Published Online: May 30, 2012

No More Whack-A-Mole: My Conversion to Collaborative Learning

First, a confession: Facilitating student group work used to be one of my greatest weaknesses.

Year after year, it seemed that the only student-group on task was the one I was monitoring. It was like playing "Whack-A-Mole": The group I was helping would be focused, but would quickly regress into teenage silliness once I moved to another group. This cycle continued—and I didn't know what to do. After a while, I moved back to placing desks in classic rows, which (sadly) improved student engagement.

But over time, I realized that I truly wanted the students to interact more meaningfully in our middle school language arts class. And I was ready for a more student-centric classroom, especially after reading how this approach could positively affect students' learning gains.

I began involving students in day-to-day procedures that I had historically micro-managed, like attendance and the distribution and collection of assignments and materials. I also identified the following helpful strategies:

Use shoulder buddies instead of groups.

It's simple but important: In middle school, pairs tend to work better than groups of three or more. Analyzing relevant, formative data equips me to pair students that can help and work with each other. "Shoulder buddies", who sit shoulder to shoulder, change throughout the school year based on the data and learning objectives. I also invite students to select their own shoulder buddies for certain projects, which reinforces and builds morale.

Shoulder buddies collaborate on almost everything, from daily "bellwork" to more complex questions related to our learning objectives. And even when students work independently, their "shoulder buddy" becomes the first person they turn to for help. When students collaborate, I reinforce that either partner must be able to explain the answer that both shoulder buddies decide upon. Student work is collected from one partner, and both partners share a grade, reducing the paperwork load and increasing student accountability. This shared accountability has proven to motivate some otherwise resigned students.

Embrace the chaos.

Students talk more in my class than they once did. Of course, there are procedures and rules, and I model acceptable and unacceptable behavior. But any truly collaborative classroom involves lots of conversation and communication, which can make things seem more chaotic (at least to outsiders).

For example, most procedural and even content questions are answered by other students, instead of me. I "ping-pong" queries back to the class to find another student who can answer it. I find that students can often explain things to each other more clearly than I can explain them; my job entails asking follow-up questions that deepen understanding. I also encourage "helpful call-outs" from students who can help answer another student's question—even if I haven't yet ping-ponged it back to the class.

This kind of teaching was uncomfortable for me at first, and I still struggle with it sometimes. To foster a cooperative learning environment, I have had to retrain myself not to revert to the classic stand-and-deliver technique.

Use rubrics for student grading.

In 2002, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that students grading one another's work under the teacher's direction is constitutional and does not violate the students' privacy of education records. I exercise this constitutional right by involving students in the grading process more deeply than ever before.

I manage much of the class grading through the use of rubrics. I model examples and non-examples of specific learning objectives while matching them with appropriate grading rubrics for the students. By creating grading guidelines and procedures, students are helping, and more importantly, learning from each other by applying these rubrics to each other's work under my watchful eye.

Through peer grading, students improve their abilities to recognize strong writing techniques, identify common errors, and understand how to firmly support a main idea when an essay is graded using a rubric. All of this creates more effective middle school writers.

As a language arts teacher, I used to spend countless hours grading essays. And admittedly, at first I felt guilty for not personally grading every essay, but it was clear to me that this process was helping the students write stronger essays. I continue to glean data from these student-graded essays by reading each one, reviewing the completed rubrics, and commenting on each student's progress. This is a much more strategic approach, making the best use of my time while also giving students invaluable practice in evaluating writing.

Make data transparent.

We all know about data-driven instruction: Teachers are encouraged to tailor instruction based on what data tells us about students' needs. And of course, I do make decisions based on student data—but I also know that the era of compliance "because the teacher said so" is over, at least in my class.

So I pull the curtain back on the "Wizard of Oz" of data. I show students why we are working on certain skills and how the data can help. Looking at data clarifies purpose for all students. It also fosters trust, understanding, and cooperation—and makes a particular difference for those students who tend to resist if they feel a teacher is making them do something.

What does this look like in practice? We often complete, grade, and analyze results of an assessment during one class period. I give students one sticky note each upon entering class (ever noticed how much middle school students love sticky notes?). Then students complete a five-question assessment on a specific reading standard, putting answers on their sticky notes.

Students then trade sticky notes with their shoulder buddies. We review and grade the activity together. We also track the most commonly missed items in every class and have a "think aloud" on how each correct answer is derived.

Then after we grade and review the assessment, students post their sticky notes on a poster in the class under the grade they received: 100 percent, 80 percent, 60 percent, 40 percent, or 20 percent grade. Then we examine the poster together. Generally, each class looks to the 80/80 rule, with 80 percent of students earning a score of 80 percent or better before we advance in our curriculum. If this is not the case, we know that we probably need to do more intensive work on the standard that the activity addressed.

Making data transparent brings purpose to the curriculum, helping students understand the roles of assessments and data.

As I continue to work on facilitating more collaborative work in our classroom, I've noticed that students understand educational goals more clearly. They work harder because they understand the purpose of each activity and they appreciate the transparency of the data. And, most importantly, they learn from each other more than ever before! My days of frenetic "Whack-A-Mole" group work are over.

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