OISE program brings innovation to both practicum and classroom management

Experienced teachers learn alongside candidates they will mentor.

By Wendy Harris

Half the students in this Grade 11 Scarborough class are cool, and they know it. The boys walk with a certain swagger, as if auditioning for the next big rap video. The waists of their ultra baggy jeans hang-by some miracle-close to their knees. Luckily their extra large shirts go down far enough to cover the gap. By contrast, the girls' clothes are the opposite of baggy and their faces show evidence of a few trips to the cosmetics counter.

The students in the other half of the class come from very different cultural, religious and family backgrounds. The influence of rock videos likely takes a back seat in their homes to more traditional ways of dressing and conduct. Some are fairly new to Canada, and some are still learning the intricacies of the English language.

So in this truly multicultural class that's a mix of cool and conservative, in-your-face posing and modesty, the last thing you'd expect to see is these kids really communicating with each other.

But because of a teaching program at work here called Tribes they're doing much more than just talking. They're trusting each other and relating, and sharing feelings and frustrations.

Group Process

Tribes is a group process in which students are encouraged to take risks, to challenge one another and themselves in an inclusive, respectful and co-operative classroom environment. The name refers to North American aboriginal tribes' practices that create a group-centred, rather than individual-centred, culture where everyone works together towards common goals.

On a snowy November day, the students in this academic English class at Winston Churchill High School have been asked to mill around the classroom to a pulsating hip-hop beat. Each time the music is turned off, their teacher, Carolyn Brown, has told them to "stop, face the person nearest to you and share."

And they do. They embrace this activity wholeheartedly, first sharing what they like most about Anne Cameron, the student teacher who has just spent the last month doing her practicum in their classroom, and then sharing something about what they're planning to do in December.

The milling and sharing activity is part of a community circle and, like native healing circles, is a central strategy for modelling collaborative social skills and fostering participation in a caring and inclusive milieu.

"Our community circle is the best... it brings everyone together," says Krystine, a student in the class. "We do it every day. We talk about stuff that went wrong or that we could do better... We don't shut any people out. We accept everyone's input."

Four Agreements

In a Tribes classroom, students are divided into groups, or tribes, which form a safe and caring nest for co-operative learning. These groups provide the foundation for a process that unfolds over the course of a year as students learn to interact in a positive and socially responsible way.

Their interactions are based on four community agreements that are fundamental among the Tribes members: everyone must listen attentively; no putdowns are allowed; mutual respect is always honoured; everyone has the right to "pass" on a response or an activity that they feel they can't contribute to at the moment.

What distinguishes Tribes from many other similar programs is that it provides a series of specific and concrete activities for teachers to do with their students that build on each other to promote a vibrant, caring and democratic environment.

A progressive sequence exists for these exercises so that eventually, structures are in place that both students and teachers can use to construct a connected classroom where students experience a real sense of belonging and genuine partnerships can happen.

The program is slowly filtering its way into boards across Ontario. Tribes-trained teachers have been working for about 10 years in the Durham District School Board (the first board in Ontario to adopt the program) and six in Toronto.

Denise Overall, the co-ordinator of staff development for the Toronto District School Board, says more than 2,000 teachers in over 50 schools in Toronto have been trained so far.

Huge Shift

Teachers aren't the only ones who are being trained. In some schools, office staff, administrators and even caretakers also learn the Tribes techniques to ensure that the whole school environment is inclusive. "It sends a very strong message when you include everybody," says Overall. "This kind of collaborative culture is a new thing. It's far from autonomous teachers in their classrooms doing their own thing... It's a huge shift in thinking."

Penny Ballagh, an instructor at OISE/UT who teaches Tribes, says that while the program fosters a sense of belonging to a group, it at the same time values the cultural diversity of individual students and their unique learning styles. "It pulls together so much of what we're learning about brain theory."

And she says that while good teachers have always appealed to the different learning styles of their students, Tribes codifies the methodology, making it accessible to a broad range of teachers.

A First

English and media studies teacher Carolyn Brown (left) and student teacher Anne Cameron use Tribes training to build co-operation and esprit de corps among students.

This past fall-in a first for the education faculty-in-service and pre-service teachers learned about Tribes together in an OISE course that has been approved for Professional Learning Program credits. After 24 hours of classroom instruction by Ballagh and Karen Sheppard, the in-service teachers teamed up with the student teachers for their practicum placements, many of them at Winston Churchill.

It was a novel way for experienced and inexperienced teachers alike to learn about Tribes at the same time as getting to know one another before landing in front of a class for practice teaching.

"We haven't tried this before," says Ballagh, who came up with the initial idea of combining both experienced and inexperienced teachers in a single classroom. "We knew there were both teachers and teacher-candidates who wanted the Tribes training... Often teacher candidates are nervous and anxious about practicums. This way, they would have a relationship going into it. It provides networking and mentoring possibilities."

Sheppard, who is seconded from the Durham board, says the reaction of student teachers who had the opportunity to integrate Tribes theory and practice during their practice teaching is immediate. "I can see the light bulbs going on," she says.

Even before implementing the OISE/UT program, Ballagh recognized just how valuable the relationship between new and veteran teachers could be to enrich the practicum experience. But she needed a willing principal to co-operate.

"I put feelers out that I was looking for a school to play with," she says. Trina Wood, principal at Winston Churchill High School, leapt at the opportunity.

Logical Step

For Wood, participating in Tribes training along with a dozen or so teachers from her school was a logical next step. Both her vice-principals had been Tribes trained and she was already using many of the techniques herself in leading staff meetings.

For example, in her first staff meeting, she asked her teachers to line up in A to Z fashion based on their favourite foods. Almonds to zucchini lined up and got to know each other better than they did before. In another exercise, teachers were grouped according to where they lived and soon realized that many were neighbours and didn't know it.

"It not only broke the ice," says Wood, "But it gave them important information about each other." At the same time, she adds, it provided valuable models for teachers using Tribes techniques that they could take directly into their classrooms.

Seamless Fit

Tribes was a seamless fit for Winston Churchill, where collegiality among the staff is a priority and students are expected to participate very fully in the life of the school. "It provides a lot of empowerment for students... It gives them a voice," says Wood. "You have to go through a calculated process so that everyone can work as a team. You must make every kid believe that he or she is part of a class all working together towards the same goal."

Clearly, the experience of Tribes training was pivotal for Wood. So much so, in fact, that she believes it should be a mandatory course for all student teachers who are inundated with mastering material and curriculum to the exclusion of studying classroom technique. "Tribes starts to equip their tool bag," she says.

Moreover, Wood's experience has shown her how crucial it is that associate and student teachers have a chance to get to know each other before they begin their practicum. She suggests that in the future she will ensure that such a relationship exists on some level before teacher candidates and associate teachers land in the same classroom together.

There'd be no arguments with that approach from Carolyn Brown, an English and media studies teacher who did Tribes training with Wood. For Brown, it was critical that she got to know Anne Cameron, her student teacher, before the practicum began.

"I ended up with a student who was philosophically aligned with me," says Brown. "I think I would have been frustrated otherwise and I wouldn't have been as eager to take on a teacher candidate."
"We just clicked, there was synergy," says Cameron.

As for what the Tribes training itself taught them, both Brown and Cameron are utterly passionate. "I think I've become 100 times better as a teacher," says Brown. "Instead of throwing them into groups and hoping for the best, it gives my students skills and strategies. Tribes is really about team building so that when you put them into groups, they can run themselves. This gives them real strategies for communicating."

Research Based

Cameron, who has a master's degree in adult education, says Tribes is based on well-established research on how students learn. From her perspective, there is little that is brand new in Tribes. Rather, it pulls together many critical pieces of educational philosophy that have grown and taken root during the past few decades. "Tribes really works."

With Brown and Cameron at the helm in this classroom, the place is electric with energy. The students are grouped in their tribes with names like Dream Team, Hardworking Hustlers, Silent Tribe and Mad Tavs. It would appear that the constant collaboration is just the way they like it.

"We support each other, we help each other and share ideas," says Mano, one of the many very engaged students. "We can help people who are quieter to express themselves... It works for homework too."

Brown is quick to point out that some teachers have misconceptions about what Tribes is and what it can accomplish. She insists that it's not all "lovey-dovey" but in fact a systematic approach to building co-operation and esprit de corps in a classroom. And while Tribes is plainly suited to the humanities like English or drama, it can be equally effective in less obvious class settings like phys ed, math or science.

"In gym, we call it teams," says phys ed teacher Steve Gilles, who says many of the strategies he learned can be easily transferred into a gym where a co-operative spirit is so crucial.

For Dave Brinton, an English and drama teacher, Tribes has taken much of the guesswork out of how to construct positive collaboration in his classes. And because it is not a doctrinaire system, it allows for flexibility in how and when to apply it so that it can work in very unique settings.

The teacher candidates who learned about Tribes alongside their more seasoned counterparts were equally enthusiastic about the experience. Aaron Piercey, who did his practicum in Brinton's classroom, says that learning the Tribes techniques with the teacher he ended up working with for a month gave them a shared focus and a common language to communicate with one another about teaching. "There was already an environment of trust," he says. "We came in knowing at least 12 teachers... who have hundreds of collective years of information among them."
As for Tribes training itself, Piercey says it has given him a head start in figuring out what kinds of techniques might work for him when he becomes a full-fledged teacher.


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