By Megan Olivia Hall
There’s a moment, in the best of school years, when the disparate individuals we lead in learning transform into a team. As a whole, the class enters a state of flow, gloriously focused on a collective goal and suffused with the spirit of solidarity. After three months of team-building, that golden moment flashed into existence with my advisory group—in the middle of a dance practice. We were preparing to compete in a lip sync battle (a venerated tradition in my school) when the calls of, “Can I please not do this?” disappeared and the whoops, cheers, and collaborative ideas started flowing. This magic can touch an academic class, too, and its likelihood is increased when teachers intentionally integrate social and emotional learning (SEL) into their daily professional practice.
The learning and life benefits of SEL are well-established. In schools, classroom teachers have opportunities to build SEL competencies and skills—especially in the areas of collaboration, cooperation, and teamwork. Here are some ideas from the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY) SEL Fellows for classroom teachers interested in creating classroom environments that support relationship skills with peers.
Begin with the Basics
Classic best practices for positive classroom culture set the tone for successful collaboration. For example, taking time to carefully craft intentional seating arrangements is an investment that yields productive peer interaction. When creating my seating charts, I often set up teams of four. In each team, I try to give each student a natural-fit peer, or an easy collaborator. This helps establish student confidence and enjoyment of the class. I often also assign a stretch peer: someone the student may need to exert some effort to get to know. I rarely pair students with challenge peers, individuals with whom they’ve experienced past conflicts, although sometimes this approach can helps students work past differences.
Establishing class norms early and reiterating expectations often is another best practice that supports teamwork. Teachers are classroom leaders responsible for engineering a calm, safe learning environment. Whether class norms are teacher-driven or student-generated, it is the teacher’s responsibility to articulate, model, and reinforce the standards for acceptable behavior in the classroom. Positive reinforcement for adherence to class norms is not, in my opinion, an approach that diminishes students’ natural drive to cooperate—on the contrary, occasionally acknowledging good behavior with a quick, “Thank you” or, “Great work today!” lets students know that you appreciate their contribution to a team-friendly classroom.
Another great way to get your class ready to succeed in cooperative tasks is to start each day or period with a quick team-building activity. The NNSTOY SEL Fellows are developing a series of bell-ringer activities that teachers can use as SEL warm-ups, available through the Homeroom Institute for SEL. Core SEL competencies are, like any set of skills, strengthened with regular practice. SEL bell-ringers exercise teamwork skills and prepare students for successful teamwork.
Teamwork can naturally flow from particular types of learning activities. In 2003, Rachel Lotan published a seminal article on group-worthy tasks, advocating for “carefully constructed group learning activities” that inherently support academic and SEL growth. According to Lotan, who has since been joined by Elizabeth Cohen as co-authors of the text Designing Groupwork, group-worthy tasks are open-ended, allow multiple points of entry that showcase multiple intelligences, address issues important to the content area taught, require positive interdependence and individual accountability, and include clear evaluation criteria. One technique that supports multiple points of entry, positive interdependence, and individual accountability is the assignment of clear and diverse student roles.
Janice Abud, an NNSTOY SEL Fellow from Michigan, notes that explicating roles on cards for students to read is “specifically helpful for students who otherwise may not participate. For students with social struggles, these cards provide a way for students to have clear-cut expectations of what to do, and help to prevent one student from doing it all. It provides variety to different roles where strengths can shine.”
Erin Craine, an NNSTOY SEL Fellow from Ohio, encourages teachers to consider the “placemat round robin strategy [which involves] making placemats for each table and laminating them that way they can write with dry erase marker and then they can be reusable, efficient, and much more appealing to the kids!”
Student Responsibility for Learning
Empowering students to assume responsibility for learning can transform classroom culture. Nicole Ayers, an NNSTOY SEL Fellow from Texas, promotes a gradual transfer from teacher to student decision-making in team formation. Nicole says, “I much prefer selecting their teams, and I build to where I give them the choice to form groups with individuals in other classes, and I give some the option to work alone.” Benefits of Nicole’s approach are gradually increased student engagement and motivation.
Trying out Nicole’s gradual transfer of group formation in my own classroom, I noted that once I had established classroom norms for inclusivity, students continued to honor these expectations. Students with high social status reached out to shy or reluctant peers, drawing them into their teams.
Janelle Dickerson, an NNSTOY SEL Fellow from New York, also empowers students with responsibility for role selection. Janelle shares, “I like the strategy of assigning roles to keep all students accountable for work. In the past, I have let my middle school students decide what roles they needed within their group in order to be successful, especially if each group had varying tasks.” Janelle suggests that teachers “incorporate a graphic organizer where they log their daily contributions to the group as a measure of additional accountability.”
Turning a class into a team can be a major investment. It might be a slow process that takes multiple stages requiring teacher investment in intentional seating arrangements, continuous establishment of norms, carefully constructed learning roles, and ongoing bell-ringer exercises in social and emotional skills. The NNSTOY SEL Fellows agree that this investment pays off in the long run, through positive classroom culture, strong SEL skills—not to mention engaged, motivated, and empowered students.
Megan Olivia Hall is the 2014 Minnesota State Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. She teaches science and Crew at Open World Learning Community, an EL Education school in St. Paul, Minnesota.
The opinions expressed in Teacher-Leader Voices are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.