Relationship Building

Exploring Collaboration Through Writing (Ep. 221)

In today’s episode, Candido reconnects with his high school English teacher for a fun conversation about creativity and collaboration. Listen as they discuss the benefits of collaboration, why students feel welcome in the art room, and how teachers can create the space students need to explore and develop their creative skills.  Full episode transcript below.

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Candido: All throughout my childhood and educational experience as a student, I was afforded amazing memories like in fifth grade, I painted my first mural. It was a Sonic the Hedgehog and Tails, “Be cool, stay in school,” piece right across from the cafeteria entrance. In ninth grade, I recorded my first paper puppet animation along with two of my best friends in our cartooning and animation class. And in 11th grade English honors, along with the fourth-grade class, we created a picture book. That was under the supervision of my brilliant teacher, Mrs. Judi Weissman. I recently reconnected with her on Facebook and thought we should share our experience of the project and explore the power of collaboration in education. So join us.

This is Everyday Art Room and I’m your host, Candido Crespo.

All right, Judi, I’m going to call you that for this conversation, but just know that I’m still not as comfortable as can be with that and to me, you forever be-

Judi: It’s fine.

Candido: … Mrs. Weissman.

Judi: I understand.

Candido: So while I know you as my incredible 11th grade English teacher, what should listeners know about you? Can you share a little bit about your career and what you’re currently doing?

Judi: I would love to. I think that in everything in my life, teaching has defined me the most consistently. Other things in my life could have gone badly, but teaching was great day after day, year after year. And I taught high school English for 34 years in Brentwood High School. Great place to teach students like Candido, then I started teaching college at Stony Brook University, and now I opened up a professional development institute. So now I’m actually teaching teachers, which is just a joy and I have opportunities here. I live in Florida for the winter, that’s new and in New York for the summer and fall, and I really feel like teaching has been, I think, the key blessing in my life. There’s my husband, there’s some family, but teaching has brought me endless joy and accolades, fortunately.

Candido: Before we move on, I’m wondering, why did you feel it was important to continue teaching teachers?

Judi: I feel like that’s the opportunity to give back. I had a really wonderful career and I was fortunate to have incredible mentors. When I started teaching, my department chairperson was mother earth. So many people had awful starts with department people. She was just incredible and she nurtured me and I did nothing wrong. She encouraged me. She did guide me, but with gentleness and love. So through the years, it’s funny, I never wanted a student teacher. And then in my second to last year, the superintendent announced that I would have a student teacher, whether I wanted to or not, because I’d always felt like I don’t want to sit in the back of the room. I don’t want that. I lucked out. I got an incredible student teacher and she’s now a teacher in Brentwood High School, and that’s what motivated me to work with teachers to be able to share my knowledge. I get such incredible feedback from the teachers in my classes, and that’s what’s nice. I still get the feel-goods of teaching.

Candido: That’s great.

Judi: I feel very fortunate. Yeah.

Candido: Oh, that’s great. Yeah. I think targeted professional development is so necessary regardless of whatever stage you are in your career. Just staying refreshed, learning new things, it’s so important. But I have another question, I want to know what your thoughts are on collaboration.

Judi: I feel like teaching is different than when I was in teaching. I retired in 2007 and I had shared this with Candido. I do feel that in many ways, teaching is a little more challenging now. It seems there is just not enough time. Most teachers who do secondary school might have a free period or a lunch period, just like you do in elementary school, yet it’s never time where you can sit with your colleagues and just talk and share, “This worked, this didn’t.” And I think it’s a big missed opportunity. I think they use superintendent’s conference days for pedagogical things that might be relevant, but it could be so much better used if teachers taught teachers, if Candido shared with his art colleagues what really worked well in his classroom, what they might want to avoid, and it also opens all kinds of doors.

I think that’s what collaboration can do, and it should be multiple levels. In a school building, collaboration should first and foremost, be with your teacher and your own students, but then it really… For it to be really work well, it should be between teachers and teachers, teachers and administrators, and the joy is with teachers and teachers. I mean, isn’t school like a second family for so many of us?

Candido: For sure, it is.

Judi: Do you have time, Candido, in your school day to work with other teachers or are you just too busy all day?

Candido: Well, I actually make the time. I definitely make the time. I’m very fortunate in that the other art teachers that are in the building, we share a common space. So we have a chance to debrief or catch up before the day actually starts. That gives us some pretty good insight to make sure that we both have what we need and we can set each other up and make sure like, “Hey, if you’re going to teach this, maybe you should try this today.” And that’s really be helpful because even if I feel like I know that the lesson in and out, I’m sure somebody else can step in and give me a shortcut, something that can make… Reduce the amount of time that I’m standing in front of the class and spend more time engaged with the students.

And for me, that’s something that I think is extremely helpful. So I’m able to do that with my other colleagues. And then I check in. Whenever I have a chance or a break, I go and check in with some of the other teachers. Even if we’re not working on any kind of anything that’s interdisciplinary, I want them to know that I’m here, I’m part of their community in the event that we are going to work together in the future, then they have a more comfortable relationship with me. They feel more comfortable speaking to me or asking me for favors because I’ve made myself available to them.

Judi: Yeah, that’s great that you can do that. Remember I said to you that through my whole career, and even when I’ve been to other schools, the art wing is like the verified area of the school building. There’s a level of comradery there and students are always so happy in the classrooms. There’s often music on. I just felt like I left Brentwood High School and went somewhere else. Whenever I walked into the art wing, it was really different. It was really different.

Candido: That was a special experience there. Well, I want to take away the mystery of why I just popped that question about what are your feelings about collaboration? I mentioned earlier in the introduction that in 11th grade, you spearheaded quite the project and it was my first introduction into what collaboration in education is. So we created a picture book, our 11th-grade class with a fourth-grade class. And I was wondering if you could, so in a much more insider’s perspective, guide us on how you developed such a program.

Judi: I’d love to. I think part of it was that I’m a creative person. And when you teach high school English, I never went to the middle school. It was always 10th, 11th, and 12th. So imagine 30 years later when you’re taking out Death of a Salesman or Hamlet, all the wonderful books. And I did love all the books that I taught, but every summer as teaching went on and on, I began to think, “What can I do this year that’s different? What can I do this year that’s beyond the traditional, beyond what I did before?” And I don’t know the aha moment when it came to me, but I thought, “What about the idea of writing a children’s book with my 11th graders and collaborating with younger students in the school?” And the reason I thought it had a shot at working, my 11th-grade honors was eighth period, which was the end of the school day.

So I began to play around with it in my mind, I had visions for it. I couldn’t do it alone, and I went to the language arts director, who’s a former English teacher and she was a sweetheart. I barely got the words out and she was just jumping up and down, “Oh my God, you can do this. This is going to be wonderful.” She gave the monetary support for printing the books. We had a huge presenting, the writers to the board of education and the parents. So she hooked me up with a fourth-grade teacher, and that was a wild experience for me. I had to go over and meet her first. My last name was Weissman. Hers was [Weissham 00:09:02]. So it was kind of funny. And I went to meet her class first. Now keep in mind my entire 30 years up to that point was in the high school.

And there I walk into this elementary school, all these little tiny people. It was between halls and they were all between period, whatever, changing classes. So I got into her room and her students were, I don’t know, it was just amazing. They were so interested and eager and I introduced myself and I said, “Do any of you have any questions about what we’re about to do?” Every hand shot up and they bombarded me with very intellectual questions along the lines of, “How tall are your students? Do they have their own lockers? Can we call them by their first name? How old are they? How many days a week will you come?” They were so excited about the project and then when they met your class, Cynthia said… Mrs. Weissham said she could not tell them Wednesday mornings that this was the day the 11th graders were coming over, because if she told them in the morning, the rest of the day was, “What time are they going to be here, Mrs. Weissham? What time are they going to be here?”

So it became this idea of what can we do now? The collaboration piece became pretty real when Cynthia and I met. So we decided to break our classes down into four groups. And I knew from my perspective in the group from the high school, I wanted somebody who could draw, an artist, I wanted somebody who can write well, I wanted somebody who loved children, I wanted somebody who had leadership qualities. I don’t know if I did it your year, but I actually think I put those four things on the blackboard and asked people to stand where they felt they belonged and-

Candido: I was actually going to ask you, I don’t remember that, but I remember you being concerned about those qualities, but I didn’t know if we picked them or if you had already identified those qualities within your students,

Judi: I knew who the leaders were and I knew who the good writers were, but I was much more interested in having your classmates define themselves. I’d much rather know if somebody felt they were really good with children, they could be the one who’s really the liaison. It’s kind of something else to work with fourth graders all of a sudden. Here you are 11th grade honors students, bogged down with loads of work, and these little kids were so excited to see you, they were jumping out of their seats. So I did ask students to pick where they felt they belonged and Cynthia broke her class up on her own.

So I don’t have that sheet in front of me that I shared with you, but if I’m remembering right, each group had eight students; four high school students and four fourth graders, and the goal was write and illustrate a children’s book. And the amazing thing to me was that the collaboration existed primarily between students. I would love to tell you how much Cynthia and I did. We watched. We watched and you guys were phenomenal. Your class, such a standout class and it just started happening. I don’t know how you came up with your book on the pizza monster.

Candido: It was pizza. Yeah, Pizzasaurus Rex.

Judi: Pizzasaurus Rex.

Candido: No, Cooksaurus Rex-

Judi: Cooksaurus Rex.

Candido: … but it was a pizza restaurant owner. Yeah.

Judi: Right. And the illustrations were hysterical and all of the books, someone else did A Visit to the Zoo, Everything Begin With an M, the ideas were just… I did it for three years. I mentioned that to you.

Candido: Oh yeah.

Judi: I did it your year and two years later and two years later. And the class really needed very little from Cynthia and I, and I think that’s magic. The fourth graders was so about you guys. I think I shared some of those letters that I got at the end of the… “Dear Candido and the rest of your group, we love you. We miss you. We want to see you again.” I don’t know if you want to share the story about your little buddy, you and your little buddy.

Candido: Well, we’ll come back to that in moment because I definitely want to expand on what happened after the project. Some things that I noticed from what you’re sharing is you mentioned that collaboration between teachers and administration are important. And I think it’s wonderful that you had this idea and you were able to seek somebody who you felt was going to give you the answers and she was just on board with what your project… With the project. And for me, I think that’s very significant to how I teach. I love leadership. I love leadership in particular that trust me to take risk or gives me the capacity to take a risk. And it sounds like in this particular case, you were given that. You were given that freedom to try something new and receive the support to do so and I think that was wonderful.

So this concept of collaboration that we’re exploring in this conversation, there are so many different parts to it. There’s so many stakeholders that are involved with this and because all those parts existed, it almost seems like once you just had all of the students together, that it was just safe. We were allowed to explore, we were allowed to build with each other and to let… What I’m trying to say is that all the work was already done outside so that the kids can be creative, the kids can use their imagination and really turn this into what you were envisioning.

Judi: Yeah, you’re absolutely right, Candido. And the woman who supported it, the central administrator language arts person, she was great. She believed in me as a teacher, she knew me when she was a Brentwood student. So I had a good reputation fortunately and she said, “You just tell me what you need.” She got us a bus at the beginning of eighth period. All of you guys had to give up your after school activities on Wednesdays because we stayed there for an hour and a half. We were bused back and forth. And she said to me… I said, “This is going… It’s exceeding my expectations.” When you collaborate and try something new, there’s always the hope about what the outcome will be and every now and then it exceeds your expectations.

Candido: Sure.

Judi: And you’re so lucky. So when I saw how this was going and we were really going to have books, she was printing them professionally, so I said, “Can we have a presentation to the board-

Candido: Yes.

Judi: “Of the students as writers?” Every student got a t-shirt, “Students as writers.” I don’t know if you still have yours. I should have worn mine tonight, but students as writers-

Candido: I have the book.

Judi: You have the book. All the book titles and students’ names were on the back. Every student got all four books and we did a whole presentation. I believe you were presenter with your buddy.

Candido: Yes.

Judi: And you presented your book.

Candido: Why did you feel it was so important to have this presentation?

Judi: It gets back to who was our audience then? Parents? Central administrators? They did want some other English teachers to come with the same collaboration idea. “Here’s something you might want to consider. This is a great project.” But it was the parents that were the fascinating piece there. The high school parents were very proud of their children, but for the fourth graders, a lot of the fourth graders were immigrants and when these parents came and were told that their child was an author, they were getting books, they were getting recognized, we had to order more books.

Candido: Wow.

Judi: The parents wanted to buy. And that’s why the presentation was so important. Every school in the district got four books. It was a big deal. And simply, and I was just so busting with pride but like I said, the funny thing was, this was really about the students. You guys magically worked well together. We came around and if it was getting closer to when things had to start happening, we’d have to push a bit, but it was wonderful.

Candido: Right. So I totally agree with the presentation part. In the past, I have… I actually have one coming up as well, where my students are invited to participate in a community-based art show, and one of my first requests is always, “Hey, how are my students efforts going to be celebrated and how are their parents going to be involved?” Because it’s a really big deal to me that the parents are a part of the celebration because whether or not they’re at our parent-teacher conferences or whether or not they’re available for meet-the-teacher night, that doesn’t mean that they’re not doing and pulling their weight at home.

So they’re a big part of the process as well. So when you mentioned previously that that was significant to the presentation, I thought to myself, “Yeah, it is.” It’s significant to me now as well and it’s probably… It might be rooted in the same reason too, because the population that I’m serving is predominantly Latinx and first generation. Some of the students themselves are immigrants and recent migrants. So it’s significant and it’s life-changing for these families.

Judi: Yeah, absolutely. And it kind of affirms everything about the hardships that they face to come here.

Candido: Sure.

Judi: That this was what they hoped would happen in this new country, and they were very… They were just so proud of their children and everybody got dressed up. It was really… When I got in touch with you again and I went and got that big bag of all the materials and everything, I have to say, it brought me back to remembering my career. I’ve been retired for 14 years now from full-time Brentwood High School teaching, which amazes me and looking through it and reading the letters that I put in this scrapbook from my principal and reading… I mean, I showed you your essay, all of your classmates’ essays, I just said, “God, this was just fabulous stuff.”

So going back to the theme of collaboration, this whole project only became what it was because of multiple layers of collaboration. It really did. From its inception to asking if we can do it, to being bused to an elementary school, and I hope you will share this. The funniest, funniest day of the whole 10 weeks we had together, we met at the elementary school because it was easier for the 11th graders to be bused the half-mile to Oak Park Elementary.

Candido: Sure.

Judi: But one day we to let the little kids come up to the high school because they wanted to see your lockers. I’ll never understand that. I don’t know. Is there a mystical thing about lockers when you’re in elementary school? Is that a-

Candido: I’m not sure.

Judi: … big deal? But they wanted… So we had ordered pizza and it was such a fun day and we took them on a grand tour of the high school, which considering, I mean, Brentwood High School is huge.

Candido: It’s huge. Oh for a child, that’s huge.

Judi: And everybody buddied up. So Candido buddied up… Was it Anthony?

Candido: I think that was his name. Yeah.

Judi: Candido buddied up with Anthony and well, you didn’t get back to the classroom in time and Candido, I’ll let you take it from here. We were beginning to think about what kind of search party we might have to send out for our 11th grader and our 4th grader, but ultimately, Candido returned.

Candido: I’ll keep this story in brief, but essentially, I thought it was going to be cool to walk around with this kid and at that time, I was a playboy back then and Anthony ended up drawing all of the attention from all the young ladies that I was trying to engage with. So that’s what happened. That’s how we got and when we came back and had that story to tell, it was funny.

Judi: Yeah. It was kind of cute. Anthony was all flushed. He got a lot of attention.

Candido: He sure did. He sure did.

Judi: Yeah. Yeah. It was a lot of fun. And you were a good team. You had a nice group. It was a long time ago, 2001 and you were remembering some of your group mates when you looked over the list. So that was nice for you to.

Candido: I sure did. I sure did. Yeah. Yeah. After we reconnected, I definitely reached out to them as well.

Judi: That’s great.

Candido: This story, to me, is fascinating and I’m excited to see in what way I can implement the project like this. So what kind of tips do you think… Well, what kind of tips would you provide any teachers who are interested in maybe tackling a project like this?

Judi: I would say once you’re tenured, once you’re comfortable, once you reach that point where you see yourself getting stronger and stronger as an educator, at that point, that’s the time to start being fearless. That’s the time to believe in yourself, believe that if you take risks, it’s what we want to tell our students. You can make a mistake. It’s okay. You’ll redo it and you’ll do it right. So I would encourage people, try things like this. I don’t know what’s harder in school these days. I don’t know if it’s harder to do things like this. Certainly the past two years of the pandemic left a really big scar on education overall, but I would say to be fearless, to go for it, and I would say use some of your time in the summer before you start having those teacher dreams everyone seems to have.

Start thinking about, “What can I do this year? How can I spice up for me and my students?” And I have to tell you, the many things you told me when we reconnected and how impressed I am at the young man you’ve become, I have such fond memories of teenage Candido, and now to see what a successful man husband, teacher, podcast person you are, is a joy. And the one thing you told me that blew my mind was your own goal for your art class. At some point you want your art class to be something that is literally taken out to the community so parents can see, “Here is what we do in school. Here is what students do in art class. Here are the products that your tax dollars can bring about.” Not just, “Visit my room, look at the kids’ work on the walls.” I loved your idea that you literally, I mean, just literally want to take your class to the community of your school district. I think that’s phenomenal.

Candido: I’m pretty passionate about that. Well, Mrs. Weissman, I can’t thank you enough for spending time with us and sharing this story. It was wonderful reconnecting with you and-

Judi: Back at you, Candido.

Candido: … thank you for continuing to really share your experiences with other teachers. Well, mentorship is so significant in our profession and you obviously see the value in that. So thank you. Thank you for what you did then.

Judi: Very much.

Candido: Thank you for what you’re doing now.

Judi: Oh, you’re so welcome. It’s been my pleasure and my blessing, truly.

Candido: That was an amazing walk down memory lane. Mrs. Weissman’s class and lesson were instrumental in my life and career, and that’s the impact we’re all striving for with our young artists. I’m a firm believer that learning takes place well beyond our classroom, and in this case, sometimes you have to take a bus to get to the other destination, or maybe it’s down the hall, if you try this lesson with first graders and fifth graders. And if you’re looking for some more information about collaboration, check out episode 285 of Art Ed Radio, featuring Jessica Provow and the collaboration in the art Room PRO Learning Pack. Thanks for listening to Everyday Art Room. I hope you’ve learned enough to want to learn more. Catch you next week.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.