Group Work: The Gold and The Garbage (Part 1 )

Road Trip Mix Album Cover

This series is called “Just Like Starting Over” because there are points throughout the semester (breaks, starting new units, abandoning disaster situations, etc.) in which we are given the opportunity to start over. In this series I’ll be asking a few important questions of myself, and in turn, of you, dear reader: what if you could–blank slate–start over as a teacher? What would you keep? What would you change? Which lessons and systems would you, as Marie Kondo suggests, hold in your hands and thank for their service to you before sending them away?

Group Work: Gold and Garbage

Let’s face it: cooperative learning is rarely as cooperative as we hope it will be, and, at times, very little learning occurs.

Every time I invite students to work in groups, I can’t help but reminisce to my time as a student. I always end up flashing back to all the times I had to do all the work due to disengaged partners. I also, by the way, think back to all the times I got credit another group member’s ideas. And as I endure these flashbacks, I’m filled with anxiety both for my past self and my current students.

And then, I think about all the things my teachers used to do in hopes of mitigating our eventual and unavoidable group work disasters…

Sometimes, a teacher would give us slips of paper asking us to rate our fellow group members, but we were usually too afraid of the social repercussions to answer these surveys honestly. Other teachers would have us write out our own contributions in order to hold groups accountable, but I never witnessed a teacher doing anything with this data. Even if they had, by this point, it was too late to do anything about it. A few of my teachers walked the room and would ask us about our work–but even that didn’t seem to work. The antagonizing members were either good enough actors to fool the teacher, or worse, the teacher would notice something was wrong and lecture us about how bad we were at group work.

I’m sorry to beat this dead horse, but I do want to note that sometimes teachers did try to do something about our group work nightmares. I remember a few who tried to give each member a job, but, honestly, that didn’t help much. What if one of us did the job badly? How could we keep one person from sinking the ship without one person doing someone else’s job for them?

I had lots of great teachers, but I never seemed to be lucky enough to land in a great group work situation.

So, no wonder my first attempts at student collaboration resulted in disaster.

Early in my career, my solution was to avoid asking students to work together. I rarely, if ever asked students to work cooperatively with more than one other person. When I did try group work, I loaded it with accountability measures that were never as effective as I’d hoped. Just like all my ghosts of teaching past.

Speaking and Listening

The thing is, group work has so much potential: just ask any band that’s ever gone platinum. Just ask any company that turns a profit. Just ask any effective school.

On top of that, if you teach in a Common Core state, you have group work in your standards.’s anchor standards feature this gem:

Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

So, the implication for teachers is that group work isn’t something that is assigned; it is something to be taught.

Of course, the sticky wicket here is that great collaborations don’t tend to happen naturally. When working with diverse partners, things don’t always gel. So, if we want students to do any of the above, we need to figure out some ways to teach, assess, and provide feedback on how to be good group members. But how?

Gold and Garbage

Recently, I re-purposed something I learned from @BethRimer about helping students ease into difficult work. The strategy is called “Gold and Garbage.”

After putting students into groups (I could get into this long and agonizing process, but I’ll save this for another day), I asked them to come join me in our classroom meeting area for a strategy session. I asked them to make a T-Chart in their notes. I told them that today we’d be starting up student book clubs. I was met with alarming amount of groans and sighs mixed in with one or two smiles. I told students that group work’s usually designed to enhance a learning experience, but often it falls short. So, if we’re hoping to avoid the usual failures, we’d need to approach things differently. To kick off our brainstorm, I asked students to make a list in their T-Charts of all the Gold and Garbage that can occur when working in groups.

Gold and Garbage T-Chart

After a minute or two had passed, I asked students to share some items from their lists until there were no more hands up. Then, I asked, “Anything else?”

As you may have predicted there were about three to five times as many things in the Garbage category as there were in the Gold.

Students then brainstormed with partners a few ideas and rules that we might put into place this go-round. Students shared, and I listed their ideas on chart paper. As the list grew, I  threw out a couple worst case scenarios, and I asked how they might handle these using our list of rules and ideas. I added any new ideas on how to solve these problems to our big list.

One idea in the Garbage category was that, too often in book clubs, not all members are happy with the book. So, before groups left the meeting area to do what Penny Kittle calls Book Speed Dating (I’ve seen others call this “Book Tasting”), I pointed out the “Choosing a book” guideline in the class’s ideas and rules list, saying, “If our idea to be make sure everyone is good with a book doesn’t seem to work for you, don’t panic–send someone to come get me. I’m happy to help.”

This may not always be the case, but not one of my classes had any major disagreements.  That said, it wasn’t all dumb luck: I went from group to group, asking if I might listen in to learn about their selection process. I coached students by whispering into group members’ ears things like, “Did you ask everyone if they have any concerns about this book?” and “Is there anything about this book your group needs to think about before deciding?” Some groups took longer than others to choose a book, and a few groups even asked to go to the library together because they weren’t finding what they needed in my room. Interestingly, without my coaching, many students went out of their way to hear each other out. Some even asked quiet group members for their input as they browsed the sets of books in the room. I wonder if the combination of student’s expressing themselves about issues and being involved in the troubleshooting process played a role in this swell of congeniality.

As students began to settle on their books, I went from group to group asking, “As you come to a decision on your book club book, what might you do to make absolutely sure it’s the right choice?” Most groups predictably replied that they should read a small section and talk about whether it was a good fit. A few bet it all on what they thought to be a sure thing.

As students finalized their book decisions, I gave each group member a printed month-long calendar. I had circled our start date and our due date. I had also circled book club meeting dates (these would occur twice a week). I explained to each group that they were going talk to each other to figure out things like if/when they would read at home, how many pages they needed to read per day in order to finish on time, and what they might do if someone wanted to read ahead (we saved “What to do if someone falls behind” for another day). I also asked students to write into their calendars what page number they’d need to be on for each day in order to finish by the due date. I chose not to help students with the math, trusting that if there were any errors, they’d eventually catch them. The idea here was that even if things went a little wrong at times, I wanted students owned as much of the process as possible. Sure, I would teach them strategies and coach groups as they implemented these practices, but in every step of the process I embedded reminders that these weren’t going to be MY book clubs; they belonged to the students.

Students had decided on the usual problems with book clubs/group work, they came up with the solutions, they chose their books, and they made their own plans.

Problems would still arise here and there, but we had a foundation upon which we could problem-solve. This meant that instead of assigning group work, I was teaching–no–WE were teaching each other how to be good group members.

In parts two and three of this mini-series, I’ll be sharing ways I coached groups to have better discussions, ways we addressed common group work problems,, and ways that we leveraged the power of a group to raise levels of learning.

I would love to hear about how you teach into group work. What strategies do you use to help students learn to be better collaborators? 

Please leave us a comment below, find us on Facebook, or let me know on Twitter: @MrWteach!

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