The New York City Lab School for Collaborative Studies
New York, NY
Ask Sheila Breslaw and Rob Menken—the directors of the New York City Lab School for Collaborative Studies—what their recipe for success is, and they'll tell you, "Everything is collaborative." During after-school meetings once or twice a week, staff members discuss issues of concern. They collaborate on decisions about school priorities and even decide which new teachers to hire—sometimes overriding the school directors' own preferences. In 90-minute weekly team meetings, smaller groups of teachers discuss their struggling students and create plans to help them succeed. They also engage in cross-curricular planning, sharing lessons and designing interdisciplinary projects to build bridges among content areas. For students, collaboration is not only an integral part of classroom work with peers but also a means of shaping the direction of the larger school community. In addition to student government, clubs, and sports teams, Lab School students have a voice on the School Leadership Team, alongside teachers and parents. According to Menken, "every class and meeting at the school is set up to encourage and facilitate collaboration."
While collaboration has always been a central principle of the Lab School philosophy, it also proved to be a key element in the school's recent improvement efforts. Menken and Breslaw founded the school in 1987 after a successful experience working with low-performing students in another New York City district. They were recruited by the District Two superintendent to create a school for gifted seventh- and eighth-grade students—a school using the same collaborative strategies for learning and leadership that they had developed at their previous school. Initially their small school was a success, but as it grew from a staff of seven to 40 teachers, the cohesion of the staff began to show strains. With the addition of new staff and the development of a high school, the school's vision was becoming blurry, and students were not being served well academically or emotionally. Breslaw and Menken decided to embark on a course of collaborative professional development activities to address these issues. (See the Design & Implementation section for a detailed description of these activities.)
With the help of outside facilitators funded by the district, the directors set out to create a "culture of excellence" at the Lab School. They wanted to raise teachers' self-awareness about their practices and help them to develop a regular means of refining these practices. They also wanted to create an environment where student voices were consistently valued and where high expectations for students were balanced with compassion; according to Menken, they sought to "fight against the tide of competitive edge" at the school and "make sure that no one's left in the dust."
Collaboration proved to be essential to meeting both of these goals. During a five-year professional development process, teachers examined their own work and the work of their colleagues. They scrutinized and critiqued curriculum plans and rubrics, observed each other's classrooms, identified qualities of excellence in teaching, and determined how to change their practices to better reflect these qualities. The staff also read and discussed texts such as James Stigler and James Hiebert's The Teaching Gap: Best Ideas from the World's Teachers for Improving Education in the Classroom and Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe's Understanding by Design, but their professional development process was informed largely by their own insights and experiences.
For example, during the second year of the process, the staff focused on answering the questions "What do we value?" and "Are we stating this clearly to students and assessing what we are saying?" To address these questions, teachers brought samples of assessment practices from their classrooms; examined these artifacts in collaborative groups; recorded the values they saw reflected in them; and chose "observation buddies" to visit each other's classrooms, where they noted which values were evident, collected student comments, and made other observations. They met at the end of the first semester to compare the values they noted in the classroom with the ones they had inferred from the samples of assessment practices. Each teacher was then asked to answer the question, "How might I better reflect what I value in my curriculum and assess it more congruently?"
Activities like these can be uncomfortable; to be effective, they require teachers to be straightforward with each other in pointing out shortcomings and inconsistencies. Even at the Lab School, where a collaborative environment already existed, Menken admits that in the first two years of the professional development initiative teachers were reluctant to speak critically to each other about their work. However, a "culture of brutal honesty" gradually took shape at the school, he says. "This sometimes leads to bruised egos, but it keeps the school alive."
According to Breslaw, this new culture of openness has improved teachers' self-awareness about their practice. In grade-team meetings, where teachers used to spend their time venting frustrations about student behavior, now the focus is on collaborative curriculum planning and strategies for approaching student problems. "The dialogue has shifted," Breslaw says, "from 'These kids are no good' to 'Let's plan curriculum' and 'How do you get so-and-so to do homework?' 'Maybe I should do that.'" Menken notes that the process of establishing norms for constructive criticism has changed the climate of the school and the willingness of teachers to discuss and change their practice. "Once teachers feel that dialogue is for the general good and not an attack, they're able to get away from that 'siege mentality' and take it as something that could be beneficial for them."
Today, the new patterns of communication and inquiry that were established during the professional development initiative are firmly rooted at the Lab School. In addition to observing each other's classes and providing regular feedback on what they see, teachers plan their courses collaboratively, interweaving themes and content to help students see connections and explore concepts from multiple perspectives. For example, 11th graders learn in history class about the social and political context of novels they're reading in English class, while topics raised in eighth-grade health class, such as peer pressure, are further explored through related reading and writing assignments in eighth-grade English. Some teachers further integrate their courses by reconfiguring into double periods and team teaching. Although weekly team meetings provide a regular venue for within-grade collaboration, Lab School teachers also share their curriculum plans across grades to ensure a more cohesive and coherent curriculum. According to one teacher, "If we are aware of what is happening in other grades, we can more effectively build on student knowledge to create more sophisticated strategies for students to use as they get older." These different forms of curricular collaboration have the added benefit of keeping teachers on their toes. As Breslaw points out, "It's hard to be a 'do-nothing' teacher when your curriculum is public."
Although curricular collaboration is now embedded in the Lab School culture, the curriculum itself—and the extra-curricular offerings—remain flexible enough to adapt to new student interests and needs. During the school's five-year professional development initiative, the staff surveyed students to determine their own priorities for improving the school. The response from students was clear: they wanted a more compassionate school environment and more varied course offerings. Through a combination of student and staff efforts, these goals are being met.
One upperclassman, concerned that seventh graders needed a stronger social support system at the school, developed a program with parents and teachers on the School Leadership Team to address this problem. The Peer Alliance and Leadership (PAL) program now selects and trains junior and senior peer leaders to lead weekly advisory meetings for seventh graders. At these meetings, the younger students can air their concerns and engage in a process of community-building through a series of lessons developed by the peer leaders and their faculty advisors. In another program initiated by Lab School students, eighth and ninth graders are grouped into small book clubs with teachers who share their taste in reading. Both of these programs—along with regular homeroom and advisory meetings—have helped to build a stronger sense of community at the school.
Another group of students was frustrated by the school's limited course offerings. Because of its relatively small faculty, the Lab School, like most small schools, had difficulty providing a wide variety of courses; students in each grade had identical or very similar schedules. However, through a joint student-faculty effort, the school managed to meet the demand for a new computer programming course and a number of new AP courses. A student revamped the scheduling system so that students in the same grade could choose among a few different classes, and a number of teachers volunteered to take on extra preps—and sometimes extra teaching periods—to ensure that student interests were met. This extraordinary faculty commitment has been critical to the school's success. "If our school went by the contract," Menken says, "it would be a disaster."
In addition to these major changes in the Lab School curriculum, teachers are constantly adapting existing courses, both to reflect current events and issues and to better fit their students' needs and interests. Students fill out surveys for each course they complete, giving feedback on what readings and assignments they found most meaningful or enlightening, what aspects of the course they struggled with and why, and what changes they might suggest. Teachers consider this input carefully when revising and updating their courses, and students can tell. "When we can take off in a direction that interests us," one Lab School student says, "it makes it easier to get excited about schoolwork."
Student interests are also at the heart of two Lab School graduation requirements: the junior internship and the senior thesis. The internship program, which was strengthened during the professional development initiative, allows juniors to spend two afternoons each week at a job site relevant to their career interests; internship sites, often provided by Lab School parents, have included a day care center, a hospital, an architectural firm, and a judge's office. Once a month these students also participate in a structured seminar to discuss the issues they encounter in the work world and to hone resume writing and interviewing skills. The senior thesis, another requirement for all Lab School students, can take a variety of forms. Past products have included a graphic novel about boxing, a full production of Edward Albee's American Dream, and an in-depth exploration of one of Shakespeare's villains. With the help of a faculty advisor and a class on writing and research skills, seniors develop a product that reflects what they've learned through their research but also expresses their own point of view. For students interested in in-depth exploration of a topic before their senior year, Lab School teachers have volunteered to supervise independent studies. The opportunities for students to shape their own learning experiences—in collaboration with a workplace supervisor or a faculty member—are numerous at the Lab School.
At the New York City Lab School for Collaborative Studies, the staff and the students have worked together to sharpen the school's vision, improve the quality of teaching and learning, and create an environment where student interests matter and student needs are met. The school's collaborative approach to learning, leadership, curriculum planning, and professional growth is the key to its success. "Collaboration is riskier, messier, and more time-consuming," says Menken, but in the end "it raises the bar for everyone."