On my first day of teaching, I was given advice by a veteran teacher on his way out the door. “Five rows of six,“ he instructed, “not six rows of five.”
Bob was advising me to keep my students apart, individual, independent, so it would be harder for them to talk to each other and to copy from each other. Twenty years later, when I was the veteran teacher walking out the door to move to university teaching, I left a classroom that not only was arranged in six rows of five, those rows were arranged in pairs so that each student always had a colleague with whom to confer and work, with easy access to two, three, or four others. I learned to always have a deck of cards ready to fan out for quick small-group selection and movement: "Group by Red cards, Black cards, Hearts, Diamonds, Aces, #’s, Evens, Odds…"
Over the years I found the most powerful weapon for teachers at any grade level is collaboration. As teachers we need to keep in mind the ultimate goals of our classes: academic, all students learning, and affective, all students learning to work with others. And the best way to accomplish both is through collaboration and cooperation, students supporting students.
In my middle-school English-Language Arts classroom, students wrote, read, spoke, planned and produced collaboratively. Collaboration, being social, provides motivation and engagement. I found that those students who would not produce work independently, at least did something—and learned something—supported by a partner or group. Learning and knowledge was extended. This strategy is in keeping with Aristotle: “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
ADVANTAGES OF COLLABORATION
Collaborative projects become enhanced and improved with multiple perspectives, and students begin to appreciate and gain respect for those with knowledge, skills, and experiences divergent from theirs as they became interdependent through collaborative projects and common goals. In collaboration, each person’s contribution is crucial as students pool their resources and talents. The math wiz becomes revered in the ELA classroom when a group needs to design charts and maps; artists are fought over in almost every presentation utilizing design; and the musicians are wooed when persuasive writing includes commercials or grammar-rule songs are composed. And all students benefit from a convenient, engaged audience.
Interdependency opens up possibilities of greater productivity, efficiency, and personal academic and affective growth as members of a group learn to collaborate in mutually beneficial ways and students learn the value of diversity and form a classroom community. An added benefit is the reduction of incidents of bullying when students widen their community, and classrooms are no longer divided into “Us” and “Them” as students gain respect for their classmates. Hopefully, that will spread an even wider net of respect and cause students to rethink their world.
CONSIDERATIONS of COLLABORATION
My students sat in pairs so they would always have a partner with whom to collaborate. Pairs could quickly turn their seats for groups of 4 or divide and move their seat across the aisle for triads. To mix up the partnerships each Monday students in the every other row (mixing it up each week) would move back one seat, giving them a new partner and, as they said, a new perspective of the classroom; students could also move to the right instead. The seats were fanned out as shown so that even the first students in the outside row could see other students instead of looking straight at the front and not feeling part of the community.
At a workshop I was told how much time (I forget the number but it was staggering) over the year that we lose getting students into small groups. For small group work, many times students could choose their own groups. Some times I grouped students homogeneously and gave them slightly different activities or projects based on their skill and knowledge levels, and at times I grouped heterogeneously by abilities and talents. For random selection, I had a deck of playing cards. As students entered the classroom, they choose a card, fanned out in my hands, and I would announce, "All like numbers together," "All like suits together"; "All black cards together," based on the group size for the activity or project. Of course Book Clubs were grouped by book choice selection.
With any group, it is vital to first teach social lessons. Teaching Discussion Strategies is Strategy #10 under my Reading Strategies section.
COLLABORATION is a twenty-first century business skill. Collaboration reflects real-world businesses and situations where professionals collaborate on presentations, reports, and projects. Many businesses are now organized into teams rather than individual workers in departments; many office buildings—anticipating even more collaboration in the future—are no longer being configured into separate offices or cubicles.
Where is education heading? My fear is that, with the emphasis on testing for individual scores and the continuous collection of individual data, as collaboration in the business world increases, it will decrease in the classroom. As it diminishes in the classroom, so will building classroom and school community, a sense of belonging, and a respect for diversity, reverting to a culture of “us” and “them.” It is imperative that teachers build collaborative communities in their classrooms to make school a safe and supportive place for children and adolescents.
It is also essential that teachers help their students acknowledge that they belong to a group together, that they are part of a “we” or “us,” and that any differences—divergent talents, backgrounds, experiences, and skills—only make us stronger and better as they prepare students for a diverse future world.
"For examples of collaborative interdisciplinary readng-writing-speaking projects, such as The Home Front Fair, "You Were There" Holocaust books, The Cinderella Cultural Project, and more, see Research & Project Strategies in the Strategy Shorts drop-down menu.
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