Engaging in a Collaborative Learning Environment

I’m heavily involved in my local Suzuki Strings group. It wasn’t something I grew up with – playing the piano is a pretty solitary event for a good amount of the training experience. But my daughters both gravitated to string instruments, and just as dads pick up mitts and head out to backyards when t-ball/machine pitch/little league season come around, I started accompanying and then became a board member.

Though I’ve been involved in music since I can remember, what I have learned over the last few years has been significant. But the greatest lesson that has manifested itself differently, and often, is that grouping learners together is invaluable. When an advanced student has to rethink about HOW they make a sound, WHY they are moving their arm, positioning their hand or directing the bow in a certain way across a certain part of the strings, fundamentals within the craft of musicality are recalled, reconfirmed, and a deeper appreciation for this habit is solidified.

The beginning students benefit as well. When they are allowed to make music as a small part of a more advanced group and with their teachers, they get familiar with how their instrument could sound, they have a goal to aim for.

A few weeks ago, my boss directed me to a TED talk by Victor Wooten, where Wooten that the way we learn and teach language is the way we should learn and teach all sorts of things. Children don’t learn to speak by only devoting 30 minutes a day to working through a set of identified words, they don’t learn by repeating just those words. Children learn to speak by being immersed in a world of language, surrounded by vocabulary that is easy and hard, attainable and beyond reach.

As writers, it is easy to slip into comfortable tendency to limit our associations with people who are on the same level as us, whatever that may be, but to totally hone our craft, we need to constantly be immersing ourselves in the art of writing. Of course personal interactions and live feedback are essential, but so is an awareness of both above and below where we are, an awareness of our strengths and weaknesses. We need to reflect on WHY we are at this level, HOW we got to be at this level, and WHAT we need to do to fill in the fundamental things we may have forgotten along our journey that may be hindering our progression.

SO HOW DO WE BUILD OUR COLLABORATIVE CLASSROOM?

Since getting together once a week with writers on different levels isn’t going to happen, the easiest way to do this is through reading, but we have to be mindful of what we are reading. Yes, it is essential that we read our genre, but it is also of utmost importance that we consider the very real possibility that reading JUST our genre could pigeonhole our writing. It’s rare that most people learn anything listening to their own single echo reverberating back through a canyon.

We have to remember the value of the collaborative classroom is the degrees of difference. Diversify the ages of characters you are reading, the degrees of magic, the manifestations of emotion. Experience books and movies and TV shows that are different than what you read, that play with pacing, character development, both intensities and kinds of emotional tensions.

But the degrees of difference show up in other art too. I listen to classical music nearly all day long: it’s the only kind of music I can listen to when I need to work. But in down times, I tune into the soulful brilliance of Adele, the happy feeling of Taylor Swift, the unexpected blends of genres from Time for Three and even rock out to Shinedown. I need to hear how each of these play with the sounds of heartbreak, happiness, celebration and sadness. How they negotiate the shifts in key, transition into a chorus, decide what to repeat and what to let linger as a solitary statement of strength.

And then, most important, I set aside time to consider how each of these artists honed their craft, what techniques they used. If it’s something I can’t figure out, I go back to craft books, looking through at what I’ve highlighted, scanning the table of contents for hints. And then, in the true collaborative nature of a classroom, I start asking others in pursuit of art if they have read, listened, seen, if what happened makes sense to them, if they can figure out how it was created.

For me, the best part of this creative pursuit is the thrill of knowing I can know more, better, deeper, richer, and that my meager thank you to those who have helped me advance in my knowledge and craft is to contribute to the collaboration and advancement of others as well.
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Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and coordinator of the project-based learning center (EDGE) at Southern Utah University. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a hint of magic, and thrives on Diet Coke, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is a co-founder and the managing editor for the Thinking Through Our Fingers blog as well as the Women’s Fiction Writers Association quarterly magazine, where she also serves as a board member. Tasha is represented by Annelise Robey of the Jane Rotrosen Agency.

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