Pushing collaboration to the limit.

At our last professional learning day, we wanted to see if technology could be used to leverage the collective expertise of our entire staff. Check out the challenge we set below and the beautiful reflection from one of our staff members, Rebecca OBrien.

Thanks to Camille Lill, Brittany McCrea & Lisa Beeman for capturing the process.

3 Marks and a ticking clock

by Rebecca OBrien

SO.. why do I love my job? Maybe because it gives me an INSANE amount of stimulation as a human being.. and provides me an opportunity to see the world and my role in it in a new way.

So, if you permit.. Lemme write you a story of my day yesterday. [Please pardon the random, stilted way in which I tell the story…]

Today, during our “professional learning” day [no students], the head of Learning and Technology at our school, John Burns (a cool “outside the box” dude), decides to come out with this challenge (he calls it a “collaborative debate”) for the teachers that he totally made up from nothing. I call this his “brainchild”. He tweeted this after the initial presentation… (@j0hnburns)

There are 90 of us teachers total across two campuses presently sitting in the amphitheater of my school. After John introduces the debate question, “Is technology good for learning?”

A HS science teacher / ‘techie’ named Mark McElroy was delegated the job of dividing us into two groups. He confessed to us, rather than numbering us off, he asked us to  “raise your hand only if the person next to you isn’t raising their hand.” We all looked around, slightly perplexed and confused, as people started to raise their hands for no apparent reason. He said science teachers would understand this exercise, as it is compared to neurons transmitting signals in the body. I was one of them, since no one around me had raised their hands. It worked out perfectly — within ten seconds, every other person had their hand in the air, and those sitting directly next to/near them kept their hands down.

We were then told, in our two respective teams, the ones who had raised their hand would be “PRO” technology in education, and those who hadn’t would be “AGAINST” (or NEGatives). Then, we were explained that each team should be broken down into the following roles for the debate:

The team leaders for each ‘side’ were unexpectedly designated by John (coming from different departments in the school) and the rest of the ‘roles’ (who would do what) would be decided once the groups separated. The other group of “NEG”s left for another space, we stayed behind in the amphitheater…

The challenge? We would have 65 minutes to ‘harvest’ information/reasons and evidence for our argument, a filter to help transmit that information to the writers, a liason that should keep tabs on what everyone was doing, 3 speakers that would have to stand up and present in front of everyone the ideas of the group, 3 production members to record/document the whole process (and publish it), and 3 people working on creating the shared digital platforms (like a shared google .doc, getting everyone’s e-mail, etc.) through which we would communicate and pool our ideas …  and at the end of it all, the school’s team of tech specialists would decide the winning vote.

That was it. Just that. READY?? GO!!!

So, as the other team walked away to gather in another place, someone, somewhere pressed ‘start’ on the timer.

Tick. Tock. Tick… Tock.

My pulse quickened a bit. I thought to myself, “What can I do? Why is everyone just sitting here! LET’S GOO!!!!” I could sense that we were all feeling jittery and on edge as it was still sinking in — this was real.

The team leaders started to assert their ideas, and others asked, who wants to present? (No pressure, right?)

……….Everybody looked at one another, or down at the ground, some were shaking their head or whispering to each other “not me..”

I tentatively suggested that we decide on a common platform, I gave the idea of a padlet. There we can see each other’s ideas pop up instantaneously on the projector screen. Liz, one of our leaders, suggested a ‘live’ google doc, where we can brainstorm our ideas in real-time on a spreadsheet. But still — in many people’s mind, the question remained: Who will speak for us? (I mean, it is an oral debate.. after all.)

I started to realize though, maybe, just maybe, the speaker would actually end up having the least amount of work! In theory, the writers and harvesters had to do all the groundwork and “labor”; the speaker would simply have to articulate the ideas to the crowd.

‘Hey! .. I could do that!’ some small voice echoed from the back of my mind. (Especially if that meant not having to sit on my computer for an hour and read boring articles online arguing for some arbitrary, abstract argument that I’d already decided my opinion on.) I was always chosen to be the narrator of school plays in elementary school.. maybe this is why.

..BUT I was still scared. I mean, speak in front of the whole staff??

I looked around, back and see my jolly Wisconian PE teacher named “Knudy” (short for Mark Knudsen, @PhysEdDude). If anyone could speak, it would be him, too!  I pointed back at him smirking slyly and suggested, “Hey Mark! You should present!!” (BTW – He has a massive presence, booming voice, and light sense of humor.) He just looked back with wide eyes, silently beckoning me to stop by shaking his head. I was laughing to myself when suddenly I heard three people say my name to the side– I jerked my head in their direction and then immediately slouched further in my seat. (Karma’s something else, ain’t it?)

Still, that first idea persisted in my mind and I decided it may just be the only route; I mean, I love to talk.. and I’m proud of my abilities to articulate myself and basically, …I’m a clown. I look around as the silence starts to get awkward — still no takers. My hand just shot up as I was determined to convince myself that this would be the easy way out. I spoke questioningly aloud, “I mean, in the end you guys would have to write what I would say, right? …Ok, I’ll do it.” A slight applause went through the crowd, most likely relief. I looked back at Mark and encouraged him silently… “C’mon, let’s do this!!”

So in the end, Mark and another Mark were chosen as to be my partners in crime. One boisterous and laid back, the other of the most refined British accent and put-together demeanor around. A true alliance. While the other roles were being decided and the platform being constructed, I felt useless. So I went to map out the roles on a dry erase board (that’s the ex-sign maker from Trader Joe’s in me) and put names up next to the circles.

Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.

As they started to pool together ideas of pro’s and con’s of technology in learning, I joined with the writers and other speakers and we got a shared google .doc started to write out our script for the debate. We had to come up with an angle.. were we gonna slam the other team, or acknowledge their points and take the higher road? We were undecided, but in the end conceded to our leader Nathan that we should say this argument was over before it started. Technology exists, so whether it’s good or not is irrelevant.

I laid out the main points a the top of the document, and helped clarify we should each take one of the main points and run with it in our respective speakers. Oh wait! We were missing a writer!!

I started taking notes of everyone’s thoughts, and in the end we all constructed our own arguments. We didn’t have access to the information being gathered by everyone else until the last 10 minutes before the debate, and my writer was trying to get me to focus on some arguments I didn’t see as too powerful. I would be the introduction to our argument.

As some people tried to come up and give suggestions, I noticed how people were talking over one another, and it was like invisible threads were being weaved together as “You do this, I do this.” Delegation and cooperation was key — don’t lose focus. Any questions go to the leader. Any clarifications go to the liaisons, who at some points seemed a bit lost in the shuffle between harvesters and writers.

Finally, it was time. I didn’t want to get up from my table, and my writers were telling them to wait for me. “She needs time!” they whispered to our leader Liz; I felt shielded from the pressuring complaints and was allowed a few more precious moments for watering down my ideas. I didn’t even get time to support my main point with research that the harvesters had worked so hard to prepare!

Ok, ok.. the other team was waiting. This was it. The Marks and I lined up and sat down at a table in front of all the staff. My adrenaline was pumping, as I personally was still feeling a bit unprepared but ready for a fun fight with a smile on my face.  I clapped myself into an enthusiastic state. My writers were tweaking details on the google .doc as I carried my computer up to the podium. I was glad to know they were there with me, on the inside.

As I began reading my introduction, “What is learning?” a ringing buzzer sounded.  Everyone started to laugh and I felt the tension dissolve into the corners of the room. “Great anti-climax, haha!” I joked silently to myself. I pretended to head back to my seat, for a second, as if my speech was done, and the crowd started to applaud in jovial encore. John Burns put his hand up in the air as he chuckled to himself and fumbled to set his phone to silent again for the next 120 seconds.

As I read through my speech, concentrating on my screen, I tried to keep it simple…natural, and honest. However, halfway through reading, my brow started to crease as the internal clock in me told me time was flying. I wasn’t going to finish on time… I could feel it in my stomach as my eyes glanced at the several notes still left to explain. I also felt like I was losing my train of thought, as the arguments my writer gave me didn’t seem to fit with my original approach. So I decided to jump down my last concluding lines, not remembering which was to be said later on by our 3rd speaker, so I managed to get out the phrase “This debate is over already. Why? Technology exists, so whether —”


Just a few words before finishing the high pitch ring mingled with my words. I re-spoke even louder: “…So whether it’s good or not is a moot point!!”

An enthusiastic applause billowed up from my team and bounced off of the ceiling.  I let out a long  breath of air, “Whewwww..” and retreated back to my seat. While it was a bit abstract and philosophical, my argument was at least well-timed!

As the debate carried forward, the other team introduced arguments about how technology hurts children, and our team kept our argument in the clouds… Mark #1 did well to build off of Meaghan’s provocations, and Mark #2 smoothed out some concluding words, but the ringer interrupted them as well. All of us went slightly over time… but so did the other team.

In the end, the other team was declared a winner, but it was an awesome experiment… to see 90 people working as one live organism of thought.. using technology and pooling our strengths, abilities and creativity into a 6 minute argument spoken from three mouths.

After my speech, I looked around during the debate and realized from the very beginning, the personalities and characters of my co-workers shone through in every moment. The outspoken sitting at the tables, me being one of them. Nathan (@NathanLill1) who is a word-smithing, poetry-slamming genius that loves green tea became the thread that weaved our thoughts into an articulate framework of ideas at the head writing/speaking table. Liz (@cho_liz) directed the harvesters into organized rows and made lists of data and background knowledge into a fitting table to buttress our lofty ideas and approach. We became a self-selected, intertwined, electric cloud of thoughts and information that wiggled it’s way into a coherent personality in the minds of our audience.. I’m sure it was fascinating (entertaining, as well) to watch, and even more mind-blowing to experience hands on.

I am definitely working at the right place, having fun and being challenged as a person. Yet another reason why #SISrocks and I’m feeling lucky to be here on a daily basis.


Rebecca (@b3cc4bu)

PS – For being at work on a National holiday, this is one of the coolest activities we could’ve done. It was a good time for all! Though definitely not out of the ordinary. (Sorry though that no one recorded the actual debate.. it was pretty hilarious.)

PPS – If you need a visual to go with, this is my groups quick short video documenting our process in preparing for the debate.

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