Collaboration as a Vehicle for Critical Inquiry & Engagement in Literacies (Part 2 of 4)

How does collaboration promote critical inquiry and engagement in literacies for educators and students? This is the common question introduced in last week’s blog that will connect practitioner spotlights these next three weeks. The spotlights will read like an interview with questions and responses. Enjoy!

This week, I’m honored to introduce you to Karen Martin. Karen is an educator and district instructional coach at Denali Borough School District in Alaska. Check out her full bio below!

Describe a collaborative activity/model/design that you have been involved in or led that was connected to literacies.

This spring during the pandemic, our school district in Alaska (about 30 educators) collaborated to implement a student-engaged assessment strategy called Celebrations of Learning (adapted from EL Education). Ranging from the sciences to the humanities and everything in between, these cross-disciplinary products took the form of books, podcasts, poems, short stories, SED talks (a ‘TED’ talk format), art pieces, reading contracts, narrative biographies, and ebooks. It was a true celebration of literacy expression and learning across the schooling experience. 



So how did we make this happen? Over a period of four weeks, we used a full day in-service, three subsequent early-release days, and many shared spaces to come together to plan and put this initiative into practice. Because of COVID and safety mitigation measures, we could be in-person with students, but all adult learning had to be virtual. The virtual learning spaces were designed to provide a variety of professional learning opportunities, including direct instruction of practical strategies for use with students, collaboration for problem-solving and idea sharing, peer feedback, and independent work time. 

The end result:  we hosted 13 live Celebrations of Learning events using Zoom over three days! Students in three schools from every grade level shared their learning publicly with their families and communities. Leading up to these events, teachers collectively engaged students in reflective writing, feedback and revision, script writing, practice with public speaking and presenting, and answering questions. Students refined a multitude of literary skills through the process of creating products that became the centerpieces of their reflection and public sharing. I invite you to take a look at the wonderful work of our students by browsing this Wakelet (including the recordings of students’ live presentations)!



How did collaborating help you to grow as an educator?

When we began, we had a vague idea of what we were trying to accomplish. One of our guiding principles was that a celebration of learning is different from typical student presentations of work because of the role students play in telling the story of their learning (Berger, Vilen, & Woodfin, 2020). This distinction is critical because it not only centers students as sharers of their work, but actively engages them throughout all stages of their learning, particularly when they explain their sharing to a community-based authentic audience. As Berger et al. (2020) explain, “A celebration of learning is only a student-engaged assessment structure to the extent that students are engaged in explaining to families and community members how the work displayed reflects their learning and growth over time (p. 215).” 

Our collaboration through a collective (virtual) professional learning space and developing interdependence allowed us to co-construct a clear vision of our end goal and a plan for how we would support one another and our students. We were driven by our shared desire to celebrate our students’ work and an ongoing curiosity about what this initiative could look like. We worked together to study models and examples from other schools, share resources for specific strategies or reflection questions, apply strategies, and debrief the process. We invited each other into our learning spaces to see our students’ work and to do practice presentations in preparation for the live Zoom events. We also shared tears, struggles, frustrations, anxiety, and other challenging emotions -- emotions that, for once, were not driven by COVID! Through our shared experience, I discovered that we could do so much more than we initially envisioned. My belief in our efficacy grew and I had new confidence in our direct impact on student learning. This experience was so important as a way to close out this year. We were all burned out and over-tired, but we didn’t give up or say it was too much -- and our students didn’t either! 

How did collaborating benefit your students and their literacy learning?

Through our collaboration, we refined the kind of questions that we used to guide and engage students, specifically in understanding their own learning. We held up questions as mirrors and lenses to support students in understanding themselves and each other. We provided an authentic audience to rehearse and fine-tune and watched as they shared about how they had grown and changed as humans through this experience of sharing their learning and literacy creations. 

Words, each unique selection and arrangement, became the primary tool through voice and writing to create beautiful work, some supplemented with images and music, to convey what students understood about themselves as learners through the experience of creating. Students refined and applied literacy skills from creation to revision, from rehearsal to performance and production. One of the most critical outcomes for our students was a sense of pride in their accomplishments and new confidence about their abilities to learn. I have never seen anything like this kind of sharing and I have never seen these specific students share their learning in this way. We lifted them up collectively to lead and share their learning and then stepped back and watched them succeed. 

What were some "lessons learned" by collaborating? Anything you would share or recommend with other educators?

One of the most important lessons that I learned was by reflecting on a moment of true collective efficacy. Often, collective efficacy is a term tossed around by educators as cheerleaders might for morale raising or social persuasion. We rarely see our colleague’s actual teaching and hardly ever witness the work students produce in each other’s classrooms. Making intentional efforts to observe and share allows us to reflect on and assess whether we are really impacting student learning. It also helps us to break out of the old and envision new possibilities for ourselves and our students. 

My “a-ha!” moment occurred when I spoke with a colleague after he had been invited to watch students perform their final products. These student products were the result of extensive research, analysis of a mentor text, rounds of writing, and endless feedback and revision. The students were also his; students he teaches in another subject area. After watching the work that they produced, he exclaimed, “I’ve never seen them do anything like that!” He vicariously witnessed the powerful mastery experience of another teacher willing to open up her classroom, and from it he realized that he could pursue and accomplish the same thing. 

These are the two highest sources of collective efficacy:  mastery experiences and vicarious experiences. Though this moment was only shared between two colleagues, it exemplifies what we experienced collectively as an organization. We established a challenging initiative in a difficult time, acted boldly, centered our students, and relied on our interdependence and collaborative inquiry to help us accomplish our shared goals. We witnessed an impact on our students and their learning that amazed us. The lesson I would share is that the kind of collaborative work that has the potential to truly impact efficacy and student learning is the kind that encourages teachers to work on shared challenges together. It requires actively opening up classrooms to witness each other’s work and being vulnerable enough and humble enough to celebrate each other’s successes (and mistakes!). Doing so models for our students what true collaboration can look like and gives them the opportunity to engage in this powerful form of learning, as well.

Thank you to Karen for making her collaboration and literacy teaching and learning visible to us in this post! Karen has participated in and helped lead a number of collaborative educational efforts, including the NW RISE and AKRISE networks. Give Karen a follow on Twitter at @mountaingirlak and the AKRISE network at @AKRISE_Network.

Be sure to come back next week for another practitioner spotlight!

Happy collaborating (and reading, too, of course!),


(Twitter:  @mtpoc)


Karen’s Bio:

Karen Martin has worked in Denali Borough School District for 16 years as a teacher and currently as the district instructional coach.  As instructional coach, her responsibilities include leading all things related to professional learning and development aligned to the goals of DBSD’s instructional model Denali Learning, which she helped develop. She holds a Master of Science, in Genetics, and a Master of Arts in Teaching, in Elementary Education, degrees and is certified K-8. She is a Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching grantee to Finland (2014); a Fund For Teacher Fellow to Finland (2017); and was a finalist for Alaska Teacher of the Year (2018). She led a teacher-led, grassroots effort to create a rural teachers network for Alaska (AKRISE) now at the beginning of its third year that engages rural teachers in collaborative work to connect both students and teachers across the state of Alaska. She is also currently a doctoral student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks studying teacher agency.


Learn more about Karen’s Collaborative Work! 

Link to the Our Alaskan Schools Blog about the collaboration with student, teacher, and administrator voices: 

Link to the Wakelet (linked above) that captures student learning in documentation panels and links to all live student presentations:

You can read more about NW RISE via these blog posts (Education Northwest and Shanker Institute) and this report (Battelle for Kids). You can read more about AKRISE by visiting the AKRISE network website



Berger, R., Vilen, A., & Woodfin, L. (2020). The leaders of their own learning companion: New tools for tackling the common challenges of student-engaged assessment. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.