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Voices from the Middle Moving from Print to Practice, December 2012 (20.2) - Previous Revision

This Issue’s Focus: Grouping in Middle School (Vol 20, No 2)

In the “Framework for 21st Century Learning,” the Partnership for 21st Century Skills has articulated its vision for learning that emphasizes core academic subjects, but goes further to include essential skills for success in our world, such as “critical thinking, problem solving, communication, and collaboration.” (See http://www.p21.org/overview.)

In this issue, we focus on group work to build core content knowledge in language arts and to support students’ development in all of the areas of 21st century learning, beginning with communication and collaboration. We know that in order to build skills in communication and collaboration, and to foster critical thinking and problem solving, our students need to work in groups. We also know that young adolescents are social beings and thrive on communication with peers. As their teachers, we must strive to use that social nature in meaningful and purposeful ways that will support communication and collaboration and meet our core academic goals.



Literature Circles

General Discussion Topic

“The ‘Us’ in Discuss: Grouping in Literature Circles by Katherine Batchelor and “Digital Storytelling: Reinventing Literature Circles” by Maryann Tobin give different perspectives on a popular concept in language arts classrooms and a staple when talking about groups: literature circles. Popularized by Harvey Daniels, literature circles are small, peer-led discussion groups that can be configured in a variety of ways. Literature circles are often formed based on student choice of a common reading. For more, see Daniels’s literature circles website at http://www.literaturecircles.com/.

Literature circles in a language arts classroom are used to foster discussion and construct meaning as students prepare for and lead discussions. If you have never tried literature circles in your classroom, what is holding you back? Does the thought of turning over control to your students create anxiety? Begin by talking with colleagues, examining the articles in this issue, and listening to the accompanying podcasts. What are the essential components of successful literature circles? How can you begin to implement those ideas in your classroom? Do you know anyone who uses literature circles in your school? Can you observe his or her practice as a way to get started?

Key Points

  • Students enjoy literature circles because the activity keeps them engaged while providing support via discussions and camaraderie.
  • Literature circle groups are formed through text choice rather than by reading ability.
  • Literature circles are a key factor in helping students discover reading as a pleasurable, social experience.
  • Literature circles can use traditional print text, or they can be updated to include a multimodal, technological component.
  • Digital storytelling works well with the versatility of literature circles, allowing for multimodal activities.
  • In any form of literature circles, the division of labor provides coordination of the activity and gives each participant a directed purpose for their interaction with the text.

Common Core Connection

Not only does the use of literature circles as a method for comprehending and discussing texts support all of the College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading, the collaboration and communication demands align with the following standards for speaking and listening.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening 6–12
Comprehension and Collaboration

  1. 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.
  2. Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

Grade 8 standards in this category include:

1. Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 8 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly.

a. Come to discussions prepared, having read or researched material under study; explicitly draw on that preparation by referring to evidence on the topic, text, or issue to probe and reflect on ideas under discussion.

b. Follow rules for collegial discussions and decision-making, track progress toward specific goals and deadlines, and define individual roles as needed.

c. Pose questions that connect the ideas of several speakers and respond to others’ questions and comments with relevant evidence, observations, and ideas.

d. Acknowledge new information expressed by others, and, when warranted, qualify or justify their own views in light of the evidence presented.

Using These Articles with Your Team

Literature circles may seem like an idea that is confined to the language arts classroom, but it does not have to be. Talk with your colleagues about the kinds of reading material they are using in other content areas.

  • Is the science teacher using any informational texts that could be a source of rich discussions in small groups? How can you work together to read material and cover science content in one classroom and use that same material for literature circle discussion in language arts?
  • How can you become a content expert for your team and teach colleagues how to foster literature circle-type discussions in other content areas? We’ve already suggested that you observe someone else who might be a good model of literature circle discussions. Could you be that resource for someone else?
  • How could you and your colleagues take the articles in this issue and model a literature circle-type discussion in your own professional learning community? Try dividing this issue up among small groups of teachers for discussion.
Why Not Try This?

 A big part of successful literature circle discussions is making sure that you help students begin with a strong foundation so that they are comfortable discussing their response to literature with each other. This may involve using a variety of team- and class-building ideas before diving into discussions of text.

Batchelor invites us to think about this idea as she suggests allowing students to create rules for regulating reading. She also recommends getting to know other group members by collecting information such as what kind of music or video games they like. Tobin emphasizes the needs for teachers to monitor discourse, working more closely with students at the beginning, but reducing that scaffolding as students become more independent.

Resources for team- and class-building activities:

  • Harvey Daniels and Nancy Steineke’s book Mini Lessons for Literature Circles provides a multitude of ideas for all aspects of literature circles. In this free sample, you can read about a Membership Grid as a way to collect the kind of information for group sharing Batchelor describes.

  • Survival scenarios and other collaborative decision-making activities can help your students establish rapport with one another and create group discussion rules and procedures before they are ready for literature circles. Here is a website with many examples:

http://wilderdom.com/games/descriptions/SurvivalScenarios.html

  • Kagan and Kagan (2009) suggest having teams build shelters to protect themselves from an imaginary rainstorm using nothing but newspaper and masking tape. I once had students build a structure that the whole team could stand in out of dry spaghetti and marshmallows.
Source: Kagan Cooperative Learning (Spencer Kagan and Miguel Kagan, Kagan Publishing, 2009) 

 

Alternate Grouping Strategies

General Discussion Topic

“Grouping Lessons We Learned from Co-Teaching in a Summer Writing Institute” by Kelly Chandler-Olcott, Jodi Burnash, Danielle Donahue, Maureen DeChick, Michele Gendron, James Smith, Mary Taylor, and John Zelenik chronicles the authors’ experiences in designing and implementing a three-week intensive summer writing institute in their community. All readers may not have the opportunity to plan and implement such a program, but that does not mean that there are not valuable lessons to learn from their experience. In their summer institute, these teachers practiced a variety of grouping strategies and use a similar idea for digital stories that Tobin introduced with literature circles. What ideas can you translate from this article into your own practice, even if you are not able to replicate the same situation?

Key Points

  • Think-pair-share is a grouping structure that allows students to share writing in progress and teachers to engage students during direct instruction.
  • Students learn a great deal about effective group work when teachers can role play as a model.
  • Decisions about how to group students are important and play a necessary role in the success of group work.
  • Co-teaching situations allow teachers to give students increased support and feedback as well as encouraging them to think about writing for a wider audience than just one individual.

Common Core Connection

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing 6–12
Production and Distribution of Writing

4. Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
5. Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach.
6. Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others.

Grade 7 standards include:

5. With some guidance and support from peers and adults, develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach, focusing on how well purpose and audience have been addressed.


Using This Article with Your Team

The co-teaching lessons in this article can easily be adapted to teaching teams, whether they are content-area teams, grade-level teams, or interdisciplinary teams. The authors provide the following suggestions that can be adapted to your teaming structure:

  • If you have a preservice teacher or an intervention aide or specialist in your classroom, include that person in planning and monitoring group work. The more adults available to circulate, supervise, and consult with student groups, the more feedback and coaching they receive. Supporting group work might also be a way that parents who want to remain involved in their child’s classroom into the middle school years could also be helpful.
  • As part of the planning process, clearly define the roles and responsibilities in the co-teaching setting—who will speak when, what information each teacher is responsible for covering, which groups of students each teacher will take primary responsibility for monitoring. In your team, this may also involve discussions of flexible scheduling, who needs more time for a longer activity, where short-term compromises can be reached.
  • If you do not or cannot share actual classroom space and teaching time with your teammates, use their knowledge of your students to help in making those grouping decisions. Consider discussing group configurations at team meetings so that everyone is consistent. It may be helpful for some students to keep the same groups in multiple classrooms or it may be advantageous to make sure you are changing groups in each subject area.

 

Why Not Try This?

Teachers in this institute used Think-Pair-Share as a core group strategy. A basic Think-Pair-Share strategy begins by posing a question or problem to students, having them think about it and formulate their own response first (they may or may not record that response individually), and then sharing it with a partner.

  • In a traditional setting using cooperative learning, students begin in home groups of four students. In a Think-Pair-Share activity, students are instructed to turn to one member of the group to share. There are a variety of ways to make this run smoothly. Students can count off by fours or can have a permanent number assigned to them between one and four. Then the teacher chooses a pairing from the four using a spinner or drawing numbers (pairs may be 1 with 3 and 2 with 4 or some other combination). It may also be that students are taught to designate partners as face partners or shoulder partners, based on the seating arrangement.
  • A close cousin of Think-Pair-Share is Numbered Heads Together. Beginning in groups of four, students are numbered off. A question is posed or a prompt is given. Students consider their individual response first, then share their answers or responses as a group, then a number is called and that student responds for the group. During discussion, students may have to summarize everyone’s responses or come to consensus on the best answer.
  • A third variation is Stand Up-Hand Up-Pair Up. In this version, students are given a question to answer or a prompt to discuss and everyone stands and puts a hand up. Students partner with someone not in their home or base group. Students put hands down as a signal that they have found a partner and are ready to discuss. This activity will often finish with a sharing before shifting partners again.

Source: Kagan Cooperative Learning (Spencer Kagan and Miguel Kagan, Kagan Publishing, 2009)

 

 

Group Interaction and Its Influence on Reading and Writing

General Discussion Topic

“Too Big to Fail: Rethinking Group Work in a Restructured Middle School” by Brian R. Horn and “Writing for a Built-In Audience: Writing Groups in the Middle School Classroom” by Gretchen Hovan share the practices of two teachers implementing group structures in their classrooms. The result is collaboration and interaction that enhance students’ reading and writing experiences. Both authors focus on the importance of communication within the group and the support of peers in meeting reading and writing goals. One common factor is students coming together for a purpose, though not necessarily a purpose the teacher supplies. The teacher scaffolds the experience, but the students define the purpose. What could that look like in your classroom?

Key Points

  • Notions of group size and configuration do not need to be rigid or follow traditional patterns of 3 to 4 in a group.
  • Students are capable of going beyond group work to building communities of practice based on shared interests.
  • Students are capable of developing their own rituals of behavior and group communication and hold each other accountable.
  • Listening is an important part of group communication. We need to help students learn the practice and value of listening deeply and taking ideas seriously.
  • Good questions are essential to deep listening.
  • Writing becomes communicating when students feel they have an authentic audience.

Common Core Connection

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing
Production and Distribution of Writing

4. Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

5. Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach.

Grade 7 Standard

5. With some guidance and support from peers and adults, develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach, focusing on how well purpose and audience have been addressed.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading

Key Ideas and Details

1. Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

2. Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.

3. Analyze how and why individuals, events, or ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.

Using These Articles with Your Team

Consider how principles in the group of seven could work on your team, not only in content area lessons but also within your advisory program. Can you lead students to build a community of practice similar to the group described by Horn to discuss issues like bullying in your school, caring for the environment, or improving communication between students and teachers? How do students see us as teachers operating in such a community? Can your team serve as a model for them?


Why Not Try This?

These articles share three central ideas. To be successful, groups need to build a sense of community, learn how to ask good questions, and learn how to listen to each other. These are ideas that may require teacher leadership and scaffolding to develop, but how?
Team-building and class-building activities are essential. Kagan and Kagan (2009) outline five aims that make class building essential:

  • Getting acquainted
  • Forming a class identity
  • Offering mutual support
  • Valuing differences
  • Developing synergy

Where can you identify these elements in Horn’s and Hovan’s practices? How do you achieve these elements in your classroom?

  • Activities that require students to talk with each other and get to know one another go a long way toward achieving these goals. If we are careful and plan well, personal inventories and interviews can lead students to form good questions, listen carefully for the answers, and get to know their peers in ways that build community.
  • Cooperative learning structures such as Mix-Pair Share, Stand Up-Hand Up-Pair Up, or Three Step Interview facilitate conversation with multiple classmates.
  • Working with students in advance to co-construct the questions and then lead a discussion afterwards—not only about what they learned about each other, but also how they listened to gather information—forms bonds among students and gives them a sense of ownership in the process.

Source: Kagan Cooperative Learning (Spencer Kagan and Miguel Kagan, Kagan Publishing, 2009)

 

 

 

Juggling the Logistics of Group Work

General Discussion Topic

“Improving Groups Using the Lens of the Overachiever” by Trudi Nelson and “Weighing Anchor in the ‘Ragged Times’” by Tonya Perry explore two important issues about using small groups in the classroom: how do we acknowledge what can be an imbalance in the workload for overachievers during group work, and how do we keep students engaged when groups do not finish an activity at the same time?

To answer these questions, we may need to begin by gathering some information from our students. How do they feel about group work? Do they get frustrated with groups because of the imbalance that often results from a group assignment? Who are the overachievers and potential freeloaders in your classroom? When assigning group membership, what do you know about your students’ work habits that must be considered as part of designing the activity?

Key Points

  • Teachers have to consider carefully the structure of a group assignment to allow for the purposes and pitfalls of the process, including how to handle groups finishing at different rates.
  • In a rich group work setting, students in the group rely on each other to create learning and a product that is stronger than one person can create alone.
  • Group work provides an opportunity to help overachievers learn to be good leaders, to listen, and to invite others to participate.
  • Anchor activities can help teachers manage “ragged” time when groups finish at uneven rates.

Using This Article with Your Team

Can you develop a team set of anchor activities that are cross-disciplinary? Are there things that students may be doing as a group in a different subject area that can become an anchor activity in another classroom? For example, Perry suggests an ABC book as a potential anchor activity. Can the ABC book be about science content to support literacy in that content area? Could your students create nonfiction notecards based on their social studies reading?

Discuss the issue of “ragged time” with your team and brainstorm ways that you can use that time to support each other’s curriculum and reinforce the idea of using time productively in every class meeting.

Common Core Connection

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening

Keep in mind that these standards may not always apply to formal presentations, but they can guide group interactions.

Comprehension and Collaboration

1. 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.

3. Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric.
Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas

4. Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning, and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

6. Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and communicative tasks, demonstrating command of formal English when indicated or appropriate.

Grade 9 Standard 1

As middle school teachers, grade 9 may or may not be in our grade level band, but we should keep our eye on what we are preparing students to do in the upper grades.

1. Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grades 9–10 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

a. Come to discussions prepared, having read and researched material under study; explicitly draw on that preparation by referring to evidence from texts and other research on the topic or issue to stimulate a thoughtful, well-reasoned exchange of ideas.

b. Work with peers to set rules for collegial discussions and decision making (e.g., informal consensus, taking votes on key issues, presentation of alternate views), clear goals and deadlines, and individual roles as needed.

c. Propel conversations by posing and responding to questions that relate the current discussion to broader themes or larger ideas; actively incorporate others into the discussion; and clarify, verify, or challenge ideas and conclusions.

d. Respond thoughtfully to diverse perspectives, summarize points of agreement and disagreement, and, when warranted, qualify or justify their own views and understanding and make new connections in light of the evidence and reasoning presented.

Why Not Try This?

How can we encourage students to engage in self-reflection and evaluation as a member of the group?

Consider the concept of PIES:

  • Positive Interdependence
  • Individual Accountability
  • Equal Participation
  • Simultaneous Interaction

As teachers, we have to take the responsibility to design group work that prevents the overachievers from doing too much and the slackers from doing too little. Examine the link below for an explanation of this concept.

http://www.tolerance.org/magazine/number-30-fall-2006/cooperative-learning

Source: Kagan Cooperative Learning (Spencer Kagan and Miguel Kagan, Kagan Publishing, 2009)

 

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