Curriculum, Instructional Tools

Classroom Hack: Table Captains for Small Group Work

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)

The Goods

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.)
Must-Reads, Recent + Research-Based

Reflections on My Edutopia Binge (Part 1)

neonbrand-426918-unsplash.jpg

Anyone else been following Edutopia’s “How Learning Happens” video series? I just tuned in this week and have been binge-watching the series.

I’m hooked.

What’s the deal?

In Edutopia’s own words:

“More than a year in the making, the series explores teaching practices grounded in the science of learning and human development. The videos highlight the importance of a safe, nurturing school environment and positive relationships with peers and adults. Get an inside look at practices that build students’ academic confidence and foundational skills such as problem-solving and self-regulation.”

In my own words:

This series tackles the question of how holistic learning actually happens. Rather than remove all of the variables of a student’s experience (social dynamics, past trauma, and so on), these videos embrace them. They provide tangible strategies on how to leverage social-emotional learning across all subjects, grade levels, and classrooms.

Tell me more!

The series contains 5 major topics, which follow a robust introduction:

  • Cultivating a Belonging Mindset
  • Fostering Positive Relationships
  • Building Academic Confidence
  • Developing Foundational Skills
  • Establishing Positive Conditions for Learning

Within each of these topics is a series of videos that share background information, highlight successful strategies in action from real schools (read: real teachers and students). The videos are quickly digestable, relatively short, and provide small steps that can be taken in individual classrooms.

From the perspective of an educator, the strategies pack a punch. They are simple enough to use in your classroom without the pomp and circumstance required for a overhaul (a la flipping the classroom), yet powerful enough to make a remarkable difference in the classroom.

Talk Moves, a strategy fostering safe participation practice, speaks to this. In theory, small group discussions are a great idea, but unless each student is given the same set of expectations and opportunities, it’s no different than any other squeaky-wheel conundrum (one student does all the talking because they perceive no one else will; everyone else is afraid or indifferent to talk because they perceive the talker to have established the vocal territory in the class as theirs).

Talk Moves is a strategy that puts all students on the same playing field, whether they are gregarious or more reserved in sharing their opinion. It gives students shared vocabulary- and more importantly, shared strategy- on how to engage in dialogue. As educators, we can make the error of assuming all of our students know the rule of dialogue– that participation is the goal and however you insert yourself is the strategy. But, what about the students that come from an entirely different set of cultural norms and thus, conversational rules? Perhaps it’s impolite to offer your opinion before being asked. Perhaps it’s uncomfortable and uncouth to debate at all. Or perhaps a student identifies as an analyst– one who prefers to hear all opinions and facts before they decide.

Not convinced? See for yourself:

In short, this is one strategy that allows students to bring their own experiences, ideas, opinions, and backgrounds into a discussion. It serves as the map to help students dive deeper together, (mostly) eliminates competition and judgement, and creates pathways to community. (Side note: interested? Use the free template in your own classroom!)

What’s the point?

If the whole series was just Talk Moves, it wouldn’t be particularly compelling as a series, and the video series encompass a broad range of strategies and approaches, all primarily rooted in social-emotional learning and it’s unequivocal connection to the science of learning.

Check it:

My main takeaways are:

  • A child’s brain is exceptionally responsive to experiences and relationships
  • Relationships and experiences affect brain development
  • Adversity can lead to uneven development of foundational skills (think self-regulation), which will in turn affect more advanced skills required in contexts of learning; in contrast, belonging and safety can help flourish these skills
  • Intentional skill-building aids in developing both foundational and advanced academic skills, creating whole learners
  • Classrooms with manipulatives, tools, and collaborative tasks build foundational skills and encourage social-emotional learning

The video is introduced by Dr Pamela Cantor, the founder and Senior Science Advisor for Turnaround for Children. In her words:

“The 20th-century education system was never designed with the knowledge of the developing brain. So when we think about the fact that learning is a brain function and we have an education system that didn’t have access to this critical knowledge, the question becomes: Do we have the will to create an education system that’s informed by it?”

Well, that’s a hard-hitter, isn’t it? Cantor is also part of an expert cross-disciplinary team studying the science of learning and development, and has dove deep into the role nurturing plays in educational settings…and how this actually affects the very nature of a child.

Cantor is also the founder of Turnaround for Children, an organization that began following 9/11 attacks “to address the impact of trauma on New York City public school students,” per the website. Indeed, trauma-informed practices are a central tenet in the series.

Trauma-informed teaching strikes me as equal parts essential, relevant, heartbreaking, and uplifting. We see growing acts of abuse, violence, and cruelty around the world, but especially so in the USA with 288 school shootings and no efforts to stop them. It’s true also that trauma, social-emotional learning, and a holistic perspective of a child’s experience inside and outside of school are finally recognized as critical pieces to the learning puzzle and that these types of initiatives are truly tying it all together and creating effective and powerful strategies teachers can use in their classrooms everyday, regardless of the subject or grades they teach.

What’s Next?

I can’t possibly recap the entire science of learning initiative into one post, so a series of my Edutopia Binge is forthcoming.

*

  • Have you binged on this series?
  • What strikes you as most relevant in your classroom or setting?
  • What did the series nail, and what did it leave out?

.

[Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash]

Educational Theory, Recent + Research-Based

Gardner-ing Multiple Intelligences

samuel-zeller-158996-unsplash.jpg
This week, I’m inspired by Howard Gardner, and in my pursuit of all things multiple intelligences, I listened to his TEDTalk from 2015 “Beyond Wit and Grit: Rethinking the Keys to Success.” Working in expeditionary schools, I’ve heard quite a bit about grit as a desired character trait, and wit, which Gardner uses in this talk to refer to multiple intelligences.
The overall theme of his talk was to look beyond possessing traits (a particular intelligence style or propensity, or a character trait like grit, in this case) to the application of these. Gardner makes some compelling observations, such as that Hitler had a lot of grit, as did Nelson Mandela. Fair point. Likewise, with multiple intelligences, he states that his research never indicated a hierarchy of intelligence– rather that a rainbow of intelligences exist, and we ought to use this diversity to guide our interactions accordingly.
Gardner’s talk brings up some thoughts for me, particularly now that “community curriculum” is gaining some traction:

  • What is our responsibility as educators when it comes to helping students identify themselves (whether through multiple intelligences, character traits, leadership styles, etc.)?
  • Is it merely enough to simply have students identify these? Or might we even be causing some shallow or deep psychological damage by not following through with a more cohesive way in which students can leverage their learning style?
  • How do we teach application of learning styles?

Ultimately, I agree that, like most things, it is not enough merely to introduce students to a concept– there must be substantial follow-through. I’m curious to hear from schools who have adopted a community curriculum what the teacher training or coaching may look like, as well as what the student guidance looks like following.

[Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash]