Adventures in Student Collaboration

Those of us who teach middle school know. When we put students in groups and expect them to collaborate with their peers they will often:

  • complain they don’t like someone in their group and refuse to work with them
  • talk entirely off task about movies and sporting events and gossip
  • constantly rely on you for help as often as they can get your attention
  • be afraid to admit they need help from a peer (cuz who wants to do that when you’re 13?)
  • do whatever the student they deem “smart” says and ride on their coattails but not really learn anything

It can be a frustrating experience so I’ve been working on this for years now. Yes years! Recently I thought I’d made a lot of progress but I find I am still missing those kids who fall into the last 2 groups. Yes, I have normalized mistakes. Yes, I have done team building and collaboration games that have nothing to do with math. Yes, I have preached growth mindset. In fact I’ve done this so much that I have had students quietly complain to me that they really do want to learn but when they ask for help they are only given the answer but not a thorough explanation. Ok, that is progress. But I still need to fix it. This year I even tried grading solely on the Standards for Math Practices but that only helped for about a month.

So for the past month I’ve been trying a few strategies I learned from the California Math Council – South Conference from David Foster at the Silicon Valley Math Initiative and from Ellen Crews at Vista Innovation and Design Academy and so far they are working fabulously!

So first, watch this video of students working on perimeter with Algebra tiles but stop it where it says “Later” and come back here before watching the rest:

At the “Later”? Ok – I know what you’re thinking…Ana still doesn’t really understand the work. But watch what happens next…go ahead back to the video.

Amazing, right? So I tried it. Here’s what I did:

  1. Front loaded the lesson with vocabulary only – and an essential question
  2. Gave the students an investigation they could productively struggle with and asked them to raise their hands to “clear” their work with me before they could move on (I haven’t developed a stamp sheet yet like the teacher in the video but I plan to).
  3. Made myself as unavailable as possible and tried to be busy taking attendance, passing back papers, talking with students who’d been absent, etc
  4. When groups were ready I glanced over their work and then asked 1-4 of the students to explain their work and how they got their answers. This changed daily – some days I’d just ask my “Anas” – other days everyone would get a question. At every group I had to say “I’ll be back” at least once. If I noticed any glaring misunderstandings I asked more clarifying questions.
  5. To light a fire under some groups, I kept them in a few minutes into nutrition until they’d “cleared” their work.

The Results:

  1. It was rough the first 2 times: At least 2-3 groups in each class stayed in to finish their explaining. I sweated. They weren’t happy. Some kids objected about not getting to move on. They didn’t want to explain it again. I preached the deeper understanding they would gain.
  2. By the 3rd class groups got on task more quickly. They talked more. They asked questions. They got out of their seats to talk more animatedly with each other. They asked each other if they understood. They stopped looking for me until they were ready.
  3. When I came over to clear them, they rooted for each other (I heard “You got this!” and “You can do this!”) and when they were “cleared” they all said “Yes!” (there were even some high fives). They were excited and happy. They were a team.
  4. I heard a lot of “ooooohhh!”s and “ah ha” moments. Students saw that other students were “smart” or had insight the other kids didn’t. It worked!

And then I switched groups…and it was slightly like starting over again BUT there was a much more positive atmosphere. One student even said, “Don’t worry. This is the first time we’ve worked together. We’ll get it.”

Next Steps:

  1. Develop a stamp sheet that will then become part of their grade so groups can work at their own pace and use Friday as a catch up day or math game day if all groups are done.
  2. Assign more group roles, specifically a “communicator” who I can give hints to as they are needed – and who (perhaps) can visit other groups when theirs is stuck (I already have a supply person, and team leader – I may need a time keeper as well).
  3. Finish reading the book Designing Groupwork: Strategies for the Heterogeneous Classroom by Elizabeth Cohen
  4. Find ways to tie in more technology – perhaps using Classflow for some reporting out instead of wipe boards.
  5. Look into “Participation Quizzes”

If you try any of this please let me know how it goes! Or if you’ve done something similar I would love more tips. Or if you have ideas for a good stamp sheet, please send it.