Three ways to facilitate successful group assignments
By Amber Chandler
Over the last several years, I’ve transitioned to a paperless classroom, embracing what I know to be one of the most important aspects of a 21st-century education: using technology for research, writing, creating, and collaborating. I didn’t have any problem with the first three, but when I started to think about collaboration, I struggled to figure out an equitable way for students to work together.
Having been “that student” who always ended up doing the most work, I was concerned about those take-charge students who might steamroll over those who struggled. On the other hand, I wasn’t sure how less-able students would feel having to contribute when their work wasn’t necessarily on par with that of their peers. I concluded that the key to collaborative writing and creating isn’t only in the assignment, but in the culture of the classroom.
Try these three T’s to creating a collaborative environment and designing assignments that work for all students.
So many students don’t know their talents because mainstream education doesn’t always appreciate the nuanced skills our students bring to the classroom. At the beginning of each school year, I do an interest inventory with students. I ask them what they are good at, what they might be considered an expert in, and what they could teach others. As a part of our get-to-know-you activities, I have them teach the class something.
Over the years, I’ve learned about eighth-graders who were taxidermists, jugglers, and even competitive eaters. Though not as exotic, we also have students who know the entire periodic table, can solve a Rubik’s cube in a minute, or make their own clothes.
As the year goes on, I use this knowledge as I design assignments. For example, this past year we were going to read Roald Dahl’s short story, “The Landlady.” As we reached the climax of the story, I arranged with my young taxidermist to have a slideshow ready to explain the procedure. For that same story, I asked a well-traveled young lady to tell us about the experience of feeling far from home and unsure of how to handle new situations, thus helping readers empathize with the young businessman in the story.
This type of collaboration is unusual in that students are collaborating with me to make our class better; I use this method as often as possible because it validates their expertise and normalizes student contribution and collaboration in class.
It is important for students to know that sharing their talents will result in a positive reception from their peers because that will lead to a willingness to contribute. We build collaboration by performing impromptu skits in front of the class; it is a silly mess, which is the point. Students are given scenarios to act out, and the tasks are purposefully funny because laughing together builds trust. Later, as they are asked to work with a group, they will have shared a laugh, and this brings them closer together.
Often when I first assign groups, I have them do a quick team-building task like solving a puzzle or doing something physical such as simultaneously using hula hoops successfully. These may seem like small things, but such activities build the trust that is necessary within collaborative writing.
When students receive a collaborative-writing assignment, I have already chunked it into pieces. Students are then given time to assign pieces. Within the chunks, I provide clues that will help them make good decisions. For example, here’s how I’d assign a writing piece:
Task 1: introduction (this person should be dramatic and pull the reader in with vivid language)
Task 2: outline the three body paragraphs (this person should be the big-picture thinker who can organize everyone’s thoughts)
Task 3: find quotes to support the outline (this person should be a deep and careful reader with attention to detail)
Task 4: write the conclusion (this person should be good at summarizing and connecting to the world)
Task 5: document design (this person should be the graphic designer of the group who has an eye for what is aesthetically pleasing)
Task 6: editing (this person should be the grammar guru)
In this assignment, students all work together to flesh out an essay, but the three body paragraphs are written by individual students. They then share their body paragraphs and choose which ones they want to use in their final essay. Thus, some of the essay is collaborative, while some is individualized; the essay has degrees of sameness, but ultimately the task allows for slight variations and students are all producing.
This is all done on a Google Doc, and the students share their finished product with me for a final grade. The brilliance of Google Docs is that I can see which students did what parts, and I can see their comments to each other. Knowing their process is just as important as the final product.
Writing can be daunting. High-achieving students stress themselves out, while those who struggle can completely shut down. Collaboration can help both of these types of learners. Peers have the biggest influence on each other, so creating interdependence is crucial. There is a pitfall, though, for the grade-obsessed.
Because I grade the essay holistically, all students receive the same grade. This teaches them that anything they submit must be up to the standard we have set for ourselves, and it is each student’s responsibility to read the essay and make edits before submitting.
I have found ways to make collaboration tear-proof. All students may revise as often as they wish. Students can rewrite a section, change something, or correct the mistakes I’ve marked, and I allow as many revisions as a student would like. This allows all types of students to work together collaboratively but also retain the autonomy over their final grades and essays.
Most students continue to edit and work together on the revisions, but there are always a few who just want to “fix it” themselves. I don’t mind either approach, and the students learn that writing and creating is a tricky business.
These three T’s are the guideposts for creating a successful collaborative writing experience, but I honestly could not do this without a final T: technology. We use Google products and the G Suite, which provides students with an amazing repertoire of tools. Their favorite facet is their ability to chat and “be in” each other’s documents.
Writing and creating become social activities and thus grab students’ attention. Technology allows me to leave notes within the document, make corrections, and even share resources in the comments section. For example, if students did not use commas correctly, I can send them a link to a slideshow I created about the topic, reminding them what they’d learned.
The 21st-century workforce needs individuals who can come together in collaboration, diverge back out into their own expertise and talents, and then return to create final products that are both individualized and interdependent.
This style of work is not typical for school, and it takes some getting used to for both students and teachers; however, it is worth the extra layers of planning and the time investment. Seeing students collaborate in meaningful ways using technology for writing and creating is an exciting new development for teachers to try.
Amber Chandler is a National Board-Certified ELA teacher and the author of The Flexible ELA Classroom: Practical Tools for Differentiated Instruction in Grades 4-8.
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