Group Work – Steps Toward Positive Change

Last week I came home from four days of learning about group work at Twitter Math Camp and rearranged my classroom to look like this:


I’ve done more group work with my classes in the past few years, but desks are generally in rows and then students move them into tables as needed. When students do work in groups, the interactions among group members is more like the parallel play that toddlers do.  Even when sitting in tables, my students have historically worked on assignments independently, occasionally pausing to compare answers or ask a question of a team member.

Here are a couple of things that I’m going to do differently this year to change that.

Change groups at least weekly

I’m thinking of doing this by having students draw a card as they enter the classroom on Mondays. I will then write down their group number and they will take a seat at the table number that they drew. Because of IEP’s and 504’s, some students will need to be permanently assigned to a specific table, but this will be okay since the rest of their group will change each week

Group roles

When students change groups, the first thing they will do is fill out this group roles sheet in their INB.  I stole my group roles from this post by @Cheesemonkeysf.  

  • Monday Talking Points Warm-Up

For those who may not know what Talking Points are, @Cheesemonkeysf describes Talking Points well in this post and @math8teacher gives another good summary in this post. I liked that in the talking points structure, no one student was allowed to dominate the conversation.  Because students take turns sharing their thoughts, this structure provides a way to hear voices that might otherwise be silent.  It has always bothered me that often the tone of my classroom is set by two or three dominant students and I fear that this may also happen in small group settings as well. I believe that the Talking Points structure is a powerful way to create equity in groups.  I plan to have students do this as a warm-up every time they switch groups, which will usually happen on Mondays.

Centering group tasks

The idea with this is to have students create some sort of group product together that they work on at the center of the table. Placemat activities like this one are a good example of how to do that. I’m going to need to examine my first term tasks to see how I can create some centered group product for students.

What I’m Still Nervous About:

So if I’m being completely honest, I would have to say that I’m frightened about some of these changes I’ll be making this year. Here’s why: I personally do not like learning in groups. I feel overwhelmed by lots of noise and need time on my own to process my ideas. I do wonder if placing too much emphasis on group tasks can be disadvantageous to students who need independent work time and who crave quiet to gather their thoughts.  There’s an interesting TED Talk by Susan Caine called The Power of Introverts where she talks about how some of our cultural structures are not meeting the needs of introverts.  However, I’m not personally too concerned about this.  Because I myself am introverted, my classroom tends to be a very comfortable environment for these students. I struggle much more to meet the needs of my extroverts.  My hope is that eventually I will find a good balance between talking and listening, between noise and quiet in my classroom that will be a comfortable fit for all of my students.  I think that these changes are a positive step in the right direction.

4 thoughts on “Group Work – Steps Toward Positive Change

  1. Mary Dooms

    I’ve also had the same apprehensions about group work. I needed to remind myself that every task doesn’t have to be a group task so there will be plenty of opportunities for students to think independently. Another approach would be for students to work 15 minutes independently, then collect the work to give feedback. Return the work the next day; students read and reflect on the feedback, then put them into groups to complete. There may be more opportunities for discussion in this way because some students may have approached the problem differently and more options are heard–instead of the sole option.

    Related but different, two years ago our district had year long PD training on groupworthy tasks and a few of the things we got in the habit of doing was including both group and individual expectations. 1. The group is responsible for making sure every student in the group understands, contributes, and can complete the task. 2. There was both group and individual expectations with the final product. For example: Group Accountability: Each group must develop a solution to the problem and communicate it using the standards on our Group Task rubric. Individual Accountability: Each individual must have their own copy of the solution
    and be prepared to justify the solution if chosen randomly.

    Regarding your IEPs and 504s: would occasional “forced choice” be a viable option? Meaning they are forced to draw a card that seats them towards the front. At least they are then somewhat included in the process. At times I’ve even put them together to demonstrate that I believed they would be successful.

    For what it’s worth.

  2. msmooremath Post author

    Interesting thought on the ‘forced choice’. I like the idea of doing random groupings, but the IEPs, 504’s and students who verbally tell me that they can’t see unless they’re in the front do pose a problem. I thought that perhaps giving them a permanent table number would fix this, but then I don’t like the fact that it means that they wouldn’t ever be grouped together. So would I have two piles of cards? One for everybody else and one for the students who have to be at the front? Or would I just make those particular students keep drawing until they pull a one, two, or three? Either way is somewhat problematic.


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