Teaching Self-Advocacy in the Classroom

As teachers, we aim for our students to become more autonomous and confident as the year progresses. In addition to the content area that we are instructing and the academic skills they will need moving forward, educators also focus a great deal of instruction on essential life-long learning skills. Self-advocacy is one of these essential skills that students must master, not only for their education, but for basic functioning and socialization throughout life. In addition to parents working to build self-advocacy skills at home, teachers can assist in that development as well by providing students with specific tools and practices to ensure that their voices are heard and understood. And the earlier children begin advocating, the better.

Self-advocacy is all about vocalizing one’s needs. However, the key to teaching children how to advocate for themselves starts with helping them to recognize their own needs. It is difficult to ask for help when you don’t know what exactly you need help doing. For some students, especially younger or inherently shy children, asking a teacher for help can be intimidating. Because of this, educators should equip students with multiple methods and strategies to foster self-advocacy and decision-making skills.

  • Teachers may choose to explicitly instruct students about what it means to be your own advocate. Depending on the age and needs of the students, the talking points could vary from classroom to classroom, but the take-away is the same: self-advocacy is all about speaking up for what you need and finding ways to obtain those needs with or without someone’s help.

  • Teachers should also be sure to stress the fact that listening is a key component of self-advocacy. Yes, self-advocates are expected to speak up; however, they are also expected to listen to the answer or response that they are seeking. Talk about how eye contact, body position, nodding, etc. are practices to enhance and demonstrate active listening skills. Remind students that, if listening attentively, they should be able to summarize or paraphrase what the other person just said.

  • For students to become strong self-advocates, they must be able to reflect and self-assess. Teachers should prompt students to consider their strengths and weaknesses as learners. The answers to questions like, “What are you good at?” “What do you often need help doing?” “How do you feel that you learn best?” allow students to see themselves as learners in progress. This self-reflection also encourages students to recognize in which scenarios they will need to stretch their self-advocacy muscle by asking for assistance.

  • Students can also learn a great deal about how to advocate for themselves as learners by looking at their likes and dislikes in school. Ask students to not only list their likes and dislikes, but explain why they feel that way about certain activities. A student who admittedly hates reading because he struggles to remember what he read will begin to understand that comprehension, summarizing, and recall are skills that he may need help developing.

  • For students that are exceptionally shy or hesitant to speak up, self-advocacy can be a challenging practice. Encourage these reluctant students by providing alternative options for them to voice their questions, concerns, and comments. With the help of technology, teachers are able to poll students digitally and see their responses in real time. Teachers can also provide students with a question or suggestion box, in which students can convey their needs in writing without getting the whole class involved. Teachers can also help students begin to feel more at ease about speaking up for themselves by creating small group activities, partnered work, academic language frames, sentence starters, and call-and-response practices. These types of activities remove the intimidation factor and allow the more reserved students the opportunity to practice self-advocacy.

Tough Conversations: A Tool for Parents, Part I

The “Courageous Conversations Compass,” a tool for ensuring that conversations around race and culture are productive in the workplace, was designed and shared by Glenn Singleton and Curtis Linton to promote courageous yet respectful dialogue. Public school personnel, especially Montgomery County Public School teachers, are probably familiar with both Courageous Conversations and Singleton and Linton’s compass. I personally have encountered instruction or reference to the compass on several instances during professional development classes and trainings, staff meetings, and parent conferences.

What began as a tool for the education realm has evolved into a helpful resource for several different types of conversations requiring courage, honesty, and perspective-taking. For struggling parents, an understanding of the compass and the philosophy behind its methods could certainly help facilitate communication with their teens.

What is the compass?

The compass, pictured below, is a visual, symbolic reference point that participants use to assist in communicating when conversations and viewpoints are not only difficult, but divergent. The four points of the compass, which help to identify from which perspective a participant is entering the conversation, are moral, intellectual, emotional, and relational. When we speak to others, especially about controversial or deeply personal topics, we typically go into the conversation with a certain mindset. The axis from which we enter a conversation depends on our experiences, values, beliefs, and opinions.

Additionally, we may enter a conversation from a combination of two or more points on the compass; it all depends on our thought processes pertaining to the specific topic of discussion. For example, on the very relevant topic of violence in schools, the discussion can quickly morph into a debate, which can then digress into an all-out argument. The reason that a controversial conversation like this would escalate quickly is because participants are entering the conversation from several different points on the compass.

For instance, a family member of a victim of gun violence would likely enter the conversation from an emotional standpoint—the topic resonates with their feelings because of their personal experiences. These feelings will conflict with or push back against a person who enters the conversation on the intellectual axis because it is hard to separate logic and emotion objectively. Therefore, the person who enters from an intellectual standpoint may try to use statistics, data, or trends to argue that guns do more to protect or defend people than to hurt them. However, this is a futile attempt for the intellectual if trying to persuade or counter a person’s emotional viewpoint. Likewise, people entering from the emotional axis will tune out the statistics—a statistic does not account for their lost loved one.

While this is just one example of how we enter the compass, the true value of the conversation strategy is that it allows us to recognize and reflect on why we may converse, debate, or argue the way that we do. It also allows us to gauge how and why another person would express themselves in such a vastly different way. The compass allows us to see, not only where we are coming from, but where the “other side” is coming from. At the root of this method is a deeply reflective practice in perspective-taking. The compass shows us that neither opinion is incorrect or invaluable; instead, it highlights why we disagree when it comes to such contentious topics. So how can we utilize this tool when speaking with our teens? Read ahead to learn how to implement methods for productive conversations using the compass.

Cultural Competency in the Classroom

A beneficial, yet challenging, factor of education today involves the increasing diversity in our schools. Because of the ever-growing demographics, teaching cultural competency has become a major focus in the classroom, especially for a public school system as vast and diverse as Montgomery County. It’s not only students that are getting instruction on cultural competency. These lessons start at the top with administration, curriculum writers, and educators all participating in this movement in favor of cultural awareness and appreciation.

Because culture involves a deeply personal, ingrained set of beliefs, behaviors, practices, and values, most people are at least somewhat unaware of cultures to which they do not prescribe. This is especially the case for young children who are just beginning to explore the world around them. Culturally-responsive instruction truly begins with a look at one’s self through reflection—it isn’t until we truly understand ourselves that we can begin to understand others around us.

Build a classroom environment founded in cultural appreciation by abolishing the word “normal.” Just because a behavior or characteristic might be our cultural norm, this does not mean that it is the “normal” or “right” way. Likewise, just because a behavior or trait may be unfamiliar to us, this does not mean that it is weird, wrong, or abnormal. Remind children that, just as we are all unique beings, our beliefs and values may cause us to speak, dress, and behave differently. Reinforce the mindset that cultural diversity provides learning opportunities that a culturally-homogeneous classroom would not necessarily have. Because each student comes from a different upbringing, with different customs, traditions, family structures, etc., the perspectives that we can gain by embracing our peers’ cultures are limitless. If we hold one another’s culture in high esteem by valuing it as a chance to gain knowledge about something new, we no longer see our peers as “odd” or “different.” Instead, children learn to place the emphasis on the fact that a peer’s culture has provided them with information and knowledge that they would not have known otherwise.

Beef up the classroom library with culturally diverse options for students to explore. Keep in mind that a culturally-relevant text does not receive its credit simply from the author’s culture. A novel about a child growing up during British imperialist India could provide plenty of opportunities for culturally-rich discussion—or it could oversimplify a culture or lack an important perspective all together. The key is to explore an abundance of different styles of texts, by many different authors, on a plethora of different subjects and themes. After doing plenty of research, and taking your students’ cultures into account, set up a culturally competent classroom library.  

Encourage courageous conversations surrounding cultural norms and where they originate. For instance, when examining the protagonist throughout the course of a novel, prompt the class to ask analytical questions about the character’s motivations, thoughts, and decisions. What do we know about this character’s values, background, upbringing, family structure, etc.? How are our lives similar or different because of our own cultures? How might our own beliefs impact the way that we view or characterize the protagonist? What more would we need to know or discover about the main character in order to fully understand why she behaves a certain way?

If we take steps to expose students to diverse cultures and guide their exploration of different customs, traditions and perspectives, they will learn to embrace new ideas and better navigate our world.

 

Change What Your Child Thinks About Studying

For those of us not blessed with a photographic memory, study skills are essential to our ability to grasp and retain information and concepts. We often think of studying as something that students do in preparation for a test—and while this is often the case, we want to set different expectations for studying. We want young learners to recognize the study skills that benefit them the best and to discover that studying is more than just a test-prep practice.

For elementary schoolers, studying, like many other aspects of education, is a new concept. Because they are just beginning to form their understanding of how to study and why, the elementary grades offer a great opportunity to put positive studying routines into place.
Teach elementary schoolers that studying is for more than just preparing for assessments. Studying should be introduced as a regular routine for reviewing and solidifying all content, not just test topics. By viewing a studying routine as a consistent homework practice, there is less pressure put on students when it comes to studying for an exam. They will be used to the process and aware of the strategies that help them the best.

To introduce this regular homework routine, at first devote a small amount of time to the practice. Begin by reviewing the night’s completed homework assignment or material from school that day. Encourage rereading as a friendly method to get the process started. Explain to your child that rereading helps to cement information and allows him or her to memorize key details. Prompt them to mark and look up any terms or phrases that they do not recognize or remember from class. This shows them how to be active readers and take initiative if they do not know something.

A studying practice should not be made to feel like an additional homework assignment; if elementary schoolers see it as extra work, they are likely to avoid it. Use maybe 5-10 minutes of homework time to “review” important concepts from the day. Ask your child to summarize the reading material or math steps that s/he focused on during the assignment. You can also ask your child to “teach” you how to do one of the math problems that s/he practiced for homework. Encourage them to jot down any questions that they may want to ask their teacher tomorrow, or circle any concepts that they found to be confusing while practicing on their own.

Use the “peak/pit” conversation to get your elementary schooler to think critically about what s/he learned today. Ask your child to say his or her favorite and least favorite part of the school day. Then ask him or her to explain why something was especially interesting or boring. This allows them to truly reflect on new concepts that they are grasping, while providing you with some insight into their budding interests. Remember to share your own “peak/pit” with your child. This helps to demonstrate that learning is a life-long process—we adults may be through our schooling, but we haven’t stopped learning new things.

If your elementary schooler seems particularly interested in a certain topic, try to find age-appropriate magazine articles, books, or documentaries about related topics. Playing off of a child’s interests will make learning feel less like work and more like a hobby.

Developing Grit: A Guide for Parents Part II

In the first part of this “gritty” topic, we explored how a lack of grit may have significant consequences for children and teens. We left off with a powerful quote from one of today’s most gritty inspirations—J.K. Rowling. In a commencement speech at Harvard, Rowling explained,

“Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way…It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”

Rowling’s message reminds young people to embrace struggle for what it teaches us. Moreover, parents can provide guidance in fostering grit by encouraging more than just learning from our missteps.

How can we ensure that our children and teens develop grit?

Practice

Practice is rooted in the concept of growth mindset—this idea that, with strategic effort and drive, anyone can improve. Since grit involves the desire and drive to persevere through obstacles or setbacks, practice is a key component for developing that drive, or grit. The purpose behind practice is two-fold—students need to learn to expect that tasks, skills, and talents require practice. Children and teens should also expect to continue that level of effort by practicing, even after experiencing failure. A student with grit knows that reaching one’s goals requires much more than one lucky attempt. Look at any success story and you’ll find that the person’s success was likely built on a foundation of trial and error. To encourage grit, provide teens with examples of successful risk-takers, or those who have achieved great success after years—sometimes decades—of practice and failed attempts.

Motive

Parents can also help children build grit by discussing motives or reasons for working through challenges. Having conversations about future goals with children and teens is a solid starting point for introducing grit. Pose topics for discussion like, “What if everyone gave up on their dreams after one attempt? How many inventors, creators, performers, and athletes would our world be lacking?” Or, “If failure was not possible, what dream or goal would you strive to reach?” Parents can also provide their children with examples of their own motivation. Talk about how you have experienced your own failures or obstacles—discuss what you learned from those tough moments and how motivation outshined exasperation or defeat. In discussing the reasons for sticking with a goal, no matter the difficulty, children learn to see struggle as a necessary step in learning or growing.

Small steps  

Children and teens also need to be reminded of the fact that nothing worth achieving will come easily; success is not accomplished overnight. A common trait of people lacking grit is that they will expect to succeed on the first attempt. Moreover, a level of impatience ensues when success is not met instantaneously. Remind children that even small achievements are bringing them that much closer to their goal. Victories, no matter what they be, take time. Children should remember that even the smallest wins contribute to their larger goal—so they can absolutely celebrate the baby steps along the way. Practices such as positive self-talk and checking off small accomplishments can revitalize a discouraged learner. Parents can model this positivity by tackling their own challenges, or by stepping out of the box and participating in a new activity. We must continue to not only challenge ourselves, but welcome and embrace the challenge for what it gives us—grit.    

 

Developing Grit: A Guide for Parents

Grit, as it pertains to behavior and motivation, has been a popular buzzword in the education world as of late. Perhaps the reason that it has taken center stage is the fact that today’s adolescents are overwhelmingly lacking in grit. Merriam-Webster defines grit as “firmness of character; indomitable spirit.Grit, however, is much more than sheer determination. Furthermore, grit should not be misconstrued as a trait of stubbornness. This characteristic is substantially more complex than the unwillingness to accept failure, and yet, it has a great deal to do with one’s failures. As Angela Duckworth, who’s garnered a following after her TED talk on grit, claims: grit should be defined as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.”

With such an emphasis on grit, or rather, the absence of it among today’s youth, it is an essential topic of discussion for parents. What does grit look like? What is the danger of an absence of grit? Since it is such a crucial attribute, how can we ensure that our children and teens develop grit?

A world without grit:

If we were to describe today’s young people in one word, including my own fellow millennials, our generation and those that have followed could be considered “soft.” Coddled, entitled, and sheltered also come to mind when I think about young people today. Some may not know it, but this “softness”—this inability to persevere or handle setbacks—is indicative of a lack of grit.

The unfortunate (and terrifying) truth is that many of today’s recent high school graduates, though perfectly capable applicants on paper, are abysmally ill-equipped to thrive on their own at the university level. Most likely, much of primary school was smoke and mirrors—students were given an A for effort, innumerable opportunities to reassess or resubmit assignments, and gratuitous applause. While it is important to reference the value of self-esteem, the pendulum may have swung too far in the direction of sensitivity.

Parents need to be aware of this lack of grit, because teachers, professors, and employers certainly are. What we are seeing now is that the slightest difficulty, obstacle, or discouragement renders today’s teens completely helpless—any effort or motivation that they may have had for their end goal becomes dashed by fears of failure the moment they sense anything less than perfection on the horizon. Teens are so used to unwarranted praise or the metaphorical “participation trophy” that they are incapable of picking themselves up by their bootstraps, getting back on the horse, dusting off to try again, and any other euphemism alluding to grit. We are raising the “1-and-done” generation, who would rather sell themselves short than experience a nanosecond of discomfort, failure, or rejection.

Without grit, teens become young adults that, while dutiful followers, will never risk failure for a leadership opportunity. They will choose predictable or comfortable stability over spirited, or self-determined, trailblazing every time. They will blame any setback or perceived rejection on the “powers that be” or anything outside of their control. They will consider any criticism as an attack, as opposed to an opportunity to reflect and grow with that knowledge. Students lacking grit become adults who only explore inside the box, and only play when the odds are in their favor.

One of the most “gritty” writers said it best:

“Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way…It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.” J.K. Rowling

Read on to find out more about the correlation between grit and failure, as well as tips for encouraging grit at home and in school in Part II of Developing Grit: A Guide for Parents.

Teaching Inclusion in the Classroom

General education teachers are tasked with keeping many balls in the air, which is half the fun of working in a classroom—there are so many constantly moving and evolving pieces for which to account. One of these essential pieces to ensure equitable learning for every student is inclusion. Of course, this term is nothing new to educators—we work to create an inclusive environment on a daily basis. What might be new, however, are the many ways in which we teachers can look at inclusive practices. Since every child is different, we must continue our exploration of strategies and practices that best suit the needs of all students.

One best practice that supports inclusion is to vary the output of information. By this we mean that teachers should relay content and instruction in different ways. Some students, especially those with auditory processing difficulties, find that verbal instruction is hard to grasp. To ensure inclusion for these students’ special needs, teachers should try to present information in visual or tactile ways, in addition to the verbal instruction. Depending on the class or lesson, this might take the form of a demonstration, video, or hands-on activity. Some skills or lesson objectives may even lend themselves to a more kinesthetic or tactile approach. Even students without an auditory processing deficiency would find it confusing to listen to a verbal explanation of cursive letter formation. A demonstrated approach to writing using clay, beads, shaving cream, etc., makes more sense.

Similarly, when teachers are introducing concepts like grammatical conventions or figurative language devices, an audio or visual approach might work better than a written explanation of how a properly formatted sentence should sound. Teachers should also practice inclusion by encouraging students to demonstrate their learning in various ways. This means that, not only is the presentation of information different for each child, but the means by which a student exhibits mastery should be individualized, as well. Some students might prefer to write a formal, organized research paper to convey their knowledge of a subject, while others might feel most comfortable presenting a visual demonstration of their topic. The key is to provide multiple opportunities for students to display their knowledge so that everyone’s learning styles are being incorporated.

Another way to look at inclusion is to utilize multiple means of engagement. For students with attention issues, memory difficulties, or other learning disabilities, engagement in the classroom can make all the difference. Engagement might mean listening to music to identify metaphors, similes, or narrative voice. A film study might help students understand a new culture or part of the world. An analysis of a slow motion field goal might help students understand kinetic energy, velocity, or other properties of physics. The point is, when students are engaged, learning not only flourishes, but behaviors and attentiveness increase, as well. Engagement also assists with moving information from short-term memory into long-term memory. Inclusion, with regard to engagement, means that teachers are not only teaching with methods for each type of learner, but also appealing to each learner, so that memory of the information or skill can solidify. In order to provide engagement, there must be a level of interest on the student’s end. As different as each student’s learning style may be, so may be their interests.

This is where building relationships with students becomes essential for inclusion. Cultural inclusiveness provides students with a platform to express themselves on a more personal level. This also promotes a positive classroom environment, one in which students feel heard, understood, and accepted. Cultural inclusion allows students to see beyond themselves, as well, which fosters perspective-taking.

Constructive Feedback

Educators are trained to provide rigorous, engaging instruction, fair and accurate grades and assessments, and helpful criticism or feedback. As an English teacher, written feedback is a crucial aspect of the editing, revising and grading process. For students, the best way to ensure that our feedback is not going straight into the garbage is to make it as helpful as possible. While everyone has his or her own style of providing written feedback, below are a few solid Do’s and Don’ts when it comes to teacher feedback.

  • Try to balance the salty with the sweet—especially with younger or struggling writers. The writing process is complex, intimidating, and laborious for many young learners. When students are just starting out, a little encouragement can go a long way. This is not to suggest that feedback must only contain vapid or disingenuous fluff—not at all. The critical aspect of teacher feedback is what the students truly need. However, if we want them to invest in the time of reading, reflecting, and revising with the feedback we provide, we must be sure to draw them in as opposed to turning them off with only negative feedback. I not-so-fondly remember my own experiences where, even as an elementary student, my writing was more or less ripped to shreds by only harsh criticism. Yes, critical feedback is important, but we must also be sure to shed light on what the writer did correctly, as to provide a glimmer of enthusiasm, optimism, or positive reinforcement.

  • Focus your feedback on a few major takeaways from earlier instruction. For instance, if a main objective of the unit is that students will be able to support a claim with textual evidence and interpretive reasoning, then focus your feedback and critique around how successfully they attempted that objective. If introductions and conclusions were the focus, be sure to provide most of the feedback in that area of the paper. This not only makes your life easier by helping to focus the written feedback, but it also allows for students to hone in on a few significant writing skills at a time. The feedback will seem less tedious on your end, and less harsh from a student’s perspective.

  • Keep comments clear, but concise, by using highlighter functions or editing symbols in Google Classroom. One benefit to the abundance of technology that we educators have at our disposal is the fact that written (or typed) feedback can save teachers time, while providing students with comments and suggestions in real time. With the various digital platforms for students to submit writing assignments, students no longer have to wait for the return of tangible essays with handwritten feedback. Now students can simply login from home or school to view a teacher’s comments, critiques, and suggestions.

  • Use the editing or highlighting function in Google Classroom to note areas in a paper where students need spelling, punctuation, or grammatical revision. For students that need reminders, I may insert the first few missing commas. For others, however, I may simply highlight the areas in their paper where they are missing punctuation. This way, students will know where to include a mark, but must assess their own writing to identify exactly which punctuation mark fits properly in a given highlighted area.

  • Talk through the feedback to both put students at ease and answer follow-up questions that they may have. Like many things, sometimes our feedback can get lost in translation. If this is the case, consider setting aside a segment of class time where students can conference one-on-one with you about their specific feedback and suggestions. This allows students the opportunity to fully grasp the feedback to ensure that their plans to revise will in fact improve upon their first draft.

Mindset Matters: Growth Mindset for the Elementary Schooler


Growth Mindset vs. Fixed Mindset is a very hot topic in the education world right now. What began as a pedagogical, research-based concept coined by Dr. Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford, has now trickled down even into kindergarten classrooms. A basic explanation for a not-so-basic concept is the fact that
people can improve their achievement, motivation, and even their intellect by adopting a growth mindset and strategies that correspond to such a mindset.

Growth vs. Fixed

Teaching young learners about growth mindset involves countering thought processes that they may have already begun to acquire. Students in elementary school have likely already begun to find their strengths and weaknesses. We all have certain talents, but elementary schoolers can adopt a growth mindset by refusing to limit themselves based on areas of weakness. Teaching growth mindset to younger learners can be as simple as swapping out our language and praise in the classroom.

Stressing only natural-born talents can be detrimental to adopting a growth mindset. While some of us are born with natural gifts, such as artistic, athletic, or musical strengths, the flipside to stressing the importance of natural gifts is the fact that children will believe that, if they are not born with these abilities, they cannot acquire them. Additionally, this fixed mindset does not encourage learners to accept challenges. Instead of attempting something outside of their comfort zone, children with a fixed mindset may rest on their laurels—believing that, unless it is one of their innate gifts, they will never be good at it.

Instead, stress the importance of acquiring new skills. Yes, natural abilities are wonderful in that they are innately effortless. However, do not forget to encourage children to practice skills, activities, or hobbies outside of their natural realm of abilities. Growth mindset involves a belief system that ability is limitless, so long as the strategies are there. Again, this is about embracing challenges with the realization that, while we may not be the best at a new skill right away, we can take charge of the challenge by practice, learning, and growing.

Emphasizing success while downplaying failure ignores the essential process for improvement. Children with a fixed mindset consider failure to be inevitable if the task involves something that they deem that they are simply “not good at.” This discourages any amount of effort or motivation because they truly believe that “once a multiplication failure, always a multiplication failure.” In this sense, people with a fixed mindset internalize failure. They believe that they are not good at something, therefore they will never be good at it, so what is the point of putting forth excessive effort? In a sense, a fixed mindset creates its own roadblocks.

Help children to look closely at and analyze possible reasons for moments of difficulty or perceived failure. Don’t shy away from discussing why your child struggled with something. Instead, have open and honest conversations about how they could use different strategies the next time. Growth mindset revolves around the idea that intellect and ability are fluid—and that we can control our success rates by practicing and strategizing.

A child with a fixed mindset will often strive for perfection. What’s the problem with that? Well, for one, perfection is a relative term. There is no way to measure “perfection.” It also discourages or discredits hard work unless the child received 100% on an assignment. In a child’s fixed mindset, it is either 100% or nothing.

While a fixed mindset ignores the concept of improvement and growth, the alternative praises evidence of improvement. Yes, you may have gotten a C on your math test; however, that score is leaps and bounds above the D you got 3 weeks ago. When having children examine and analyze their own growth, they begin to find trends in their learning process. These trends help them to identify which strategies are most beneficial to them as learners. So yes, the C grade may not be as exciting as the A+, but the steady improvement tells us a lot about how a child has acquired new learning strategies.

Group Work: How to Make it Work


Cooperative learning, collaborative strategies, group rotations—whatever we decide to call it, the research behind group work in the classroom makes a strong case for embracing collaborative learning. As beneficial as it is, however, group work can easily go awry if the planning and structures are not in place. Here are some suggestions for well-managed group work in the classroom.

  1. Consistency is key when introducing group structures and routines. Rotations, stations, and group collaboration involve much more than having students circulate through different activities together. Before you can even begin the actual group work, students need to be explicitly instructed on how they will form and work in their groups. Devote some time to having students practice moving into their groups in a quick and organized manner. Encourage students to have only necessary materials out during group work. Practice timed cleanup so that groups familiarize themselves with the amount of time needed to wrap up a work session.
  2. Teacher-derived groups should be deliberate on multiple levels. Be sure that groups contain personalities that will jive and complement one another. Also be careful to level the groups so that there are higher-ability and lower-ability group members in each group. When possible, groups should be gender-balanced and small enough that every person will play a vital role in the process and product. For the typical classroom, groups should be kept to 4 students or smaller to allow for accountability.
  3. Begin implementing group work by stressing the importance of the process, not necessarily the product. Of course the end result is important; however, cooperative dialogue, perspective-taking, and synergy are the foundations for a successful group—perfecting the product will come later. You want the groups to work like a well-oiled machine in the sense that each person knows that her individual input is necessary to achieve the end goal.
  4. Have open dialogue about that end goal. Part of the nuisance of group work is the fact that every group member has a different work ethic, mindset, motivation, and concept of the result. We have all experienced the headache and stress of completing “group work” individually because a partner or group mates were banking on someone else completing the job. To avoid this common pitfall, encourage groups to discuss what each individual’s end goal is and work on compromising from there. If one person’s goal is to complete the task in as little time as possible, assign that person one of the initial planning, prewriting, or beginning tasks for the project. If another person expresses a deep desire to perfect the group’s project, put that person in charge of checking the final product against the rubric and making edits or adjustments as needed. If one person simply aims to turn something in for credit, put him or her in charge of organizing materials, brainstorming ideas, keeping the group’s notes, etc.—the key is to play to each person’s strengths and desires so that everyone’s intrinsic motivation leads the group to the same end goal.