3 ways to nurture collaborative learning spaces in middle and high school

I can honestly say that my first year as a teacher was my favorite, hands down.

I know many educators proclaim their first year was rough, filled with a lot of hard lessons and a steep learning curve. And while that was true for me, too, my first year also turned out to be the greatest experience I had as an educator.

I’m certain that has much to do with the fact that I chose to prioritize my students’ well-being over the content. If you come from an elementary background, that might not sound like a brave proclamation; it might sound like a given. But if you come from a secondary background, like I do, you know that content reigns supreme!

Content matters, but so do students

It’s almost laughable now, but before I began my first year as a tenth-grade ELA teacher, I was most concerned over the content. Did I know everything? What if I got a question I don’t know how to answer? Was I prepared enough to teach my subject?

To be fair, those were all valid questions, and I can also easily answer them for you: No, I did not know everything. Yes, I absolutely was asked questions I had no idea how to answer. Yes, I was prepared enough to teach ELA to a large group of fifteen- and sixteen-year-old teenagers. But hindsight is 20/20, and those were not the questions I should have been pondering quite as much as I did.

Fast forward to the third week of the school year. The honeymoon phase was over, and my teenage students were in testing-limits mode. If I made a request, it was usually met with disgruntled gazes. There was one student in particular who seemed to have a heightened interest in making my job as hard as it could be (or at least that’s how it seemed to me at first). If I could summarize her attitude in one word, it would be “resistance.” She was resistant to everything, and she made sure to let her classmates and I know.

Never underestimate the power of continuously cultivating a safe space.

The trouble with resistance is that it’s contagious, and it spreads fast. I saw more and more students disengaging and looking to this student for cues on how they should behave in my class. I was less than a month in, and I was emotionally drained.

After a particularly hard day with this student, I decided I needed to do something. I decided I needed to reach deep into my back pocket and pull out a “power card.” We all know what a power card is: it’s the “I am the authority figure, and you will listen to me because I said so” card.

I woke up the next morning ready to remind this student that I was the boss, and somewhere between leaving my house and arriving at school, I questioned this approach. I asked myself if this was really the teacher I wanted to be, and I remembered myself as a teenager. I was also a disengaged, sassy student. I asked myself what I had needed at that moment in time, and I immediately knew that it was not a teacher pulling a power card and waving it in my face.

I had needed to feel seen, heard, and cared for. I suddenly knew what I needed to do, and it was to see this student, validate this student, tell her the many strengths I saw in her, and ask if she was okay. As it turned out, she was dealing with some personal struggles and just needed someone to talk to. She and I developed a strong student–teacher relationship, and she went on to become one of the strongest positive leaders in my class.

It was that experience, and many other similar ones, that shaped me as a teacher and solidified the strong importance of creating nurturing learning environments that emphasize relationships and, in turn, foster collaboration. Here are three lessons I learned during my time in the classroom that can help you nurture collaborative learning environments, too.

1. Intentionally and continuously foster a safe learning environment

Most educators have heard about the value of cultivating a safe learning space, as it ensures that all perspectives are welcome, and it also teaches students to coexist. When building this safety, we must clearly define expectations, promote authenticity, and empower student voice.

One of my favorite ways for doing this was my ongoing “safe space” activity. This activity never really ended, and it spanned the whole school year. Students would get into groups and create posters that would list all the ideas and perspectives that were welcome in our class. Throughout the year, we would add to the initial lists as our ideas expanded and developed.

This activity was a fundamental step in clearly defining expectations around behavior and comments that are supportive versus behavior and comments that are hurtful. Additionally, the ongoing nature of the activity highlighted the importance of us collectively creating a safe space for everyone. Students felt a sense of ownership of the environment and a responsibility to maintain our class as a safe space for all.

I’ll never forget the one day in class when two students made comments that violated the safety of our learning space. Before I could even intervene and mitigate the situation, I witnessed several students step up and remind their classmates what was acceptable. These students then proceeded to check in on the student who was the recipient of some hurtful comments. I handled the situation later, of course, but I was pleased to see students immediately take the lead.

As a teacher, it feels borderline criminal to say, ‘I don’t know.’

This ongoing activity had additional benefits beyond establishing expectations. Students also grew to feel safe to show up as their authentic selves and voice their thoughts to their classmates. At the end of the year, one student even told me that our class helped them learn to love themselves for who they were and harness the power of their own voice.

Never underestimate the power of continuously cultivating a safe space.

2. Say “I don’t know,” and say it often

I will never forget the pressure I initially felt to know absolutely everything about absolutely everything. As a teacher, it feels borderline criminal to say, “I don’t know.” There is a constant low-level fear that we’ll be caught off guard and asked a question we can’t answer. Teachers should have a strong working knowledge of their subject matter, of course. But can teachers be walking encyclopedias? Definitely not.

One day in class during my first year of teaching, my students were doing background research for a group project and it happened: I got asked a question I didn’t have the answer to. My blood ran cold, my palms started to sweat, and I immediately decided that I would not live this way. Without reservation, I said, “I don’t know,” and smiled at my inquisitive student. The student tilted her head and looked at me, and before she could respond I encouraged her to find the answer and teach me and her classmates what she discovered. She immediately lit up and said, “Okay!”

For the remainder of that class period, this student would jump up and run over to me anytime she uncovered parts of the answer to her question. By the end of the class, she was seated on the floor next to my desk with her computer in her lap providing me with minute-to-minute updates on her research. Before the bell rang, she looked up and said, “You know, had you just told me the answer, I would have forgotten it in a matter of day, but now I’ll never forget it because I had the opportunity to teach you and my classmates.”

I wasn’t terribly familiar with the work of Paulo Freire at the time. He had a lot to say about students being treated as receptacles to be filled with their teacher’s knowledge (i.e., consumers of knowledge) versus producers of knowledge who are capable of teaching others. What I see now is that by saying “I don’t know,” I shifted the balance of power in my classroom. I humanized myself, and I normalized that we’re all engaged in a process of learning. My student felt empowered to be a producer of knowledge and uplifted to share her own knowledge and thoughts with her classmates. I said “I don’t know” pretty much every day after that.

This moment was not a stroke of genius but, rather, a personal form of rebellion against the notion that teachers must be walking encyclopedias. Still, the fact of the matter is that much research supports this practice (particularly the work of Paulo Freire as I noted above). By acknowledging our limitations and supporting inquiry, we foster student agency in a collaborative environment that nurtures kids’ curiosities through the framework of a curriculum. Student agency has many benefits, such as growth, achievement, classroom engagement, retention of material, metacognitive understanding of concepts, and fostering a growth mindset.

3. Use policies that prioritize our students’ well-being and uphold them as people first

Sometimes it’s easy to overlook the complexities students deal with in their lives. Very often we will not be privy to the challenges and obstacles they face, but we can support them by creating policies that allow for life to happen when it happens.

I’ll never forget my student who had clinical anxiety, and the pressure they placed on themselves to do everything perfectly. I noticed this pressure seemed to impede their ability to be present in class.

One day, this student came up to me and expressed how overwhelmed they felt with everything that was going on in their life. I listened to them, and I then asked if they wanted a 24-hour extension on an assignment. They looked at me as if I was trying to trick them, and I kind of laughed as I assured them that it’s okay to be flexible and make tweaks that prioritize our overall well-being.

Sometimes it’s easy to overlook the complexities students deal with in their lives.

My student took a deep breath, visibly relaxed, and thanked me. I got their assignment 24 hours later, and I had an idea: What if I extended this option to all students? What if I created a policy that allowed life to happen when it happens?

I requested that students proactively reach out when the complexities of the many moving parts of their lives conflicted with a due date. The result was that students felt seen, heard, and valued as people first. One student even wrote a letter that highlighted this policy and how it taught her the value of asking for support, instead of defaulting to feeling ashamed for needing help from time to time.

We live in a community, and our schools are extensions of our community. Our society teaches individuals to ask for help and support when they need it from a young age. Our classroom policies should reflect this and prioritize the well-being of our students as people first. Our best looks different from day to day, and when we create policies that incentivize our students to show up as they are, we create spaces that nurture our students’ development and foster collaboration.

Keep going

Nurturing collaborative learning environments is the foundation for creating a classroom where authentic learning can occur. They’re an excellent example of responsive teaching and learning practices, which are rooted in the unique needs of each student. We can strive to meet each student where they are as individuals while also fostering a learning environment that skyrockets collaboration.

When brainstorming how to further cultivate nurturing and collaborative learning environments at your school, it’s helpful to begin by discussing the following questions during your next meeting with colleagues:

  • What are we currently doing to continuously promote a safe learning environment for all students? What additional opportunities exist to further cultivate a safe learning environment?
  • What are we currently doing to promote authentic learning environments that allow students to show up as they are and make personal connections to the class material? What additional opportunities exist to dive deeper into this work?
  • What are we currently doing to empower the voices of students? Where are there additional opportunities to empower student voice?
  • What are we currently doing to empower students as producers of knowledge who can create knowledge and share it with others?  What opportunities exist to further empower students and promote student agency?
  • What classroom and school policies do we have that prioritize our students as people first? What additional policies could we consider?

To learn more about responsive teaching and learning, talk to your principal about our professional learning offerings.

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