul Klee, Yayoi Kusama, and Van Gogh. Kandinsky is one of the artists that children return to regularly. His concentric circles are popular with our kids, and with a focus on shapes and lines, all children have an entry point to his art. Paula and I found a beautiful picture of a Kandinsky-inspired tree, and we wondered if we could create something similar. This week was Bullying Awareness Week in our Board, so the tree could be a way to focus on kindness while also having an environmental focus, which connects to another area of passion for our kids.

On Thursday, we decided to get started. The idea was there, but things did not go exactly as planned.

When reflecting after school, Paula and I wondered if creating the tree would help. Then students could start to add their pictures and messages, and could envision the project coming together. We thought about one child that made a lot of detailed concentric circles on Thursday, and Paula invited her to make the tree on Friday morning.

This was key. Not only did the class see the tree, but Paula increased the excitement and interest the kids had in adding to it. Before long, we had almost everyone in the class eager to make a picture, add a saying, or talk about the growing Tree of Life.

We added this home extension with the hope that families might also contribute to this tree.

The tree might not be perfect. Children attached their artwork using both glue and tape. Some images are not completely cut out. A few might even be overlapping. But as you can see in the photographs and videos above, there was a ton of thought that went into each contribution, and the children owned the learning and the space. For the first time since September, a large number of kids contributed to something that wasn’t just for them. There’s something to be said for this.

The Tree Of Life as it looked before Paula and I left school on Friday evening.

Seeing the interest and the success in this “distance collaboration,” Paula and I have thought of another project for this upcoming week. It connects more with the environment and will also be used for some holiday messages. The Coronavirus has brought many changes to our classroom and school communities. Right now, I need to savour moments of “normal,” even if they might appear a little bit different than before.

What about you? How do your support distance, face-to-face collaboration? By sharing together, we could all learn something new.


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