More Than Collaboration

Out of all of the buzz words surrounding new learning, collaboration seems to be the most popular.  Organizations like People For Education, Canadian Education Association, C21 Canada often sound like broken records repeating the same message… “collaborate more”.  Many educators are listening, and slowly whole boards are putting forward massive initiatives to increase collaboration in their districts.

My board regards “interdependence” as the highest form of collaboration.  Educators are encouraged to look objectively at work (assignments that they have designed) to see if there is any way that they could be done by one group member.  If so, then maybe the collaboration can be tweaked and improved upon.

After what I’ve witnessed recently, I’d argue that there’s more to it than that. I’m thinking (more and more) that real collaborations should probably involve some level of relationship building.  Ideally, group members will grow more connected through the process of collaboration.  

Let me explain.

While working on massive science/comics unit in the fall, I met an amazing person.  Nicole Cajucom and I met in a comic shop near my school, One Million Comix.  As we talked, I gushed about the work that my class was doing.  Nicole graciously offered to help the young readers in my class with any questions that they might have about super heroes and “what makes them super”.  The students and I took her up on the offer.  As the project was ending she told me about a group that she works with called Kapisanan.  She asked me if she thought that my students would be into working with them.  She mentioned that another school in our board, Mary Ward, had worked with them in the past.  Kapisanan was interested in working with a downtown school, ideally one with a large Filipino population.  

I took some contact information from Nicole, and I did some research.  I emailed friends at Mary Ward, and I looked up what kind of things Kapisanan had been involved with in the past:

Everything looked good, so I told Nicole that we were interested in making something that would connect to our community here in Toronto.  Something that would show the beauty of our community in St James Town.

The Kapisanan team gathered and came up with a proposal.  They wanted to make a pabitin (a traditional birthday party game that is quite similar to a piñata) with my students; however, our pabitin would be made up of pieces of us.  Students would repurpose items that they brought in to class to show their true beauty.  Those items would hang together to represent our community.

The first day that Kapisanan volunteers came to work with us we all made freinds. Tim, Marie, Ryan, Kristina, Jessica and Nicole instantly became part of our community.  

The first step for building our pabitin was to reflect on our community and how special it is.  Students wrote their ideas on clear plates with permanent markers:


We used a projector to share the plates with each other:

imageAs each student came up to talk, volunteers would ask them about the things that they had written.  Each question was heartfelt.  Each time they asked it was because they wanted to get to know the students better.  They wanted to connect on a deeper, more relational level.

imageAfter students had really thought about their community and how they fit in, it was time to take their items and repurpose them into attractive toys that would hang from our balag (wooden frame).  

The simple became the extraordinary:


While they built, volunteers talked with students.  They really spent time with them.  They grew and cultivated their relationships with my students:


Once all of the items had been repurposed into toys, we gathered and talked through the choices students had made.  They discussed possible symbolism and connections to our community.  I may or may not have cried (embarrassingly) at one point.  To be fair, it was allergy season… there was all kinds of pollen in the air:


After hosting Kapisanan volunteers for two days at our school, we got to go visit them at their home in Kensington Market.  When we arrived, we were greeted by our old friend Nicole (she’s now a celebrity in my class) who gave us a tour and explained how we’ll be putting all of the pieces of our pabitin together:


Students attached plates first:


Then, with a little help from volunteers, they attached the toys that they had created:


Together, they hoisted the finished pabitin and with immense pride took a look at the work that they had produced together:


As we left, there were hugs, smiles, and so many laughs.  As students said individual goodbyes to each of the volunteers, I watched and smiled.  They were saying goodbye to friends.  Everyone at Kapisanan had been included into our community, and we became part of their community.  Our pabitin will be hanging at the Kapisanan gallery for the next week (June 13-22), which means that a little piece of us will stay there for that week.  When our items are returned to us, a piece of Kapisanan will stay with us forever.

Interdependence is a great way to look at collaboration.  It ensures participatory learning and actively engaging in work.  If, however, a relationship can somehow be cultivated in the process, then that’s still better.  Even if relationships are temporary, memories of those relationships will last longer than any collaboration.  Relationships create a deep imprint.  They change people forever.

These are the types of collaborations we should be shooting for whenever possible in education.

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