Collaboration, Assess It

We have studied the skill of collaboration. We have modeled it, mini-lessoned it, and planned lessons that required it. How do we know if the students are building their collaboration muscles?

With the help of EdLeader21 resources, we have designed proficiency scales for different grade levels with “I can” statements to help outline the learning progression of collaboration skills. The scale we use for third and fourth grade is below.

Grades 3-4 Collaborator Proficiency Scale

I can partner with different people
I am a member of a team.
I am a member of a team and can lead with teacher assistance.
I can lead or follow on a team and generate ideas to meet our goal.
I can move flexibly between leading and following in my group by listening to others’ ideas and providing feedback.
I can teach, coach, and lead by example
I can work independently alongside of a team.
I can work independently and complete tasks with my team. I can listen to contributions of others.
I can positively contribute and adjust to the needs of the team. I can appreciate different ideas and incorporate them into a task.
I can build trust with my team by positively contributing and adjusting to the needs of the team. I can encourage different ideas and incorporate them into a task.
I can accept feedback, implement decisions, and share the credit
I can listen to feedback from my teacher and/or classmates.
I can listen to feedback from both the teacher and my classmates and may consider revising my work
I can listen to classmates’  and teacher feedback and revise my work. I can offer helpful feedback in a respectful manner.
I can consistently show a willingness to change my ideas or opinions based on the information exchanged. I can ask for and accept feedback to improve my work. I can share the credit for group successes.

Creating the scales, of course, was a learning experience in and of itself. However, after the scales were created, we needed to figure out how to use them. Our team created and piloted a few tools to record and track progress. These took the forms of exit tickets, test questions, checklists, anecdotal records, and student-reflection questions.

Reflection questions may have included prompts like,

  • “Which of the Mount Vernon mindsets do you feel you exhibited strongly today?”
  • “Did any of the characters in today’s story (or history lesson) show strength in one of our mindsets?”
  • “Set a personal goal for yourself regarding a mindset you want to use today. At the end of class, reflect on your progress.”

At Mount Vernon, we believe that you assess the things you value. We value collaboration, creative thinking, and communication skills. We value ethical decision making, solution seeking, and innovating. So we are committed to tracking our learners’ progress in these areas. We still have a lot of work to do, and a next step that I am excited about is building some performance tasks at scaffolded levels for Mount Vernon Mindset practice and progress.


Collaboration, Teach It


Like many big words teachers use in elementary school, collaboration can be an abstract concept for little ones. One of our goals of the year at Mount Vernon, however, has been to help every child in Lower School develop stronger collaboration skills. In order to do that, we have broken collaboration down into three main areas.

  1. Diverse Partnerships
  2. Coaching Others
  3. Accepting Feedback

Diverse partnerships thrive when emphasis is placed on the classroom’s culture. The most important thing we do with our learners, is build a strong culture of community in our school. First of all, we start the day with prayer to focus on gratitude. Then we use mini-lessons and jingles to help little ones build collaboration skills. Our Kindergartner partners learn the Reader Workshop chant, “Elbow to elbow, knee to knee, book in the middle, so we both can see!” We sit in a circles and host class meetings; one of my favorite class meeting agendas is the compliment circle. It is priceless to hear first graders compliment someone for who they are or how they have treated someone else in the class. We encourage students to be out of their comfort zones by trying hard things, greeting new people, and celebrating differences that make them unique. To build an inclusive culture in second grade, each child created a new “Crayola” color this year to recognize and appreciate their own skin colors. We had some original color names like “tan sugar cookie,” “peachey latte,” and “double chocolate muffin chocolate chip.” A focus on culture and community takes intentional lesson planning and classroom time, but it is some of the most important work we do.

Coaching others is not easy. It is not easy for adults or children. Sometimes, we instruct children only to worry about themselves, and we suggest that being bossy is the “teacher’s job.” Other times we tell children they need to work it out on their own. I imagine it is hard to figure out when the wisdom of a seven year old is needed and when the child should defer to the teacher!

Some strategies we are using with our youngest learners are developing common language like, “Stop. That bugs me.” as well as, “I like…, I wish…, I wonder.”  In regards to social negotiations and building friendships, teachers are trying to stand back more and let students work through social situations and playtime. We schedule unstructured play time, observe and evaluate skill development to inform our next lesson. We introduce new objects for students to explore and games that will require some teamwork. The children can learn so much from each other, and redirecting a tattle tale to be a peer coach is an amazing accomplishment. Classwork is also designed with peer coaching opportunities. We use empathy interviews to improve our prototypes, and we have learned to show evidence of others’ suggestions into our iterated products. We often ask students what they changed in their story or design based on the feedback of a classmate. We help students see that often times our first idea is not our best idea, and different perspectives make our ideas better.

Finally, at Mount Vernon we believe that feedback is a gift. We focus on accepting feedback by really listening to the one giving it. Considering another’s ideas and then trying their ideas can be hard when you like your own idea. One of our brainstorming norms is going for volume. Good collaborations have lots of ideas, varied ideas, wild ideas. Strong collaborators make sure everyone has a part and gets credit for what they did, so we create credit slides and compliment our teammates. And, of course, as with any gift, when we receive feedback, we always say, “Thank you.”

Teaching collaboration takes intentional planning, both of the tasks required of the learners and of the mini-lessons or focus areas for infusion of the skills.

The Road to Collaboration


It’s 2018. Time to dust off the cobwebs and pull out the ole blog again.

In the last 10 years I have seen numerous articles on collaboration. I have read about how CEO’s need to see this skill more fully developed in their new hires. I have heard how collaboration is the new creativity, and I have read about how the value of diverse networks is needed to strengthen a team. I get it.

I am hesitant to believe, however, that I can add anything new of value to this conversation. As I review the literature, though, I find that little has been written to show us how to teach collaboration and how to measure it.

At Mount Vernon this year, all students are receiving evaluative feedback on the six dispositions of our Mount Vernon Mind, including collaboration. Specifically, the School has broken collaboration down into three focus ares:

  • Builds strong partnerships within a diverse team
  • Teaches, coaches, and leads other by example
  • Accepts feedback, implements decisions, and shares the credit

We are using a four-point scale to represent a student’s individual collaboration skill development:

  • LE: Lacks Evidence
  • AE: Approaching Expectations
  • ME: Meets Expectations
  • EE: Exceeds Expectations

I am excited about the journey that we are on, yes/and each step I take brings more questions. How often are we intentionally infusing mindsets into our lessons? How do we teach a child to coach a peer? What evidence shows strong partnerships exist? Additionally I wonder about how to measure collaboration skills. What do we expect 2 year old collaborations to look like, and how does this advance with age? What tools best capture evidence of collaboration? Who sets the standard? How does one’s collaboration style and skill level change based on variables like team, the topic at hand, or time of day?

The next two posts will share some of the strategies we have used to promote and measure progress on the skill and disposition of collaboration in the Lower School. I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas as well.

A Tough Conversation

Tough conversations are usually a sign of growing times. When a team needs to work through a difficult issue, it is important to follow our assume the best protocol. In an attempt to do that in a recent situation, I have a few great take-aways to share.

  1. We must celebrate successes first. Each person should be able to recognize strengths in the other and share those.
  2. Based on our own reflection and the feedback of others, we need to take ownership of our own growth – determine our own goals and hold ourselves accountable.
  3. We must be open to the feedback, even if we were not expecting it to go that way.

So I began a recent meeting by establishing the purpose:

  1. We want to be our best individually and as a team in accomplishing the mission and vision of our School.
  2. We want to show that we care for and respect each other as a valued member of the team.
  3. We want to agree on an outcome that requires change on everyone’s part.

So, we sought to sort through differences and identify what keeps us from doing our best. We shared stories or specific times, rather than blanket statements. We exchanged, “What I need from you is__________” statements.

This was a good reminder to all involved that the need to get things done does not equal a partnership, so we cannot value tasks over relationships.

Planning for a Class Again

It would be interesting to know how many hours of lesson plans I have created since I took my first education class as a junior in college. Through college and graduate school I wrote many lessons and received feedback from my professors. After graduation I began teaching third grade. Planning every minute (and many extra minutes in case the students caught on more quickly than I anticipated) from the 7:30-3:15 school day for 18 little boys was much more challenging than my hypothetical plans in college, and the feedback was much more immediate. Little boys will quickly let you know if something is too boring or too hard. But they will also let you know when they are having fun or when they “get it” for the first time. And that feedback is why I teach!

Since moving into administration five years ago, though, I don’t plan as many lessons. I have had the opportunity to design lots of professional learning experiences and collaborate with teachers on their lesson plans. But it has been many years since I have designed my own class for kids. I am excited to plan this experience for 10 students. I want to design with the end in mind and develop essential questions that these students will wrestle with. I am going to spend this weekend planning the big idea of a Ted Talks for Kids PlayMaker Class. But I can’t wait to meet my class and find out what their goals are for signing up. I am interested to learn about their passions and let those direct my plans.

Below is the opening communication I will share.

Dear Speakers,

Thanks for signing up for our PlayMaker Class! We are going to have a lot of fun this trimester.

f you can’t write a speech yet, do not worry. I bet you can write a list. If not a list, I bet you can write a word. If you have never given a speech before, get excited about the opportunities ahead. Wherever you are now, you are going to learn to say that word, list, or speech with power. Depending on what your goal is, we will create a plan and document progress along the way.

We will look for opportunities to share our final product with an audience. Hopefully this process will bring laughter because we will be silly. Yes, and after lots of practice we will entertain, inform, or inspire someone to make an impact.

We will act. We will memorize. We will write. We will practice, coach, and say thank you for the feedback. We will laugh. We will listen. We will take each communicator as far as he or she is ready to go.

Many are called, but few are chosen. Matthew 22:14

ReynosaGod’s timing is perfect. I don’t have time to read many books of choice during the school year, and I am not even sure where this book came from. But on the first day of fall break, I opened Jeff Goins’s The Art of Work, A Proven Path to discovering what You were Meant to do. The book opens with scripture from Matthew 22:14 Many are called, but few are chosen. Goins asks big questions like, “What would you do if you could do anything?” “What will you regret not doing?” and “What do you wish you spent more time on?”

In order to answer these questions Goins outlines seven common characteristics that reveal the theme in people’s lives.

  1. Awareness
  2. Apprenticeship
  3. Practice
  4. Discovery
  5. Profession
  6. Mastery
  7. Legacy

To know yourself, you must learn to listen to your life by being disciplined at awareness.

Most weeks I start the day with morning carpool, attending meetings with brilliant and passionate people, observing creative and dedicated teachers, sitting with curious and kind students, and meeting with engaged parents – all of whom want to talk about learning, achievement, and creativity. Most weeks, I could practice awareness and walk away with a consistent theme. This week, however, was different.

This week I was flying from my 1200 sq. ft. apartment in Buckhead where i live alone to Reynosa, Mexico. There I would be camping out in bunkrooms above a medical clinic in order to build two 12×20 ft. cinderblock homes for two Mexican families of five or more.

I learned a little before I went on this adventure. I learned that the Mexican sewage system can’t handle paper; so all toilet paper must be discarded in the trash cans. I learned that Mexico has different parasites in their water, so Americans get sick if we drink it. I learned that most families must choose between running water or electricity because they can’t afford both. How aware am I of my blessings?

When I arrived, I heard devotion after devotion of people sharing about how the Scriptures call us to serve, how hearts are changed, and how love is spread. How aware am I of the needs and the opportunities around us?

When I begin digging dirt and gravel to make cement in a hole in the ground, I learned more efficient ways to dig and scoop. Mexican women taught me to use primitive tools shape rebar into triangles that would support a roof. Mexican men taught me how to sling buckets up a homemade scaffold, and how to repurpose my trash to fill holes, scoop, and mix. I learned a few words and phrases from the children that wanted a biblia, a lámpara, balón, and dulces.

As “mud” from the cinderblocks fell of the sides of the house, it was my job to scoop the drops up and make sure no cement was wasted because we had no más. Did I know what I could learn from people with whom I don’t share the same language? Was I aware of how much I needed other people when tasks because hard and buckets grew heavy. Did I think I could share so many smiles, laughs, and hugs with people I will never see again?

The week was hard. Relatively. We were exhausted at night and sore the next morning. We could not easily refill our water bottles. Showers were cold; soap was scarce, and we were locked in our compound every night, not allowed to go out into the streets for fear of murder and kidnapping. Everyone in our group took a week off of work and had no access to Internet to catch up on things along the way. People missed their families, familiar food, and a weekend of SEC football. But for us, it was a week. 7 days. For our Mexican coworkers, this wasn’t a mission trip; this was life.

We prayed, ate, worshiped, and worked, hand in hand – Mexican. American. Mexican American. The people were clean though their city was trashed. The families were big though the houses were small. We built a home in a garbage dump, a squalor. We bathed in troughs just to keep the concrete from burning our skin. We sang in Spanish and in English, “This is the day that the Lord has made!” We held hands every time. Mexican. American. Mexican. American.

On the day of the house dedication, we praised the Lord that two more families would have a home. A safe place to raise their children, a roof over their heads, a door and two windows. They were so grateful. They were so joyful. We rejoiced and were glad in this, yes/and tears flowed and flowed.

The families killed their livestock and spent every peso they had to prepare us a meal of gratitude, a thanksgiving feast. They were so generous. They gave all they had.

The week was short. We worked a half-day on Friday to try to finish one more roof. We showered quickly, packed what was left of salvageable clothing, then headed back to the border. We drove five miles. Count those: one, two, three, four, five miles back across the border to the land of plenty. That drive was short. I needed more time to process all that I had seen, heard, smelled, touched, and tasted. I needed to reflect, to pray, to plan.

I don’t know yet how this will impact my life, but I know it has brought much perspective, awareness, and appreciation.

What would you do if you could do anything?” “What will you regret not doing?” and “What do you wish you spent more time doing?”

My Notbook, Part II

One of the many things I love about my job is the way I am pushed and challenged. A fun challenge of fall 2014 was to generate a list of “What if we were a school…”

My list:

  1. who replaced quarterly progress reports with real-time demonstrations of, reflections on, and feedback for learning?
  2. who did not have faculty meetings, only instructional rounds debriefs and professional learning?
  3. who replaced yearly reviews with FOLIO?
  4. who didn’t group students by the year they were born?
  5. who had an opt-in school within a school to practice innovation?
  6. whose “world language” was coding?

I hope to continue to add to this list.

My Notebook, Part I

I love notebooks. The old-fashioned, paper ones. With lines. When I get to the end of a notebook, though, it is like finishing a chapter of my life, so I like to read back through the pages to reflect on lessons I learned, remember thoughts and questions I had, and make sure every to-do list is checked off.

January is a good time to start a new notebook, so I will walk you through a little bit of the filled book before I shelf it. The first page was notes taken at a Christian Leadership Conference at Camp Seafarer from speaker (and now friend) Elizabeth Payne.

My notes:

“Be grateful for whoever comes because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.” Rumi.

Great leaders:

  • Make the most of your time
  • Choose to serve (collaborate, create, celebrate, empower, empathize, excel, cast vision)
  • Be the best version of yourselves
  • Bring passion
  • Act as a constant inquirer
  • Live on the edge of breakthrough

Great leaders have goals:

  • Do what you do best, every day
  • Unpack your suitcase of potential
  • Hold yourself accountable

If God has an idea that he needs to send to earth, he wraps a body around it. If it is a really big idea, he wraps many bodies around it. It is our job to get God’s ideas out and/or accomplished before our bodies leave this earth.

  • Choose to serve

How Full is your Bucket

Lately I have read several pieces of work by Tom Rath including How Full is your Bucket, Eat, Move, Pray, and Strengths Based Leadership.  Dr. Jacobsen, my current Head of School has often commented, “Small deposits have a cumulative effect.” to remind us to focus on getting the little things right and to be intentional in everything.

Tom Rath and Don Clifton’s research share this idea.  Do we want increased productivity, engagement, commitment, satisfaction, and safety among our employees and students? If so, then we need to spread positive, sincere encouragement in small doses. Nobel Prize-winning psychologists Daniel Kahneman tells us that we have approximately 20,000 individual moments each day. 20,000! Experts tell us that the magic ratio of positive interactions for every negative is 5:1. So, we all need to get busy making some positivity spread.

I plan to take this advice and do a few things differently. We will celebrate what makes each child and teacher unique rather than what makes them “fit in” and summons students to the office (and call home to report) to commend them for doing the right thing. We will focus on “filling buckets” through individualized, specific, and deserved feedback. We will also regularly evaluate our implementation of The Five Strategies:

  1. Prevent Bucket Dipping
  2. Shine a Light on What is Right
  3. Make Best Friends
  4. Give Unexpectedly
  5. Reverse the Golden Rule

Finally, we will ask each teacher before the school year begins how he or she likes his or her bucket filled.



Each one of us has a “bucket” that is emptied or filled based on each of the 20,000 encounters we experience each day. When our bucket is full, we feel productive, passionate, and excited. However, when our bucket is empty, we feel angry, down, and disconnected.  Fortunately, we are not powerless over full and empty buckets. We all also have a “dipper” which empowers us to fill (or empty) others’ buckets.  Here are some quotes from Tom Rath and Donald Clifton’s How Full is your Bucket? to remind us to start filling buckets and to surround ourselves with other bucket fillers:

  • The #1 reason people leave their jobs: They don’t feel appreciated.
  • Bad bosses could increase the risk of stroke by 33%.
  • A study found that negative employees can scare off every customer (or family, in our case) they speak with – for good.
  • 65% of Americans received no recognition in the workplace last year.
  • 9 out of 10 people say they are more productive when they’re around positive people.
  • Increasing positive emotions could lengthen life span by 10 years.

Next week, when the Lower School teachers return for Preplanning, we are going to do some bucket filling (literally) that may or may not involve races. We are also going to do some bucket filling (figuratively) to create a healthy work culture.