The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

Collaborating with Primary Teachers

I have had the wonderful opportunity to participate in the University of Illinois Chancellor’s Academy this week. Also attending were my building’s instructional coach and the first grade teacher I have collaborated with since I started teaching at Wiley. The first grade teacher and I were discussing plans for collaborating in the coming year and our instructional coach brought up an interesting question: why do we see so much collaborating between intermediate and primary grade teachers, grade-level teachers, but not as much between intermediate teachers. I had a few quick answers, but I’ve been thinking about it more and wanted to give a more thorough response. Hopefully others will find it worth considering, too.

The first reason that comes to mind is the opportunity for what is known as vertical collaboration. When looking at some of the major learning standards for fourth grade and first grade, we have discovered there are a lot of parallels. While first graders are learning basic skills, fourth graders take those skills to a more advanced level. For example, both grades need to be able to identify the main idea of a story, the key details such as character, setting, and plot, and both grades have to be able to write opinion pieces and conduct short research projects. How does this translate to our collaboration? It means that fourth graders can be partnered with younger students and help them complete these kind of assignments. In so doing, the first graders learn how to do a specific skill that they need to master and the fourth graders have a chance to review foundation principles before taking them to a higher level in their own work.

Another example of this vertical collaboration is in social studies and science. Not all of our units of study overlap, but many do. For example, first graders learn about who early European explorers were; fourth graders learn why they explored. First graders learn about the 13 colonies; fourth graders learn about why they were established and why they separated from England. First graders learn about how plants and animals use external parts to survive and grow; fourth graders learn how these external parts work with internal parts to function. There are far fewer opportunities for this kind of parallelism between fourth grade and third or fifth.

Another reason for fostering this kind of collaboration is novelty. For fourth graders, they are given the opportunity to be the experts and to teach younger kids. They get to see that the younger students look up to them, literally and figuratively. They get to spend time with a teacher that some of them had three years earlier and, other than occasionally passing in the hall, don’t get many chances to see and interact with. On the other hand, they see the intermediate teachers throughout the day every day. For the first graders, they get the chance to interact with the big kids; kids who were in the intermediate hall when they, the first graders, had just started school. They get to know their friends’ older siblings and the boys and girls who serve on the Safety Patrol, participate in Battle of the Books, and play in the big end-of-the-year kickball game. They get to interact with a teacher they don’t see otherwise. It is novel and it is exciting at the start of the year. By the end of the year, there is a sense of community and trust. The younger students know that they have a support network of older students and they know that the teachers from the older grades aren’t all that scary. (Even though I may be the only one they see, children are quite adept and transferring opinions of one adult or authority figure to others in similar roles.)

The first grade teacher and I have been collaborating for three years now. We were both hired at Wiley within weeks of each other and started collaborating as a means of providing support to one another as new teachers. We had been assigned to the same mentor, as well, so our collaborative projects gave a common point of discussion with our mentor and in district-provided professional development workshops for new teachers. These projects have allowed us to get to know one another’s professional practices quite well. Looking at the long-term, we know that the work she does with her class now will benefit the students when they come to me three years later. As I work with them in first grade, it sets a foundation for what they can expect of me when they get to fourth grade. My students who had her know her expectations and know what to expect of her, too, when we come to her room. We are able to share professional experiences, discuss the application of best practices at different grade levels, and better foster a sense of community within the school. We aren’t the only intermediate-primary pairing in the school. These combinations benefit the entire school as they benefit the individual students.

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