The Case for More Collaboration (Ep. 168)

We talk all the time–and hear all the time–about the benefits of collaboration, but how often do we actually follow through? On today’s episode, one of AOEU’s newest writers, Nick Gehl, talks to Tim about how and why we should approach collaboration with an open mind. Listen as they discuss why consistency is so important when collaborating, who all benefits from collaboration, and why we get better over time.  Full episode transcript below.

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Tim: Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by The Art of Education University, and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz.

I am really excited to welcome a new guest onto the show today, and I think you’re going to enjoy hearing from. Nick Gehl is one of AOEU’s newest writers, and he has a really unique perspective that he brings as both an art teacher and an administrator. Now, Nick was part of the Art Ed Now Conference back in February. A lot of people know him from there, his talk on failure, why he wants to fail. It was incredibly well received. Nick’s started writing for AOEU last month and he had some awesome articles about creativity, about art shows and whether they’re really worth it, and about how to refocus your school year. We’ll link to all of those in the show notes so you can read them. You can check them out when you have time.

Today, I want to talk about another topic that Nick is really passionate about, which is collaboration. He has another amazing article publishing tomorrow about how to make collaboration meaningful, how to make collaboration worthwhile, but we’re going to jump the gun. We’re not going to wait until tomorrow. We’ll dive in right now to some of those ideas. Let me bring Nick on and we can start our conversation.

Nick Gehl is joining me now. Nick, how are you today?

Nick: I’m good. How are you, Tim?

Tim: I am doing really well. I am excited to talk to you and I guess to start with, I would love for you to just kind of introduce yourself to everybody who is listening to this. I know a few people know about you from The Art Ed Now Conference back in February, but can you tell us about you, your job, your interests? I guess just some of the things you’re going to be writing about for The Art of Ed?

Nick: Yeah, absolutely. I live and work in Evanston, Illinois, which is just outside of Chicago just outside the city. Here at the school, I work at a high school, 9 through 12. We’re about 3300 students, so pretty large school, and I had the opportunity to be the Department Chair of Fine Arts, so I actually oversee all of the art, music, theater, and some dance programs. With art specifically, I get to work with seven great full-time art teachers, so I know that’s really rare, but it’s very special at the same time.

My interests specific to the professional world and really into art education, obviously, but also like leadership and organizational culture, so I can get out and think about how people and schools operate. Looking at the work of people like Adam Grant or Steve Magness and Brad Stulberg. I think my role also kind of gives me a different perspective on the art classroom. Getting to work with seven teachers helps me see a different side of things and hopefully my articles will showcase some of those perspectives. I’ll probably be writing a lot about the art teaching experience, working in schools and advocacy, and teacher practices related to curriculum, instruction, assessment. Kind of running the gamut from that perspective.

Tim: Yeah, that’s really cool. That gives us a lot to look forward to and I think that’s a unique perspective. Like you said, you’re talking to a lot of different art teachers and overseeing a lot. Just more of a breadth of experience that you can bring, so I think that will be really good.

Now, I know we’re going to talk about collaboration today. You have an article coming out that we need to chat about, but before we get into that, I wanted to ask you about the creativity routine that you wrote about last month. It was so popular. People really responded to the ideas that you brought forth in that article. A lot of teachers started to bring it into their classrooms. For maybe people that have missed it or want to go back to it, can you give us just a quick overview of the idea of the creativity routine and maybe a couple of suggestions on how people can bring that into their own classroom?

Nick: Yeah, absolutely, and it’s certainly exciting to hear that people kind of engaged with the idea. For me, I’m a huge advocate for process over product, and one of my mantras is that the arts classes in schools are not to develop future artists, but rather to develop future kind of workers and creative people regardless of what field they go into. For me, helping to develop students’ ability to be creative, and that skill set is really at the core of why we have arts in schools. I think that’s why I think everybody should take an art class is to build those experiences.

That’s really where kind of the creative routine came from. I started recognizing in my own classroom several years ago that students were kind of working on a cycle where they would come up with an idea, they’d work on something and then they’d be working on that project for maybe two weeks at a time. That ability to be creative just wasn’t happening as consistently as I wanted and so developing a routine so that once a week, even if it was only for a couple of minutes, students were doing some type of creative activity. Again, really just focusing on that process of exercising the brain in that way more than what they were actually creating. It ranged from activities to questions, sometimes working together, anything like that just to get the mind thinking different, again, if only for a couple of minutes.

What I would offer to anybody wanting to start this in their own classroom is, number one, think about consistency. I think like anything, when we start something that disrupts our own routine and the routine that our students are accustomed to, there’s that natural kind of awkwardness or discomfort because we’re doing something different. I think what I found over time is that students actually started looking forward to it, and when you name it as something, I did Creative Wednesdays, but Creative Corner, whatever it is, students can then name it as well and they know what to expect.

Consistency I think is key to keeping it sustainable over time, which brings me to the second point about really focusing on what’s manageable. We all work in different structures. Some people have block classes or you’re in another teacher’s classroom. To keep it sustainable, I think you want to think about what’s manageable with materials and with time, and number three being about process and product, recognizing that it’s not really about what they’re creating or making, but how they’re doing it. Even a scrap piece of paper and a pencil can go a long way, so thinking about what’s manageable with the room that you’re in and what the materials that you have available to you. That’s okay because, again, the goal is just to get them thinking.

Tim: I think that’s good. I like the idea of just simplifying it as much as possible for teachers and just consistent. Whatever materials you have on hand, it doesn’t need to be a huge effort. I think that helps people kind of get into the idea and hopefully kind of implement the idea.

As I said, we need to talk about collaboration, and I guess I’d like to start with just kind of a big picture overview. I guess my concern, a lot of teachers’ concern is collaboration. It’s never easy. In fact, it can be really, really difficult to find the time to put the effort in. Let me just ask you, like I said, big picture. Why do you think collaboration is still worth pursuing? What about it makes it so worthwhile for teachers for our students?

Nick: I think just real quick, I also want to say I think many schools… the structure of schools aren’t always set up to collaborate.

Tim: True, true.

Nick: I think that’s important to recognize because I think there can sometimes be a lot of guilt with teachers as like, “Well, why am I not doing more?” Whether that’s collaborating with the community or with the school. One of the teachers that I get to work with kind of reminded me of that one time. “Hey, it’s tough when we’re not really set up to do that with our bell schedule and how short our class periods are.” I do want to just kind of recognize the structural challenges that teachers go through, even outside of themselves with collaborating.

Back to your question, I think overall when we collaborate, it helps build connections for the students. I think similar to real life, in our adult life, subject areas aren’t really broken down by class periods and a bell schedule or related to a specific period of time. All of those are kind of woven together, and in order to be successful, you need to be able to navigate all of those things. I think collaborating is worth pursuing to help show students how certain content areas can connect to one another and how the skills that you use in the art room transfer to other aspects. Whether it be academic or social, personal, whatever.

I think, secondly, I’m a big fan of collaboration because I always get really excited about the unique experiences that it provides students and staff. Sometimes when you create something that’s a one-of-a-kind experience, you’re able to take that with you. That’s something they look back on and remember. Those can be used as hooks and engaging students into the arts because often it creates this special moment in time where you did something that was bigger than you. Anytime that happens it holds a special meaning with us when you work towards something that’s bigger than yourself.

Tim: I think that is a huge benefit there, and like you said, it’s memorable for us, memorable for our kids if we come up with something really good, then. Just kind of following that up I guess, there are obviously a lot of benefits for our kids when we’re collaborating with our colleagues. We can put together those amazing lessons. We can put together things that are memorable, but just looking at it I guess from a teacher perspective, what kind of benefits do you see for teachers when it comes to collaboration? How do we improve what we do? How do we improve as teachers when we are collaborating?

Nick: I think it’s almost like a secret because you don’t even realize to collaborate, you know?

Tim: Yeah.

Nick: When you’re working with someone and you’re describing what you’re doing, in a way it’s like you’re have to reflect and analyze your own practices because now you’re explaining it to another adult. That other adult might ask questions, they might give suggestions, and you’re having to think through really the why behind your responsibilities of the collaboration. You might be thinking through, “Oh yeah, why are we doing this project?” Or, “Why can’t I add this social justice element into it?” Or, “How can I make this work?” Again, I think anytime we’re put into the position to articulate what we do out loud, it gives us an opportunity to really think it through.

I think, secondly, whenever you’re working with another adult, and students as well, but in this case an adult, it also forces you to think and focus on some of those soft skills that we have to utilize to work with others. You have to think about, “How am I communicating? Is there a give and take here? Are compromising? Are we really working together on this? Am I holding up my end of the bargain?” Not just focusing on the work that we do, but focusing on how we do that work. Whenever you do that, again, I think it’s just kind of bettering us as teachers and as people because like I mentioned before, when you do that with somebody, hopefully it’s bringing you together to build a sense of community.

Tim: I kind of want to get back to that idea of community here in just a second, but I was just going to say I think that reflective piece is so important. We talk about that all the time on the podcast here. If we want to improve what we’re doing, if we want to improve as a teacher, we need to reflect on what we’re doing. I think your advice as far as approaching collaboration with an open mind and spending some time reflecting on the how’s and the why’s is really beneficial, so I appreciate that.

Getting back to that idea of kind of building community, I want to talk specifically about a section in your article where you talk about a few different colleagues that it can be good to collaborate with. Obviously, we have the obvious answers. We have the art teachers. We always seem to match up well with music and theater the way math and science have those natural connections, but you also talk about collaborating with your custodian, your librarian, your tech team. I guess my question for you is, why do you think we should expand or why do we need to expand our conceptions of why we should be collaborating with and how that collaboration should look?

Nick: I think overall, and it sounds so simple, but really because everybody can benefit from each other. We all bring something to the table, and I think when we communicate and ask questions, it can actually be mutually beneficial. When we open that conversation up, I can help you and you can help me, and thus, we’re helping the students. From my perspective, I also think that art is really one piece of the larger school, and not to sound cliched, but once together we make that big picture. Bringing people together regardless of roles and working together I believe helps improve the culture of the school, and that helps all of of us, both students and staff.

I also wanted to mention some of those roles because I think schools are really starting to broaden their staff. Who you collaborate with looks a lot different now than it did 15 years ago. Specifically, I think technology departments have really blown up over the last 15 years. We’re thankful here at my high school where we have somebody whose job is to support teachers using technology with instructional purposes. Just trying to remember that we have some of these unique roles in the building, and sometimes it’s actually their job to collaborate with you. It doesn’t always even require more work because that’s what they’re intended to do, and those positions also I think allow for a lot more flexibility.

When I mentioned earlier that sometimes the structures can prevent collaboration, this is often a group of people don’t operate on a bell schedule, don’t have specific classes they have to teach at times, and thus, they can work around your schedule. A lot of those structural barriers I think are minimized, which makes the collaboration a little easier and more sustainable.

Tim: Let me ask you about that, the sustainability part of things, because another thing that you wrote about in your article is about collaborations get better over time or maybe how it may not go right the first time, but eventually it’ll get there. May take a few times, but you’re going to get it right. I think we a lot of times as teachers we’re kind of guilty of assuming that collaboration is going to be just one lesson or just one project, and we don’t have the mindset. We don’t necessarily think of it in terms of an ongoing process.

As far as sustainability, do you think we need to change our thinking there? I guess as another part of that, hopefully I’m not asking you too much here, but how do things improve when we are collaborating on a regular schedule? When we are getting together repeatedly? How does that help us?

Nick: This is a really great question I think. I think we often also think of collaboration as like a really big thing, and it requires a lot of investment and there needs to be some result at the end. That’s certainly one form of collaboration, but similarly, I think anytime we’re discussing with a colleague or sharing ideas, we’re collaborating there, too. It might not look the same or have the same shiny result, but it’s still the idea of articulating and working together and communicating to have a solution.

I think you’re right. I think we do need to shift our thinking in some ways. I think thinking about how, again, we can all collaborate, it just might look different based on our own day to day. In terms of improving over time and if we’re consistently collaborating, I think it’s giving us more cycles through the process of what I talked about earlier, where you’re analyzing and reflecting on what you do, and you’re analyzing and reflecting on how you do it. When you collaborate more consistently you go through that cycle more often, which I think is going to help you evolve as a teacher and as a person and thus improve at a quicker rate.

Tim: I think that’s really good, and just the sort of ongoing idea of that is really beneficial I think. If we can prioritize that I think that is something that’s going to help us improve. Let me just ask you one last question here. We’re talking of all these big picture things, how if we can sustain this over time we’re going to get so much better, but for people who aren’t in that position, if they’re just getting started with collaboration or just getting some ideas together on how they may want to collaborate with some colleagues, what advice would you give them? What are some basic steps they can take to just kind of get started down this path?

Nick: I think the first thing is plan for time. Ask yourself as you’re looking at your lesson plans for the year or the calendar. You might not know what you’re going to do yet or who you’re going to do it with, but I think save those dates. Block off those two weeks and say, “I don’t know what this is going to look like yet, but I know I want to collaborate with someone because I want to show students how art can make a connection to something else.” I think when you block that off or you hold yourself accountable to that time, it serves as a little bit of a motivational goal to then kind of fill in the gaps.

Time is so finite and I think often when we get the ball rolling with our schools and then we come across a great idea, if we haven’t allocated that time, it’s tough to fit it in, both mentally I think and logistically. I would recommend blocking off those two weeks or saying, “Okay, project number two is going to be collaborative”, and then I would think about who you’re working with in your classroom and what type of collaboration is going to excite them the most. Connections, I think the benefit of connections only go as far as the meaning that they come with for those particular students. Sometimes you might have to get to know the kids in your class first to say, “Oh, okay, here’s what they’re interested in.” Or, “Here’s what they like to do, and now, how can I make a connection to that? Who can I collaborate with to showcase that?”

That’s kind of another approach, another maybe more student-centered approach to thinking about who to start having a conversation with. I think one of the things I also recommend in the article is actually looking at like a schedule, and rather than saying, “Who do I want to collaborate with curricularly?” Like, “Who can I logistically collaborate with?” Again, if you’re trying to force something through, I don’t really feel like that’s going to be sustainable over time. It’s just going to be too difficult to manage logistically, but if you actually look at your schedule and say, “Okay, who has class at the same time as me?” Again, you’ve already removed that barrier of schedules and time, and then having lunch with that person and saying, “Okay, what can we do together? How can we make a connection either between our two areas or just between as adults?”

Tim: No, those are a lot of really, really good ideas and a lot of just kind of great steps that are easy to implement, easy to kind of get going with. I appreciate that. I think everybody who’s listening is going to appreciate just kind of that advice, and like I said, those approaches that are accessible, that are not going to take too much time.

Nick, thank you for all of that. I appreciate the conversation. I appreciate you giving me some time today, and I hope everybody can use some of these ideas, so thank you.

Nick: Absolutely. Thanks for having me on, Tim.

Tim: Big thank you to Nick for coming on. I enjoyed that discussion quite a bit. He has a great perspective, like I said earlier, and obviously some great ideas on how to start collaborating more and doing it in a more meaningful way.

Now, before we go, we need to talk once more about Ron Clark coming to The Art Ed Now Conference in July. A couple of weeks ago we announced that Ron Clark would be our featured presenter. If you don’t know him, he is a two-time New York Times best-selling author and just an amazing educator. You will love hearing from him as he talks about his career in education, his passion for working with kids, and some great stories about his founding of The Ron Clark Academy. It’s going to be an exciting and inspirational presentation, and it’s something that you’re definitely going to want to see.

If you are curious, if you want to register, go reserve your spot at The first 2,000 registrants get a free swag box. There’s samples, there’s products, there’s materials for your own art making and for art making in your classroom. The swag boxes get taken quickly, so please don’t wait too long to reserve your spot.

Now, to wrap things up today, just a couple of last thoughts. Maybe you have the time to fit in some quality collaboration here before the end of the year, maybe you don’t, but either way, find the time. May can start next year, or if you’re ambitious, maybe over the summer. As Nick suggested, have lunch with a colleague just to start the discussion. See how you can work together. Your kids will enjoy it. Your kids will benefit from it, as will you, as will your colleagues or whoever else you’re collaborating with. Like Nick said, if all goes well, you may just be able to create something memorable.

Art Ed Radio is produced by The Art of Education University with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. Thank you for listening as always. We are hoping to be back next week with a new announcement from some old friends, so we’ll talk to you then.

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.