Saturday, January 31, 2015

Group Work Update


So it’s half way through the year and once again, I am thinking pretty deeply about group work and how to teach and sustain it in my classroom. From September until December, I had students sit in pairs. I launched roles for the pairs and the question-asking protocol (see my previous entry) in September. However, I did not continue to reinforce either of those, so they fell out of use. Coming into January, I decided that I wanted to re-launch group work. I moved my desks into groups of four and reintroduced my question protocol. I changed the partner roles into group roles, adapting language and ideas from here. I structured the first two weeks of class in January to explicitly teach and build these routines. Since then, I have been trying to do at least one lesson a week where I plan a task and a structure that relies on the group roles and (hopefully) teaches the students more explicitly about how to use them.

Here are the group roles that I am using. Facilitator is split between two people if there are four in a group and is done by one person if there are three in a group.
Keep the group pointed in the direction of reaching a shared understanding:
   read instructions aloud
   enforce norms
   resolve conflicts, find compromises
   organize production of high-quality group deliverables to turn in

Keep the process of collaboration running smoothly:
Person A:
   watch progress & the time
   make sure the group meets its deadline
   lead the process of filling out the group self-assessment questionnaire to turn in
Person B (if your group has only 3 people, Person A should also do these roles):
   get the work off to a fast start
   make sure everyone participates (turn-taking)
   make sure everybody has good written record of work

Get what your group needs:
   get & return all needed supplies
   organize the group to ask a group question of the teacher (make sure that anyone in the group can state the shared question)
   call the teacher over for group questions
   organize clean-up
(As a side note, when I launch group roles next year, I would like to have the group roles cards also have sentence frames for each role.)

I am also currently participating in a 5-session workshop where I am thinking about group work in my classroom as well as group work in others teachers’ classrooms. For this group, I had to present a success (using this protocol) and I chose to talk about my introductory lesson for group roles. I somewhat unexpectedly found this a really useful exercise. I have a tendency to focus on the challenges I am having and figuring out how to change or fix them. Not only did focusing on a success make me feel more confident about my teaching, presenting it and hearing responses from other teachers helped me identify what made this lesson so successful. This will make me a better teacher because now I know what I should keep doing.

I started with some of the context above, along with some pictures of my classroom set-up and overall norms.

Structure of the lesson:

I started this part of class with a brief re-introduction to the idea that we would work on some problems that really lend themselves to group work. For these problems, we would use group roles. Each person had a role taped to their table and spent a couple of minutes doing some individual writing about what their role was. We then had a brief discussion about why group roles might be helpful and what might be challenging about them. The pros of group roles that the students talked about were that everyone has something to do and it holds everyone accountable. They identified the challenges that some people might not do their role or that some people might accidentally or purposely do someone else’s role.

Then, I launched the problem to the whole class. This was my version of Nathan Kraft’s version of the oreo problem. I gave some initial information during the launch (I eat only the filling in oreos, my sister eats only the cookies. We had a box of double-stuff oreos and wanted to know who was getting more calories). In the spirit of Ilana Horn’s Strength in Numbers, I handed each table a task card with the additional information they needed, the questions, the final product details, and how they were being assessed.

Task card:
The Oreo Problem!
The questions
- How many calories are in one cookie?
- How many calories are in one single filling?
- If Ms. Hansen eats the filling from a Double Stuf oreo and her sister Emy eats the two cookies, who ate more calories?
The product
The table will create a poster that has…
- a diagram to represent the problem information
- a system of equations where both variables are defined
- the work done to solve the problem
- answers to all 3 questions
Your grade will be based on…
- group work grade based on norms and table roles
- mathematics on the poster
- individuals will describe their contribution to the group work
The information
One serving:
Three Oreo Cookies
160 calories
One serving:
Two Double Stuf Oreo Cookies
140 calories

As they started the problem, I put up a "participation quiz" on the board where I wrote down +’s and –‘s for the group. 

This is also from Strength in Numbers and I have used participation quizzes periodically and pretty successfully throughout the fall. Once they got the task card, groups had about forty minutes to work on the problem and create a rough draft of the final product.  Finally, I had them go back to their individual writing and reflect on their contribution to the group and how they had done with the group roles.

Here are some of the rough drafts that were produced by the groups:

And here are some of the individual writing that students did before and after the group work time:


Here is what I identified that made this a successful class period:
  • I had done participation quizzes in the past and they have been a really good tool for getting groups back on task—in this lesson I felt like the participation quiz was extraneous. Students didn’t need it as a reminder to do what they needed to do. This meant I was able to confer with groups more.
  • All students were participating. I have one student who rarely produces any work. The facilitator at his table repeatedly re-engaged him.
  • There was a group of 3 who really had trouble listening to each other. Their facilitator was not able to smooth things out between them. I went over, had each of them write what they were thinking individually for about 5 minutes. Then, I stood there while they explained to each other their thoughts. They ended up going with the ideas of someone who has very little social capital but had a great math idea.
  • Two of the students who are the most distracted and struggle the most were absent. I am still trying to figure out the best way to engage them in group work.
  • With prompting, the resource manager made sure that the group had discussed any questions before asking me and that everyone knew what the question was.
Here are the successful elements that were identified by the other teachers in my workshop:
  • The participation quiz was a strong visual reminder to students on how they were contributing.
  • Reflective writing at the beginning and the end allowed students to think about their role and then reflect on how they contributed. This led to more individual accountability.
  • Students relied on each other as resources, not just the teacher.
  • This lesson was part of a sequence that built up group work (even thinking as far back as the fall) rather than throwing everything at the students at once.
The teachers in my workshop also asked me some very useful questions:
  1. Was it the plan all along to start small and build up with group work?
    Yes. This has been the plan since the summer. Both this fall and in January I planned out how and what order I was going to introduce different elements of group work.
  2.  Did they have any individual time to work on the math task?
    No, they did not have any individual time to work on the math task before talking about it with ttheir groups. Given the nature of having the navigator read the instructions, I am finding it awkward to then have them do individual work time and then have them go back in the group. Based on this question, the next group work activity I did, I gave an agenda to groups and had the facilitator monitor a couple minutes of private think time for everyone in the group.
  3.  Did they actually do the group roles? Was it strict about who did what role?
    In this class they did some of the group role things (navigator reading aloud, resource manager organizing the questions, facilitator watching the time and making sure that everyone had a copy of the work). As they were going, I occasionally gave directions to a specific role. For instance, when I gave time checks, I specifically called out the facilitators and told them to make sure that their group was on track. I was also strict about people doing their own role. Eventually, I would be fine with more fluidity of the roles as long as they are all getting them done. But while the kids are still being introduced, I think it is important to keep the roles distinct in order for everyone to be held accountable. This question and discussion prompted me to think about how I could structure tasks to teach more deeply into the roles. At this point, I am trying to do at least one a week where one of the main objectives is for students take ownership over their roles and continue to increase the effectiveness of group work.

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