Small group-work: on the surface, it seems like a fantastic way to foster inquiry, bolster peer-to-peer interaction, and give students a taste of those real-world skills of collaboration, problem-solving, and communication.
But, as any substitute teacher will tell you, small group-work does not just happen. In fact, giving students a set of directions and letting them at it is most certainly a recipe for not-total-success. There are a lot of implicit assumptions on the teachers’ end: that students will know when they’ve reached the end of the task; that students will have all of the resources to finish the task; that all students will contribute and roughly equally; that all students will know exactly what needs to get done and a general idea of how. And the list goes on.
And, if your students are anything like I was when I was 11, if any of the above assumptions prove faulty, soon the task at hand, the collaboration, and any form of focus will fly across the room faster than a spitball.
So what to do?
First, let’s cover the bases. In order for group-work to…work, the following is a quick to-do list for teachers:
- EXPLAIN IT
- EXPLAIN IT AGAIN DIFFERENTLY
- MODEL IT
- PRACTICE IT
- COACH IT
- PRACTICE IT AGAIN
- SUPPORT IT
- REFINE IT
…come to think of it, this is probably an applicable framework for introducing anything in the classroom. But, I digress.
One of the problems with giving directions and letting students have at it is that students likely need more support when it comes to role definition. It’s unfair to constantly assume one student will “step up” as a leader. This is typically an extroverted student who perhaps doesn’t always particularly like the role, and it also makes it ever-challenging for introverted or more timid students to take on a role, which they may actually love!
Enter Table Captains: an equitable way for students to practice leadership roles, either as designated leaders or active followers.
How it works
Here’s the gist:
- Students are divided into groups of 3-6
- Each group has 1 Table Captain
- Table Captains have extra responsibilities are in charge of keeping the team in line with respect to task completion; timing; and organization
A Table Captain is in charge of all materials and ensures the small groups stay on task within the given time frame. The philosophy is that students without a strong focus or drive tend to rapidly dissipate. With a clear leader in the group, students know who to turn to when they have questions about the task at hand. Additionally, when students have a leadership role, they are more likely to be invested in the tasks at hand, and ultimately, the learning at hand. This strategy also allows students to practice speaking to one another, instead of simply just to a teacher. In doing so, you’ll find students are learning from one another, and really… isn’t that kind of what we’re going for here? (Nod your head)
Below is a sample Table Captain Task Page:.
Table Captain supplies in my (Grade 5-7) classroom typically include Post-Its + Folder with all necessary articles and Table Captain task page. I announce Table Captains the night before so students who may need (or appreciate) it can mentally prepare for being a leader.
Putting it all together
In order for students to understand how this works, follow the above to-do list:
- EXPLAIN IT (have a conversation with your class about leadership opportunities)
- EXPLAIN IT AGAIN DIFFERENTLY (show students a Table Captain sheet. Ask them what roles a Table Captain seems to hold)
- MODEL IT (use a fellow teacher, aid, student, etc. and show, in a condensed version, of what this process looks like. For real. Do it.)
- PRACTICE IT (give a sample task to the class. Offer students the chance to demonstrate to the class, if they’re confident)
- DO IT (give a real task! Let it rip!)
- COACH IT (wander about while students engage in Table Captain tasks. Check in with your Captains after class. Have them send you a quick email, including what went well and what was challenging– 1 sentence each)
- PRACTICE IT AGAIN (keep doing it! You won’t know how it’s going until you’ve done it more than once)
- SUPPORT IT (check in with your Table Captains. Be consistent. Even if it seems to not work the first few weeks, give it a chance. Don’t judge it until students have been Table Captains at least 3 times. That’s approximately 12 rounds. Data is important!)
- REFINE IT (something work better or differently in your classroom? Get creative! Own it, customize it, rock it.)