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Fall 2014

Collaboration: Student + Alum

Vanessa Rodriguez, Ed.M.'13, a current doctoral student, loves collaborating on projects.

After 12 years as a classroom teacher, she says, “I don’t like doing anything without a partner. I loved team teaching.”

So it made sense that after she was approached by a publisher to write a book about the work she was doing on the “teaching brain” for her dissertation, she would turn to Michelle “Billie” Fitzpatrick, Ed.M.’12, a former Mind, Brain, and Education Program classmate with tons of editing and writing experience, including dozens of books.

“She knew my work and really got it,” Rodriguez says of Fitzpatrick. “She also has two daughters, both very different learners. This book is for parents, too. Everyone is a teacher.”

The book, The Teaching Brain, is due out this fall. Rodriguez says lots of research already exists about the nature and science of learning — the learning brain — but there is very little on why and how humans teach. The Teaching Brain looks at the cognitive, biological, and psychological processes that are happening when someone is teaching, and not just in the classroom. As Rodriguez points out, children as young as the age of three begin to teach. What’s unique about the research is that instead of looking at teaching as simply a tool — a teacher teaches and there is an outcome for the learner — Rodriguez and Fitzpatrick show that teaching is an interaction.

“When learning happens, or doesn’t, you can’t measure just one of the people,” Rodriguez says. You can’t just say someone is a bad teacher or a good student. “There’s a reciprocity. Each person is responding based on what the other person is saying or how they are reacting.”

Reciprocity was key when the duo set out to write the book in only six months. Fitzpatrick, who in addition to being a writer is currently a teaching fellow for Ed School lecturers Todd Rose, Ed.M.’01, Ed.D.’07, and Nancy Sommers, says they started by spending a lot of time working on an outline at the proposal stage. They also balanced each other.

“Vanessa had a great concept of the teaching brain and wanted to share it,” Fitzpatrick says. “I knew a lot about the model, but also how to turn it into a book. We were a good match.”

When Rodriguez was stuck, she says Fitzpatrick would “get me to a place where I could keep writing. She’s a pretty intense editor and thought partner. She is pretty wonderful. A calming force.”

For more: Listen to a Harvard EdCast with Vanessa Rodriguez.