Academic Exchange Quarterly Winter 2011 ISSN 1096-1453 Volume 15, Issue 4

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Building a University-High School Collaboration


Loren Spice, Texas Christian University, TX

Sarah Quebec Fuentes, Texas Christian University, TX

Spice, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Mathematics, and Quebec Fuentes, Ed.D., is an Assistant Professor of Mathematics Education.



This article describes the creation and implementation of a program for fostering collaboration between pre- and in-service teachers. The program targeted teachers of mathematics, but its structure, and the data gathered, are relevant for any discipline. After reporting on these data, we close with a high-level overview of the program directed at future implementers, particularly focusing on likely challenges and ways to address them.



The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) report Linking Research & Practice states, “the research and practice communities have much to contribute to each other’s work; it is only through working in tandem that we can make a concerted effort to improve mathematics teaching and learning in the United States” (Arbaugh, Herbel-Eisenmann, Ramirez, Knuth, Kranendonk, & Quander, 2010, p. 6). In this article, we describe a program that fosters such joint work by establishing collaborations between high-school teachers and undergraduate students. These collaborations develop alongside other inter-disciplinary and inter-level cooperations, such as those between university faculty in different departments; between university faculty and program participants; and between undergraduate students and high-school students.


Researchers have recognized many challenges to developing sustainable inter-level collaborations, such as cultural differences, time restrictions, practitioners’ exclusive focus on their own classrooms, and poor communication about research purposes (Buysse, Sparkman, & Wesley, 2003; Sim, 2010). To acknowledge and address these constraints, we turned to the idea of communities of practice, “groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis” (Wenger, McDermott, & Snyder, 2002, p. 4). Like Parks (2009), we consider collaboration as involvement in a community of practice.


In her literature review, Sim (2010) identified four critical elements of such communities:

o          learning occurs in a collaborative environment,

o          comprehension is integrated with practical experiences,

o          sharing of emerging understandings takes place in the practice setting, and

o          communication provides the outlet for critical reflection.

Previous work on communities of practice centered about professional development (e.g., Musanti & Pence, 2010), field experiences of pre-service teachers (e.g., Sim, 2005), university-school partnerships (e.g., Sim, 2010), and research projects involving university and school faculty (e.g., Buysse et al., 2003) has indicated ways to realize these four elements; our project was structured to facilitate this realization.


Wenger et al. (2002) delineate three core features of communities of practice: “a domain of knowledge, which defines a set of issues; a community of people who care about this domain; and the shared practice that they are developing to be effective in their domain” (p. 27). For us, the domain is effective teaching of mathematics, and related professional development. The process of identifying the community is described in the next section. The evolution of the shared practice is the focus of our research. We portray below the collaborations that developed, as well as the factors that contributed to that development.


Description of Program

Our program encouraged collaboration at all levels, but especially between high-school mathematics teachers and undergraduates interested in both mathematics and education. The ‘user-facing’ part of our program fell into three parts: recruitment, professional development, and in-classroom work. We also incorporated data-gathering tools as a regular part of the program, to facilitate our research while imposing a minimal administrative load.


For undergraduate recruitment, we contacted mathematics and mathematics-education undergraduates, describing the program and emphasizing the duties that it required. We obtained commitments from two highly qualified undergraduates.


For teacher recruitment, we sought permission from the coordinator of secondary mathematics for the district with which we were interested in working. At the same time, we contacted individual high-school teachers to gauge their interest. Thus, once we had secured district approval, we were able quickly to obtain commitments from two high-school teachers. Our partner high school has long had an informal relationship with our university, and we sought to formalize and strengthen this relationship, establishing a culture that would encourage the free flow of knowledge and expertise in both directions.


We then conducted a pre-interview with each participant to gather data about her background, particularly prior experience with collaboration; her interest in, and expectations for, the present collaboration; and opportunities for development. We used these interviews to pair the participants, and to plan a two-day professional-development workshop. This workshop, attended by teachers and undergraduates, got the participants acquainted, and emphasized the themes of collaboration and communication that underlay the program


The in-school work, five hours per week, lasted fifteen weeks in 2011. In addition, the undergraduate participants were responsible for an additional hour per week of reflection on the development of their collaboration and its relevance to their future practice. The high-school teachers were asked to complete a three-part weekly survey, in which they described their undergraduate partners’ roles; answered several Likert-style questions concerning the collaboration; and, optionally, provided free-form additional comments.


In addition to this regular reflection, we also incorporated a two-hour mid-term professional development workshop, during which the pairs described the progress of their collaborations—information that was valuable not just for the investigators, but also for the other participants.


At the end of the semester, we interviewed each participant again, so that she could summarize and reflect on her collaboration, and offer feedback and suggestions. As a unifying capstone, all but one of us attended a conference for mathematics teachers, where we presented the results of our study.


Methodology and Data Analysis

We used a case-study approach to enable us to conduct an in-depth examination of the collaborations formed between the two teacher-undergraduate pairs. Data sources included the pre- and post-interviews, which were transcribed; teacher surveys; undergraduate reflections; and pair presentations at the mid-term professional-development workshop. Data were analyzed using the constant comparative method (Glaser & Strauss, 1967), which revealed three overarching themes.


Participant Backgrounds

Alice and Beth had both been undergraduate mathematics majors with minors in educational studies at the university, and had student taught at the partner high school. Both were relatively new members of the mathematics faculty there. (All names are pseudonyms.)


Alice’s student teaching taught her the value of independent teaching, and of the ‘behind-the-scenes’ work of planning lessons and grading; but she had had only limited opportunities to put these ideas to work. She wanted her undergraduate partner to play an active role in and out of the classroom, and also hoped that she would provide one-on-one tutoring to struggling students. This latter experience would parallel Alice’s own as a student teacher, which had helped her understand the broad range of abilities that students bring to the classroom.


During her field placements, Beth enjoyed engaging with the cooperating teacher and students by, for example, assisting with lesson planning or asking the students questions. Her experiences as a pre-service teacher inform her teaching style: she has students participate through activities, rather than passively listening to lectures. Beth had previous experience integrating classroom assistants and co-teachers into her classroom. She anticipated that her undergraduate partner could tutor students one-on-one, teach lessons, and help students during group work; but she was also open to a mutual discovery of the best roles. She said, “developing as a teacher is always something that I want to do,” and felt that lessons she learned from her reflection would allow her to offer advice to her partner.


Cindy was a junior mathematics major with a minor in educational studies. She came to the program with considerable field experience, the most significant of which (15 to 20 hours per week in the classroom since her freshman year) was her work as a bilingual teacher-assistant. Based on her collaborative experiences, both positive and negative, Cindy sought to work with someone who could empathize with challenges faced by student teachers, and to whom she could look for a model of high-school teaching. Cindy’s perspective on teaching had evolved considerably over time; she described becoming a better teacher as her hobby, and welcomed the opportunities the program offered—for example, discovering the different approaches appropriate for a classroom consisting primarily of native English speakers.


Dana was a senior mathematics and political-science double major. She frequently referred to the idea of education as social justice—a way of offering disadvantaged students an opportunity to succeed. In addition to her college career, she pursued this goal in two main ways.  One way was her participation in a summer program for high-achieving students from low-income backgrounds. There, Dana planned lessonsworked in collaboration both with other undergraduates, and with a mentor teacher from the host school, to plan and organize lessons; but she was given complete autonomy in her classroom. Another way was her participation in a program that employs college graduates as teachers in low-income communities. She was a recruiter for this program during her time on campus, and joined them upon graduation.



Both Alice and Dana, and Beth and Cindy, had one weekly planning session, and devoted the rest of their time to in-class small-group work. The weekly sessions provided an opportunity to discuss lesson plans and student progress. The undergraduates asked questions of their teacher partners; and, as the collaboration progressed, teachers also sought feedback from their undergraduate partners.


In the eighth week, Alice and Dana’s collaboration changed when Alice asked Dana to work with a student, Eric, who was struggling with make-up work. Alice told her, “he’s always had this ‘I can’t do math’ attitude, but it’s never been so dominant.” Dana’s work with Eric ranged from giving a primeradvising him on basic study skills—she provided him with a notebook to help consolidate and organize his work—to providing motivation at dark moments—when Eric declared that he did not need a high-school diploma, Dana was ready with concrete statistics regarding the difference that it would make. She looked to Alice for advice, and kept her informed about Eric’s progress.


Beth and Cindy learned both from and with each other. Cindy wants to implement an activity-based classroom in her teaching; she feels that the lessons she learned in Beth’s classroom make this newly practical. Beth sought advice from Cindy about ideas for activities and their implementation; strategies for dealing with particular students; and approaches for supporting English-language learners. Beth and Cindy also worked together to improve student-to-student communication, using techniques discussed in from the initial professional-development session. The collaboration established lasting bonds; Cindy said in her post-interview that Beth “is definitely someone I could ask for advice, for feedback, or keep in touch with [about] professional issues.”



The many different interactions, among university faculty, high-school teachers, undergraduate students, and high-school students, displayed three common themes: background, classroom culture, and communication. (This pedagogical observation echoes a the mathematical concept of fractals discussed during professional development, that of fractals: ‘self-similar’ shapes, a small piece of which exhibits the fine structure of the whole.)


By background, we mean what each participant ‘brings to the table.’ Cindy said, “I think I would have been really different if I hadn’t had any experience in the classroom.” Indeed, participants’ extensive prior experience with teaching and collaboration, both positive and negative, shaped their work together. Alice said that sometimes she “just sat in the back and observed, and that was no fun;” Cindy said that, in one field placement, she was “interacting with the kids, but … more [as] a facilitator” than an equal. Because of this background, all participants wanted the undergraduate partners to play a very active role.


High-school students, too, bring their own backgrounds; the effect of this was particularly pronounced in the case of Eric, who could scarcely be induced was reluctant even to try after years of bad mathematics experiences. Similarly, some of Cindy’s students were startled by the idea that they might attend a private university was within their reach; Beth said “it’s good [for them] to have someone who’s at [the university] right now saying, ‘yes, you can get scholarships.’”


Unlike backgrounds, teachers have nearly complete control over classroom culture: the ways they help students make the most of the classroom environment. Dana said that a thorough understanding of this culture is “what makes a teacher who knows her students … different from … [a] substitute teacher.” We therefore expected the undergraduate partners might face considerable friction trying to integrate, in the second half of an academic year, into a well-established classroom culture. Instead, they were readily accepted; for example, after independently teaching two periods of Alice’s class, Dana said that “they could explain to me what they had done …. [They] did do more work than the other periods,” which had been taught by a substitute teacher.


One of the most important aspects of classroom culture was autonomy. As previously mentioned, the teachers wanted their undergraduate partners to be able to act autonomously. For example, Dana taught two lessons independently, and Alice said “she had a lot of strength in front of the classroom, talking about her past experiences, and making different connections.”  Beth said of Cindy that, after initial supervision, “as she got more comfortable … we worked collaboratively in the classroom … basically [as] equals.”


All participants worked to help their students exhibit this autonomy; Dana talked about balancing student-centered instruction with curriculum demands by using more independent work to get “students to facilitate a faster classroom pace.” The same idea arose in her sessions with Eric; he completed his make-up work independently (and graduated) in the two weeks after their last session, showing that he had mastered not just content, but also self-sufficiency in the methods of learning.


Finally, all participants reported that the questions they asked, which were originally ‘leading’ and teacher-centered, changed with time to better provoke inquiry and exploration by the students. Beth said that, as a result, her students were “communicating more with math … being able to explain and show each other more.”


Another aspect of classroom culture is reflection, a continual evaluation of methods. We fold this into the broader setting of communication. Communication between all parties is essential for a successful collaboration, and the project included mechanisms to encourage this—both for our data gathering, and to encourage reflection.


The main mechanism was the weekly participant feedback. Undergraduates initially preferred to use these to communicate mostly with us, but we re-directed their questions as appropriate, and soon found that they were directly addressing their teacher partners. This was reinforced by other aspects of the project, such as the professional-development workshops, which encouraged and explicitly discussed communication; and the regular planning sessions scheduled by the pairs. We were pleased to observe a dramatic difference between the initial workshop, where participants worked individually and directed questions to the investigators; and the midterm session, where they worked in pairs, with little prompting from us.


Finally, undergraduates engaged in whole-class and one-on-one communication with students; this allowed them to “grow with the class,” in Alice’s words, and, we believe, contributed to their integration into the classroom. It also fostered individual relationships. Eric told Dana, “at first I didn’t like you, because you made me work,” but he soon came to set great store by her word. He was initially skeptical when she offered praise; but Dana later realized, “he just likes hearing me say, ‘you can do it.’”  Although Cindy did not establish such an intense relationship with any individual student, she did come to serve as a role model for many; Beth said that “it was so good that … we both went to [the university], and she’s going there right now, and working, too.” Beth’s students were fascinated by Cindy’s life; when other duties kept her away one week, they made up a story about what she was doing—complete with student-created mathematics problems.



A successful teacher will establish a healthy classroom culture early. Similarly, reliably establishing successful collaborations requires a robust supporting environment from the beginning. Both collaborations that we described here developed well on their own, but we were ready in case problems arose: the pre-interviews had already given us a thorough understanding of the backgrounds of the participants, showing that they were interested and allowing us to match compatible partners; the professional-development sessions fostered a sense of community, and helped participants to realize the immediate benefits of the program; and the weekly feedback gave us a real-time view of the proceedings, and the opportunity to intercede promptly if necessary. The same structures should serve all content areas equally well.


The relationships that this program established have the potential to develop into life-long collaborations. This is a key aspect of building a community of practice, and it will serve us well in future iterations of the program, when our ‘alumni’ will be able to lend their expertise and support, further enriching and strengthening collaborations.


The authors were partially supported by a research grant from the Andrews Institute for Mathematics and Science Education.



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