By Andrew Hawk
One of the most important skills a teacher can instill in students is the ability to work well with others. The world is full of many personality types. Once students are out in the adult world, they will likely be expected to work with several different types of people. Learning how to work in a group during adolescence can help a young person make a smooth transition into adulthood.
Here are some ideas that will help you establish positive, productive groups.
Pretest Your Students
Do not assume that your students know how to work in a group. Even if you teach an older grade, some students may not have acquired the skills needed for productive group work. A simple class discussion is a great strategy for pretesting group work. Students can be given the chance to describe their past experiences and what they like and dislike relating to working with their peers.
Based on the results of your pretesting, you may want to teach some skills relating to group work. Some of the most important skills necessary for group work include taking turns, sharing ideas, and being able to reach a consensus without hurting another person’s feelings. Chances are good that many of your students will already have learned these skills but may not have applied them in a small group setting. I recommend picking a few of your students to help you model how to do these things. This is especially true with teaching students how to reject a peer’s idea without being hurtful. Once you have modeled appropriate behavior, reinforce your students’ learning by letting them complete a simple activity in small groups. I usually ask students to write a story (in groups of three or four) and then to rotate through the room offering feedback.
What roles you assign will depend on the size of your groups and what tasks students are expected to complete. Roles might include speaker, materials manager, recorder, and time keeper. The speaker speaks for the group. The materials manager retrieves materials and is in charge of them, including turning them back in. The recorder completes the writing portion of the group work. Lastly, the time keeper prevents the group from wasting time. Tailor these roles to fit your exact needs, and track which students perform each role, making sure roles are rotated. Some students will be reluctant to act as the group’s speaker. Overcome this by letting the reluctant student pick an assistant for moral support.
Grade Students’ Ability to Work in a Group
I use a simple checklist to grade my students’ ability to work in a group. Each quarter, I average the grade into the subject areas where the group work took place. Some students need to know that they are being assessed in order to stay motivated to work appropriately in a group. In addition, having a formal assessment makes it easier to discuss challenges with students who struggle when they work in groups. This brings us to the next idea.
Conference with Struggling Students
There’s no reason to call out students in front of their peers. When one student is struggling to work well with others, the other students are well aware of it. I have found that a short, detailed conversation helps students get back on track. Do not be surprised if the student who’s having trouble working with others is one of your best students academically. In many cases, these students would rather work alone because they do not want to slow down for others and they want to make the decisions. This makes it all the more important to teach high-functioning students how to work well with their peers.
Whether you do it once a quarter or once a month, be deliberate about changing up groups. I like my students to get a chance to work with everyone in the class during the school year. I also like when students work together enough times in a row to gain some familiarity with one another. To accomplish both of these things, I usually rotate groups of four or five students monthly.
Change Activity Regularly
Having a routine is fine, but be sure you are not letting group work get stale. Most students get excited when something is different. Rotating activities regularly will increase student engagement and, in turn, assist with classroom management.
Collaborate with Other Grades
Younger students are impressed by older students, older students feel important when they get to lead younger students. Look for ways to take advantage of these things by collaborating across grade levels. Even something as simple as having second graders read stories to kindergartners is exciting for the students involved. Older students can also model appropriate group behavior to younger students.
Make Use of Class Volunteers
Many teachers have parents, college students, or community volunteers who periodically work in their classrooms. If you are fortunate enough to have classroom volunteers, use them to help facilitate group work. This will give your groups more time with adults if needed.
Share What Works with Your Colleagues
If a strategy you try works really well, feel free to share it with the other teachers in your building. Group work is an important part of students’ development. Sometimes hearing a success story from a colleague gives other teachers the little push they need to get out of a rut.
Andrew Hawk has worked in public education for fourteen years, starting as a teaching assistant in a special education classroom. He has taught first, second, and fifth grades as a classroom teacher, and for the past three years, has worked as a resource room teacher, providing services for fourth and fifth graders. Working as a special education teacher has given him the opportunity to work with a variety of age groups and exceptionalities. In 2011, he earned his master’s degree in special education from Western Governor’s University. When Andrew is not preparing for school, he enjoys spending time with his wife and daughter.
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