Collaboration and Chaos: The Best Laid Plans Sometimes Fall Apart

Collaborative HaikuI am a big fan of the potential of collaborative projects. I’ve instigated my fair share of activities in online spaces, inviting people to make with me, and I’ve participated in even more. There’s often a certain “magic” with writing and creating with other people with digital tools that demonstrates attributes that get at the heart of how technology is changing the ways we learn. Collaboration has often been the heart and soul of the Making Learning Connected MOOC (and some of us still hope to launch a version of CLMOOC this summer) and Digital Writing Month and Rhizomatic Learning, etc.

I’ve done versions of those projects in my classroom, too, but harnessing the energy of 12 year olds can be a bit tricky, so I often have to think through the process before launching into them.

A collaborative poetry project this week reminded me of the difficulties of working with young writers not all that accustomed to working with others this way. We’ve used the “sharing” element of Google Docs and Slides this year, mostly for peer feedback. I know they share with friends, and I’ve seen some “side projects” among them.

In this case, I created a large Google Slideshow for our haikus, and told them to “choose a blank slide as your own” and create a haiku image. I also did a mini-lesson on using Creative Commons images as well as design principles, which we clearly are still working on. I had this vision of a beautiful and engaging activity, where nearly 80 haikus with images from across four classes would come together in a seamless way.

I reminded them not to tinker with anyone else’s slides because it was an quasi-open slideshow (they needed to be logged into school Google accounts to access it).

You see where this is going?

The first class of the day was wonderful. They did a great job, although some of their images wouldn’t load later in the day. It went nearly exactly as I planned. It was downhill from there. The second class did fine, but I got a few who shouted across the room to other students to “get out of my slide.” Some were confusing the icons at the top of the project (which shows all collaborators) with intrusion into an individual slide. A mini-lesson ensued.

The third class had trouble right at the start because the wireless connection caused the slideshow to load slow, and some chose what seemed to be an empty slide, only to realize it wasn’t empty after all. And some students there tried to leave little notes for friends in their slides. That got some writers upset.

The fourth class (a challenging group at times) .. I decided to assign a slide number of blank slides for each to work on. You are Slide 56. You are Slide 74. This seemed logical to me at the time as a way to avoid confusion over who was working in which slides.

But then, someone added in a few slides at the start, by accident (maybe), and all of the numbered slides were suddenly off, and so we had some more confusion over which person had which number. Someone deleted a blank slide. The numbers were off yet again. Another student accidentally set her image as the theme for the entire slideshow, so that now everyone had an image of green grass as their background. Shouts and murmurs. The “undo” key fixed it but not before a wave of complaints hit the air.

Collaboration suddenly edged up to chaos. It was like some strange comedy routine unfolding in a virtual space in real time.

At that point, I just said “grab a slide and add your poem” and let it be what it was. The result is an interesting slideshow, and a story to tell, but not everyone got their poems into the collaboration project. The ones that are there are very cool, though. I still love the idea.

And off course, I have not given up on collaboration. Still, my experience does raise the question of how to best guide students in this kind of low-stakes activity. And it reminds me, too, of why many teachers often don’t take that step forward into online collaboration. I was doing a lot of unexpected management of collaboration when what I really wanted the day built on implicit trust that they could do this rather simple task of collaboration.

What I forgot to remember was the innate curiosity and social nature of sixth graders. Duh.

Peace (in collaboration with you),


  1. Ah, yes, the “side projects.” This truly sounds familiar. I, too, think through the process in an attempt to spot potential problems. I can empathize with your lofty goals for the morning’s project. Slow connections really cause problems with the attention span of young ones. I have also thought of assigning kids a special slide number–NOT going to do that now (ha, ha). I like your mini lesson on Creative Commons. We have used Google Docs built-in research tool to filter images for re-use with modifications. It may not be perfect, but it does develop an understanding of the need to respect the work of others. And while the project might evolve into something a bit different from what was planned, the kids often still remember the process and acquire the skills. “Comedy routine!” I’ve often thought of Candid Camera! Clearly, someone must be filming this. 😉

  2. I’ve had a nearly identical experience with 6 word memoirs and seventh graders! Thank goodness for the revision history on Google that ended up saving our project! Your project, though not quite what you planned, looks beautiful anyway.

  3. Thanks, Kevin, for sharing from the trenches. Sharing what can go wrong is just as important as sharing successes (which I know will follow soon).


  4. No one has more respect, admiration and gratitude for teachers than I, but, with all due respect, we need to be concerned that today’s teachers cannot write well. The quality of one’s thinking is directly connected to one’s knowledge and mastery of language.

    Your article states, in the first sentence, that you’re “inviting people to make with me, and I’ve . . .” To make what with you? Do you mean you’ve invited people to participate with you? Moving on, there’s a “certain ‘magic’ in writing and creating” not “with” writing and creating with other people using (instead of “with”) digital tools.

    This business of technology changing “the ways we learn” needs clarification. The human brain hasn’t changed just because of technology. This means the brain still learns in the same ways it always has.

    Maybe referring to technology as a method for learning is far more accurate and not as misleading. This is important because, from all I’ve read, reformers are acting as though, somehow, technology has completely transformed the next generation of human beings. Big mistake. Huge!

    Today’s teachers also need to be careful about letting common core proponents lead them into believing they can push geometry on 6th graders and similar nonsense. The brain isn’t fully developed in most kids until their mid-twenties. The notion that some of the problems can be solved by pushing advanced subjects onto younger and younger minds is about as far from the truth as one can get.

    Back to errors, such as “it was an quasi-open slideshow”? Seriously? It’s “a quasi-open.” No comma after “haikus” in “for our haikus and told them . . .” because there’s no separate subject to the right of the conjunction. “I also did a mini-lesson.” How about “I also taught a mini-lesson” to elevate your writing to a formal level befitting of your education and title? I’m not familiar with Creative Commons, but it appears the rest of the sentence should include an apostrophe and a few more commas, as in “. . . on using Creative Commons’ images, as well as design principles, which, clearly, we are still working on.

    As to “[i]t went nearly exactly as I planned,” what is “nearly exactly” besides awkward. Saying “nearly as planned” is much better. Then there’s the very informal “I got a few who shouted.” I got? Actually, “there were a few who shouted.”

    And, what is it “to assign a slide number of blank slides for each . . .”? It may have been the assignment of a number “for” each set of blank slides or a number assigned “to” each set or grouping of blank slides, but what was written makes no sense. To say, oh, well, readers know what I meant misses the point. To encourage and help students produce quality work, a teacher must know, appreciate and care about quality.

    There are other errors, but the two that cannot be ignored are in the last paragraph. Presumably, the first sentence should begin with “[a]nd, of course,” instead of “off course,” and the sentence beginning with “I was doing,” which is fine until it reaches “when what I really wanted the day built on . . .” It has to be “when what I really wanted was a day built upon” or “when I really wanted the day to be built upon.”

    You’re not alone, Kevin. The quality of the writing and proofreading of online articles is quite embarrassing, but I’m sure you can appreciate that it’s exceptionally embarrassing when the writers are teachers.

    Since there’s no way to know these things unless someone points them out, I felt I had an obligation to share what I know.

  5. It’s so easy to kill our students’ love of writing (am intentionally choosing not to pair “so” with “that”).

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