Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Wait Before You Get Your Group On

We know that students need to learn to work in groups. As adults, few of us have jobs where we work in isolation all the time. I've often told students that they need to work in a group because they will have to learn to work with fellow employees. I've told them they need to learn how to get along with others, like neighbors, roommates and and future family members. I've told them they will need to learn to compromise on ideas in order to get a work project done, contribute to an athletic committee, decide on a school musical or plan a fundraiser.

I've watched enough horrifying, hand-over-the-eyes Project Runway "group challenges" and American Idol "group round all-night practice sessions" to know how wrong group work can end up.

All are valid reasons to engage students in different types of group work, or group "projects" so they can be successful later on. That skill, along with effective speaking and listening, are what I would consider life skills.

However, a recent question brought to our MN Educator Voxer group by a fellow teacher, who is also a parent, caused me to reflect on the use of groups in our classrooms. The frequency of group work, the weight of group work, and the skills needed for group work.

As I prepared for my first observation by my instructional coach (Erik), my use of group work was on my mind.

I've been touting the benefits of teaching speaking and listening skills for a long time (see this post about teaching PVLEGS ). I know that it takes a concentrated effort to include lessons on effective speaking in my daily routines. Once the ball gets rolling, like it has this year, practicing speaking just becomes part of what we do. I don't assume that my students are great speakers just because they can talk to their friends. I teach them.

What about working in groups? Do we assume that students are good at it because they've been working in groups since Kindergarten? Because they gather in groups in the hallway? Because they have been part of athletic groups, church groups, online video game groups?

Are we overlooking the fact that our students need direct teaching about how to work effectively in groups? What about informally assessing their ability to work in groups? Teaching specific lessons, with modeling and formative feedback.

In my class, once we have learned the PVLEGS of effective speaking, we'll watch strong examples as models. We'll videotape ourselves speaking, and then analyze the good, bad and ugly in order to make improvements. We'll have multiple opportunities to try speaking for various purposes and in front of various audiences. All this, before we ever give a big speech, or get graded on how well we speak.

Why then, don't we do the same for working collaboratively in groups? Why do we put students in groups on the first day, or even the first week, and expect them to work well together from the outset? Why are we surprised when there are arguments, when their work takes longer because they can't make decisions or compromise, when their workload is lopsided? Have we taught them how? Have we modeled what it looks like? Have we observed each other working in groups or videotaped group work and then analyzed it as a class? Have we showed part of an episode of a Project Runway group challenge or an American Idol group round where the members worked together effectively and were successful? Have we given students "mentor texts" for group work, like we do for writing?

Finally, are we monitoring the use of group work as a whole in our classrooms? Like how often we ask students to work in groups? Do they choose, or do we assign? How large are the groups? Halfway through my four sections of ELA today, I realized that I was asking students to work in groups of 5-6 to analyze a read-aloud. I hadn't given them enough time and practice working in groups of 3-4. Next time, I'll do better.

As middle school and high school teachers, do we check with our colleagues to even out the group work among our classes? Are they working in groups for each of us? How much is too much group work? Can we have too much of a good thing? Don't we need to work by ourselves sometimes, too?

I'm not offering any quick answers. However, thanks to this incredible colleague's Voxer question yesterday, I am giving the teaching and assigning of group work serious consideration.

It's a start.

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