What If We Taught Them Communication and Collaboration? Alumni from a Project- Based High School Reflect

November 26, 2017
by Andrew Larson


What happens when you intentionally develop a common vocabulary and set of practices around collaboration at school? What if nearly everyone in a school community spoke with a professional, efficient, kind and productive lexicon? How would that translate for them later in life?


At Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School, we are very intentional about using language and developing practices that both emulate professionalism and increase productivity. Over ten years, it has become (though by no means original or patented) a trademark of our school that our students learn to speak with language that fosters clear and open communication with others in a professional setting. And while we claim no perfection, we hear from alumni that the language and collaborative processes that they developed while in high school set them apart and gave them leadership skills that their peers lacked.


Recently I was scrolling Facebook when I happened upon a thread involving several former students. All now out of college and gainfully employed or enrolled in post- graduate programs, they were musing over some of the phrases and practices that they use in their work and adult lives. I thought it would be interesting to elicit a bit more from them (via Facebook, of course,) asking, “What types of language and collaborative practice do you commonly use in your adult work life?” Caleb Warren, Class of 2015, reflects that, “I think that out of everything I’ve taken away, the most important is collaboration. I never knew how important it was until CSA, and whether I’m bringing it up in job interviews, work, or casual conversation, I always try to remember teamwork. It always makes the load easier and everyone happier.”


Caleb Warren and Wyatt Tracy CSA New Tech HS Class of 2015

Here are a few of the questions and practices shared by graduates now out of college and making their way as adults:


1. “What are our goals?” While this seems like a fundamentally simple and perhaps obvious way to start a meeting, conversation, or project, I still find myself in meetings in my out- of- school life where this conversation never happens. We may start talking, and after ten rambly minutes, I find myself unsure of what it is we are trying to accomplish. When this happens, I feel inclined to press pause and ask the question. I am always glad that I did.

Sarah Flores, CSA New Tech, Class of 2012

One of the habits we try to instill in students at the outset of any collaborative meeting, project, work session, or intervention is to lay out clear, concrete goals. It is also very helpful to set a time limit for discussion of topics, especially if there are many items on the list that need to be addressed.

“Can I ask a clarifying question?” A novel concept, again, but one that we try to be intentional about defining for all involved. These questions happen near the start of a complex topic to be discussed in depth, and are likely to be answered quickly and easily by the presenter. Generally, a more efficient conversation ensues. Some examples of clarifying questions are, “how many people do you think will be involved,” “how long you expect this project to take,” or “is there a budget for this proposal?”

Similarly important for presenters is to ask, “Are there any clarifying questions?” Sarah Flores, CSA New Tech Class of 2012, is an Intervention Specialist at Turning Point Domestic Violence Services and says, “I CONSTANTLY ask if there are any clarifying questions whenever I’m presenting.”

Tessa Wilson, CSA New Tech, Class of 2013

2. “What do we know, and what do we need to know” in order to solve this problem?” Tessa Wilson, CSA New Tech Class of 2013, is a Cardiac Monitor Tech at Major Health Partners and says, “I’ve found that when we have a new policy at work or (something is discussed) in our council meetings to improve our patient satisfaction, I often use the “know-need to know” process for myself or to help educate other staff…here’s what they broadly know, and here’s an extra tid bit that they may need to know to improve of quality of care and efficiency of time.”

This is the very process that we use to dig into every project that we present to students, and is similarly used by our staff when we are grappling with something difficult. The act of taking inventory of prior knowledge and pinpointing the challenges or learning that needs to occur is so fundamentally important that, again, I find myself surprised when a similar process is excluded in adult meetings outside of school.

Hope Alexander, CSA New Tech HS, Class of 2013

3. “What I think I hear you saying is…” The act of paraphrasing is a clear indication that active listening is occurring. When phrased this way, it sends the message that you (the listener) are definitely interested in clear communication and understanding. This can be used, of course, in a situation where the topic is somewhat uncomfortable, and can help the other(s) involved see a different point of view on an important matter.

4. “I am sharing you on a Google Doc right now.” Hah! It is clear that the world lags behind when it comes to the use of collaborative digital tools.  Hope Alexander, a Political Science Ph.D student at Northern Illinois University says, “Still being in school, I definitely still use a lot of the collaborative tools we were exposed to for projects. I often teach people about Google Docs or Box so we can work on one document together!”

Emily Darlage, CSA New Tech HS, Class of 2013

5. “What is our Problem Statement?” Again, a fundamental part of the Project- Based Learning process involves the creation of a Problem Statement that drives every facet of the work. Sarah Flores says, “Currently, the prevention team is reconstructing our narrative and mission statement for the agency, and we’re using a “how do we as (blank) do/create (blank) so that (blank)” driving question to help shape our ideas.”

6.  “What are our next steps?” and “What are our benchmarks?” These essential questions are brought to you by Emily Darlage, CSA New Tech Class of 2013 and currently a Program Associate in an Indiana manufacturing company. Emily says, “When we receive new business from a customer, we have a launch meeting and create a living document with our next steps and due dates of when they need to happen in order for our company to launch the program successfully.

Alex Whirley, CSA New Tech HS, Class of 2013

7.  “Who is responsible for what, and by when?” Alex Whirley, also a CSA NewTech graduate from the Class of 2013, is now part of a Digital Technology Leadership Program for a Fortune 500 company. She learned in high school that it is vital to have accountability and specific job assignments for the team members involved. “We also have roles in a lot of teams, similar to liaison and team leader like we used to have (in school,) just under different titles.”

It is worth noting that before starting at CSA myself, I had approximately zero of these habits, as a ten- year teaching veteran. These skills are developed over time and with practice. And they do not develop in a vacuum, but rather in a system (school) where people learn to speak the language and live the practice together. It will take years to develop. If, though, the testimonials of these graduates reflect a broader trend of collaborative skill development in our students, it is all worth it.