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Let’s Get Together Thursday – Cultivating Collaboration April 10, 2014

Posted by Brooke Ahrens in Check this out!.

A guest post by Eran DeSilva, Social Studies teacher at Notre Dame HS, San Jose and 2013 recipient of the Margot Stern Strom Innovation Grant from Facing History and Ourselves. Eran is passionate about infusing social justice themes into her instruction and integrating art to build student engagement and connections. 

DSC_0119As a peacock majestically walked by me and I heard a rooster crow on the farm, I was struck by the innovative results that collaboration with my fellow ninth grade teachers had yielded. As a teacher I ask students in my classroom to collaborate all the time — work together to solve problems, study in groups, create presentations with partners, and conduct small group discussions.  Collaboration helps to foster interpersonal, problem solving, and critical thinking skills.  In my development as a teacher, I have realized that the same collaboration I encourage my students to engage in is an invaluable tool for educators.  This collaborative approach helps to harness the collective potential of a group of diverse talents, disciplines, and experience to create an more meaningful and holistic education for students.  And my experience of teaching 176 freshmen on an urban farm can attest to this.

During an Innovative Boot Camp held last June, a group of educators from different parts of campus met for a 2 day workshop for us to consider how to best teach in the 21st century landscape in order to meet students of this millenium.  I was placed in a team of very diverse teachers, which included colleagues from the Modern Language, Science, Math and Counseling departments.  I was curious and eager to see how my Social Studies perspective would contribute to this diverse group.  Over the course of the two days our group developed an idea to have an experiential field trip to an urban farm that would be interdisciplinary in content.  It started as a pipe dream but evolved into reality with the help of many different hands.

A diverse team of educators created the logistics and curricular and co-curricular framework that would drive the field trip.  The Director of Community Service Learning Katie Kuszmar asked a local non-profit organization named Veggielution to host a visit and provide the students with volunteer farm work.   To further their understanding of the experiences of farm workers, the Modern Language department created a lesson on Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta who were advocates for migrant workers.  Tori Evashenk who is a Biology teacher worked with a Geometry teacher to develop STEM connections that connected to the food production and consumption.  I created a lesson from a geography perspective where students had to investigate the farm to see how physical and human geography had impacted the development of the farm and local community.  The English and Religious Studies departments provided space for reflection and contemplation from their respective disciplines.

Though we were diverse in specialization and talents, we all focused on the following essential questions:

How do individuals and communities make choices to support environmental sustainability and healthy development in the local community?  How do culture, language, science, technology and geography influence these decisions?

We each had workshops and assignments that allowed students to explore this topic in order to draw some conclusions.  The day ended with an alumni speaker, Laura Seaman (’03) who works at Stanford University as the Communications and External Relations Manager at Center on Food Security and the Environment.  She gave a thoughtful presentation on issues of food security, resource use, and population growth.  One project she discussed took place in Benin in West Africa.  A researcher on her team investigated the nutrition challenges a village faced due to climate change and rain patters.  Based on her research, she found that a solar powered water pump could provide water during the dry season to support the subsistence farming the community depended on.  Students saw how science and technology played an important role in the issues of hunger and justice.  And they saw how the same questions of environmental stewardship and community development are found on the other side of the world.

Rabab Karimjee summed up the day very thoughtfully.  “Pulling out weeds may not seem like a huge task, but when all of us contributed our time to help make the farming process easier, we played a part in the big picture. Veggielution sells the crops, including the ones we and other volunteers helped in, to farmer’s markets around the local area to lower income families. This is a step in the right direction for the world having more environmentally aware, healthy, and economically beneficial communities. Setting aside two days to help Veggielution made the freshman class realize this and that our small role helped contribute to the global community.”

DSC_0130Overall, the trip to the urban farm was a great experiential learning process for us educators as well as the students.  Not only did we learn how to navigate a classroom where chickens and geese roamed free, we witnessed the power of collaboration.  Together we pooled our collective knowledge and interests to create a really innovative teaching moment.  Personally I was able to work with members of our faculty that I do not have day-to-day contact which helped me to broaden my perspective and build relationships.  And throughout the day we modeled collaboration and teamwork for our students.


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