I am a Math and Science Coach at a PreK-8 English/Spanish Dual Language School in Washington Heights. I came to education through Teach for America, studied at Bank Street College, and have now been teaching for eight years. Last year I took on the responsibility of teaching general education 6th-grade science when the previous teacher retired. I was excited about this because science is fun and I think 6th graders are pretty cool (usually). The students did turn out to be pretty cool, but some of them were mentally checking out of lessons, and many were not quite sure how to work together as science partners. This is bad because collaboration is a huge part of science (and life). Plus, they were yelling at each other.
With support from facilitators and teachers at TCICP’s Accessible Curriculum Inquiry Team, I asked and investigated the question:
How can I foster productive collaborative work to make curriculum accessible to all students?
My attempts to answer this question and sometimes surprising findings are documented in this project. I made the following discoveries which I want to share:
- The most valuable ideas for classroom change are those that come from students
- Group roles and norms can be useful but require a lot of management
- Student reflection is an important part of the collaborative process
- Teacher reflection is an important part of the inquiry process
- It takes time and persistence for a new initiative to show results
- Kids love making videos (maybe you already knew that)
- Creating video recordings fosters vocabulary development
- Extrinsic motivation doesn’t hurt, and everyone likes to earn points
- It is possible for 6th graders to work together!
Creatively Structuring Classroom Collaboration
Student collaboration can provide some incredible benefits to students and teachers. To present this project at the TCICP Conference, I paired up with another teacher whose work was focused on student collaboration as well. His inquiry on using Google Docs to support classroom collaboration is called Beyond Pens and Paper. When we asked participating teachers what they saw as the potential benefits of collaboration, they came up with a great list. Here are some of their ideas:
Benefits of Effective Classroom Collaboration:
- Students learn important communication skills
- Small group setting encourages participation from all students
- Social setting provides motivation for work
- Students gain insights from one another
But teachers also acknowledged that creating an environment in which those benefits can be achieved is not easy. Below are some items from their list of challenges.
Challenges of Effective Classroom Collaboration:
- Interpersonal conflicts
- Lack of interaction (students ignore each other)
- Not all students contribute the same level of effort and some personalities take over
- It can be difficult to group students strategically
- Students can get distracted and off-task
My Inquiry: Round 1
My First Idea: Specific Group Roles
The first thing I thought to try was to explicitly teach students how to perform different roles in the group. I did some research on collaborative roles and found several suggestions for roles that I liked. I decided to modify the roles suggested by New York City’s K-8 science program, FOSS (Full Option Science System), and I came up with: Materials Monitors 1 and 2, Facilitator, and Reporter.
I made laminated badges to wear for each role. The badges were to remind students of their roles and provide suggestions for what to do and say. Here is a handout of the role badges for use in your classroom.
Using the badges, I asked students to read the responsibilities and language of each role and create posters to hang up in the room to show the same information.
Before starting something collaborative, like a lab, students would decide who would perform each role and record that information on the recording sheet. This would help make sure they varied their responsibilities.
I think the kids liked wearing the badges because they were eager to put them on and reluctant to take them off. Also, it was helpful for them to know who was responsible for picking up and returning materials (Materials Monitors 1 and 2). At first, they had trouble understanding the role of the reporter. Those who always wanted to talk in class still wanted to share their results regardless of their role, and those who didn’t usually volunteer information still didn’t want to. It made a big difference to give a 3-minute warning and say, “Now talk together to decide what your reporter will share with the group about your experiment results.” When the groups understood that they all had to help the Reporter prepare notes for a class share, but that the Reporter was the only one who would do the speaking, then I started to see more airtime equity.
The hardest role for me to teach and for the students to master was that of Facilitator. I thought that the kids would be excited about the right to boss their groupmates around, but I often found myself asking a roving student, “How can you keep your group on task from all the way over here?” I realized that the responsibilities of the other roles are fairly concrete, while the Facilitator’s responsibilities are more abstract. It would take a lot of practice, role-playing, and persistence to get the Facilitators to be more effective.
I wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue to put a lot of effort into the collaborative roles. It was time-consuming! Every time we did a lab I was not only introducing the activity, but also continuing to push the routines around the collaborative roles (pass out the badges, fill out the log, and remind them, “No, you were Materials Monitor 1 yesterday, so today you have to be something different.”). Though I was seeing some benefits, it was also getting burdensome. I had a feeling that my efforts might be better directed in a different direction.
After reflecting and brainstorming with my group at the next meeting of the TCICP Accessible Curriculum Inquiry to Action Team, I decided to take a more organic approach.
My Inquiry: Round 2
My Second Idea: Be More Organic
Now, instead of dictating how I wanted students to act in the group, I decided to see how they thought they could best contribute. We had already had a class discussion about what makes a good partner, so my first step was to bring back that chart:
We decided that a good member of a group of four was really just the same as a good partner.
Next, I realized I needed to be more upfront and transparent about my goal of collaboration to make the curriculum more accessible. At the end of the previous unit on levers, I had asked students to reflect in writing on what they learned about levers and also about collaboration. I used their responses at the beginning of the following unit on pulleys to launch my idea of collaboration as our big goal.
I wanted to regroup the students and was not sure what the best way to do this was (there were a lot of firecrackers in this class!). We had a discussion at the Accessible Curriculum Inquiry-to-Action team about the value of choice in education. Giving students (or anyone) choices can really motivate and empower them. So I asked students to make a list on a card of three students with whom they work well. I made sure to clarify the difference between a good partner and a friend. Of their three selections, I would review the groups and try to make sure they work with at least one of their choices. I got the final say, but they felt like they had a say in it also.
This worked great for most students! Many students know who they are most productive working with and make smart choices. However, there were some disruptive students that no one listed on their card, and this took some finagling. It was helpful to have a discussion with the others and let them know that the student with behavior difficulties looked up to them and wanted to work with them. I told them I really appreciated their cooperation and they were helping the class greatly. When confronted with their new responsibilities, they were willing to take on the challenge and seemed pleased that I trusted and relied on them.
After reinforcing what students saw as the benefits of collaboration and forming new groups, I wanted to take the idea of what makes a good partner further. I asked students, “What guidelines do you need in your group so that everyone can learn?” Each new group created a science-themed team name and a list of norms. They kept a copy in their folders, and I displayed a copy in the classroom.
The Little Einsteins wrote their group norms in Spanish:
- Help each other
- Listen to our teammates
If students were not following their own group norms, I just had to ask something like, “Isn’t it on your list to listen to each other? Yes? Who made that list? Oh, you did? I see.” Though it sometimes required further negotiation, this usually got them back on track.
To further emphasize how important it was for students to adhere to their own group norms, allowing everyone to learn, I started a team point system. Each team could earn points for following their own rules, the class’s rules, and generally working hard and having good ideas. For every 15 points they earned, each group member received a homework pass to be excused from one night of homework. When I got frustrated that students were coming to class with no writing utensil, I added mechanical pencils (my favorite writing utensils) as a second option for a reward.
The point system was not directly making the curriculum more accessible for students, but it did help me reinforce the positive collaborative behaviors that students and I had identified.
Between the choices of groupmates, the group norms, and the reinforcement with homework passes and mechanical pencils, we were doing fairly well. Intergroup conflict was not eliminated but it gave me a way to address it more productively. Still, I wanted more engagement from all students.
For students to better evaluate and improve their own collaborative work, I decided the next step was a reflection. I wanted them to see and hear themselves working in a group and set goals based on their observations. I thought a convenient way to do this would be through video.
My Inquiry: Round 3
My Third Idea: Videos for Reflection
I have access to a cart of Mac laptops with webcams. These make it really easy for students to record themselves using the application Photo Booth, which is installed on all Macs, and watch their videos on the same computer. My June 7, 2012 co-presenter created a video tutorial on how to use Photo Booth in the classroom that I highly recommend. If you don’t have Macs, it is also possible to attach a webcam to a PC or use a handheld video camera such as a Flip Cam and connect it with a USB cable to a computer to watch later. Students could take turns operating the handheld video recorder.
Starting with one group at a time, I set up a laptop at their table, opened Photo Booth and recorded them working together for a few minutes. On a later day, while other students were working, I would hold a conference with the group to lead them through a reflection. We would watch their video together and use the reflection sheet to decide what they had done well and what their next collaborative goal would be.
Here is a template I used to keep track of my conferences and make sure I got to every group.
During our reflection conversation, students could use the sentence stems we generated together for reflecting in a group. I specifically wanted to include sentences such as, “It helps me when you…” or “I would like my partner to…” because I think it’s important for students to be able to advocate for themselves by communicating their expectations of their partner in a polite way.
After each group had been through the conference process with me once or twice, I started asking all groups to set up a laptop and record at the same time. Later, they would watch their videos together–without me–and complete another reflection: Did they achieve their previous goals? Why or why not? What new goals did they have?
I asked students to make video recordings of themselves working together was so they could watch their videos, reflect on how they had collaborated, set goals, and, ultimately, become better collaborators. With peer supports in place, my science class would be more accessible to all learners. That happened in many ways–as their reflections and their improved collaborations show.
Here is one group’s reflection that I took notes on during our first conference:
Araceli and Isai agreed that they worked together and shared their experiment results, but thought Araceli could focus better if she ignored other groups and that Isai needed to lower her voice. Penelope and Kevin acknowledged that they each worked quietly, but mostly ignored each other, and, finally, set a goal of sharing their ideas more.
The next reflection is for a group that had a big fight and yelled at each other during their video (which they, unfortunately, deleted after our conference and I no longer have it).
This was a difficult conference to have because, upon seeing themselves arguing in the video, they proceeded to argue about whose fault it was that they had been arguing! But I persisted and they eventually came up with the ideas above. It turned out their fight had been about the placement of the computer on their table. They each wanted it off of their materials so they could have more space. Our science classroom was a small former teachers’ cafeteria with Pre-K-sized furniture. There truly wasn’t enough space in the room. But regardless, they decided on a group goal of sharing space and each set a personal goal. Monse wanted to relax more, Jolenny wanted to cut down on wasted time, Emily wanted to stay in her own seat, and Jeremy suggested he should stay calmer. His group members and I agreed wholeheartedly.
Because that group had had such a difficult time working together, I followed up quickly with another video and conference to see how they were progressing toward their goal.
With their previous reflection sheet in front of us, we evaluated their new video. They agreed that they had shared space better and each felt he or she had also achieved a personal goal. As a new group goal, they decided to share ideas more. Additionally, Jolenny wanted to be less nervous about appearing in the video.
This doesn’t mean that we could just check off these goals and forget about them. It would continue to be a struggle for students to work in certain ways together. For example, not yelling at his groupmates would be a goal for Jeremy for the rest of the year. But making videos and reflecting on them did help him keep it in mind.
Many of the students’ later reflections showed that they were starting to get used to recording themselves and wanted more screen time. Yunelis says she wants to “appear more in the cam,” Nicolet thinks she should “explain more,” and Daniells thinks he didn’t talk enough. Chris honestly identified listening as an area of improvement for himself.
When the camera was rolling, some exciting things happened that I hadn’t expected. Below is a sampling of student videos taken during a unit on pulleys. At first, students are nervous about the cameras and there is some off-task behavior:
After some initial giggles, the off-task group was embarrassed when they watched that video with me and eventually got more used to the camera’s presence. Here is another attempt from them. This time they are much less silly and talk to each other to negotiate the task.
I started noticing that some groups were making an effort to seem smart and impressive in their videos. In this way, the camera encouraged accountability and on-task partner talk. I like how the student on the left starts off by asking his partner, “Steven, how do you think it is?”
I was surprised to discover that some groups had started talking to their cameras. I should have expected it–this is the Youtube generation after all. I like the next video in particular because the student on the right didn’t used to be very interested in science labs. Now, with the motivation of appearing on the screen and turning it into a performance, she participates equally with her partner. They start off by introducing what they will be doing, then focus the camera on their work, and end with a resounding “And there you have it!”
This is what they thought of their video when they watched it later:
The next video is impressive to me because of how far one of these students has come. Kayla, on the left, is very quiet, very artistic, and usually unengaged in my class. She and her partner, Susan, chose to work with each other, and I think this is a great partnership. Susan knows that Kayla is shy and so she introduces her (Kayla then says, “hi” to the camera) and prompts her along the way to participate in building their pulley system.
The following video features a group of girls who are clearly comfortable with being on camera. In fact, they can’t get enough of it. They start by introducing themselves and their team name (“Fulload”- a combination of “fulcrum” and “load,” which are both vocabulary words we learned this year), welcoming the viewer to their “web show,” and then they talk through their task. They are using more science vocabulary than usual because they want to sound good on camera. They also seem to be competing for screen time. Incidentally, Jolenny, whose goal was to be less nervous in her videos, seems quite enthusiastic about it now; she is eager to be front and center as soon as her groupmate vacates that seat.
A Cautionary Tale
On a final note, I wanted to share an important lesson I learned. In one video, three members of a group (remember that these are 6th graders, after all) noticed that the final member’s pants were sliding down too low in the back as she bent over to assemble her pulley. They replayed this part of the video over and over until the girl was in tears. What a disaster! After comforting her, I assigned the other group members lunch detention, where we spent a long time talking about bullying and teasing. They were appropriately sorry and apologized. I also made sure to be very clear about my expectations for how a group respectfully watches a video together when I introduced it to the second class of 6th graders (who took it more seriously).
It can be disconcerting and uncomfortable for students (and adults) to see themselves in videos and they react in different ways. When you try something new it’s not always successful right away. Though there are challenges to using and watching video in the classroom, there is also much to be gained.
I started with the goal of answering the question, How can I foster productive collaborative work to make curriculum accessible to all students?
To support collaboration I tried three main initiatives: Specific Group Roles, Partner Choice and Group Norms, and Video and Reflection. I have commented already on the benefits and challenges of the first two, but the use of video held the most surprises for me.
- Kids have to learn how to use Photo Booth
- Recording and watching themselves (until they get used to it) makes kids nervous and they react in a variety of ways. This can be especially sensitive for adolescents.
- Photo Booth may be distracting for kids (I found several groups’ laptops with adorable pictures of girls posing with their best smiles–completely unrelated to their experiments)
But with persistence and structure, these challenges can be overcome and we can appreciate the advantages of this practice.
- Having a record of their collaborative work helps students be specific in their reflections
- Video recording creates accountability–students wanted to seem impressive on camera, so they made sure to complete the task and tried to use sophisticated language
- Making a video is motivating
- At the least, students stayed with their groups because they wanted to appear on the screen
- At best, they turned their experiment into a “web show,” explained each step of their work, and had a great time doing it
- Student reflections show that many were interested in increasing their on-screen presence and even previously unengaged students got involved
- Video addresses different learning modalities
My favorite part was when students started using video to document their work even when I didn’t force them to!
As a final project, I asked students to design a pulley to lift a heavy object of their choice. They chose objects such as cars, whales, and even the Statue of Liberty. They needed to draw a design, calculate the necessary effort to lift the load, build a model with our available materials, and present their design either as a poster, a PowerPoint, a video, or some combination of those.
The two boys, in the below video, chose to record themselves on their own. I love how they articulately explain (with the exception of using the term “thingamajig”) how to build their two-pulley system and measure the amount of necessary force using a spring scale. This reminds me of a “How to” video you might find on Youtube. I love their use of science vocabulary!
Bringing video into the classroom did make the curriculum more accessible to all students, not just by supporting the reflective process, but also by providing accountability, motivation, and a chance to use multiple learning modalities. Plus, it was fun!