Cooperative Learning

Now that it is my 2nd year teaching I feel like I can try some new things in my classroom. This year I've hit the ground running with a few new teaching tools; one of them is cooperative learning. I have to give my sister in-law, Amy Nebesniak, credit for this because she is a guru on this teaching method, and I became interested in it after reading her thesis a few years ago. In fact, I did my EQUIP presentation over this in the Nebraska Writing Project (NeWP) this summer. In a few weeks I will be conducting an inservice with late elementary teachers on how to implement cooperative learning into the writing classroom, so this blog posting will serve as my brainstorming for planning for the inservice.

I am no expert on this method, but I'm trying to use it as much as possible in my English 9 classes. During the third week of school I went ahead and put my students into mixed ability teams, I tried to make sure each group had a high-level learner, two medium-level learners, and one low-level learner. I also tried to create teams so that each team had a mix of males and females. Once the teams were established I had the teams do a teambuilding activity. For this particular one students took some time to get to know one another first. I should have given the students interview questions for this activity, but I wasn't thinking that far in advanced! After that, they came up with a team name and created a team Wordle (stolen from an NeWP participant- Holly Mains) that displayed their team name, their individual names, and charecteristics of their team. The kids had a blast doing it and the Wordles served as great decorations for my classroom.

While in these teams, the students worked on composing a This I Believe essay (another idea from the NeWP that Louisville teacher Paula Anderson uses). I used NPR's This I Believe curriculum and incorporated cooperative learning alongside. For example, when discussing introductions, conclusions, and juicy details the students worked in jigsaw groups so each group member became an expert on that particular part of the essay. This worked really well because each student knew that he/she was responsible for learning enough about a specific part of the essay so that he/she could go back to the team and teach it to his/her teammates. Another benefit to this was that all students were actively engaged. Had I done this the traditional way where I had converted the readings into a powerpoint for students to follow along with, I would've had a few students snoozing simply because there would've been little to no interaction.

During the course of the This I Believe unit, students grouped their desks together to work in teams. When students had questions while writing, they consulted their writing groups. Convincing students to direct their questions to their writing teams was no easy task because they have been conditioned to ask the teacher when they have questions. However, I want my students to feel comfortable asking questions of one another, so I encouraged them to ask their writing teams. This does not mean that I never answered a question. However, I did instruct students to first ask their writing team and if they still couldn't come up with an answer that the team could ask me the question. Eventually, the writing teams became interdependent.

In order to emphasize writing as a process, we completed three drafts of our TIB essays and each draft needed a new author's note. The author's notes aloud students to articulate what they liked about their essay and what they needed help with. Each draft received a writing workshop from the team. We structured the read and feed process just like the process we used for writing group time during the NeWP:

1. One student is the designated time cop for the day. This person makes sure that each person gets 5-10 minutes in the workshop.
2. One student reads his/her essay and author's note aloud without apologizing.
3. Each teammember points out one positive aspect of the student's essay (a warm fuzzie) and one thing the writer could do better--we talked about a variety of methods to give constructive feedback...many students used, "If this were my essay I would do ______________ instead of ____________." Some students also chose to take notes and
4. The writer thanks his/her team for their feedback.

As I floated around the room I noticed that students were quick to share warm fuzzies and hesitant to give constructive-feedback or to point out spots that needed improvement which is exactly what I expected. After each workshop we reviewed how we could give good feedback and why we want good feedback. The more times we did this writing workshop thing, the better students got at it. At the end of the entire unit, students turned in three drafts of their This I Believe essay and a podcast of their essay that they also received feedback on from their teams. For the most part, the read and feed paid off. Many students made adequate revisions and ended up scoring pretty high on the essay.

Now, everything was not all a bed of roses. I had one class of ten students that resisted working in teams. The class dynamic is interesting to start out with, but the teamwork thing just was not appealing to this group of students...in fact, many of them refused to even participate. I stuck it out to the end of the unit, but I am going to cool it on cooperative learning with these kiddos for awhile. I do appreciate cooperative learning and feel like it has a lot to offer, but I need to figure out what works best for this class first.

During our daily writing time I had students review the unit. I asked them three questions:
1. What did you learn during this unit?
2. Did you enjoy this unit? Why or why not?
3. How did your teams work out?

Here is some feedback I received from students:

"I liked it, I got help and encouragment."--C.B

"I learned that having other people read your essay before you hand it in helps." --K.B

"I liked discussing our essays and hearing others." -C.E (many studnets appreciated reading and listening to one another's essays because it gave them something to relate to).

"I did enjoy this assignment because I love writing and working with groups. I enjoyed writing on the computer and doing a podcast. It was nice to write about what we wanted to write about. I learned how to open up with my group and also how to listen to others. I liked working with a group because I don't usually work in groups because I like working alone. I've just always been an independent person and to work in groups was something new and fun." --J.G

"I loved working in my group because they kept their feedback positive, but at the same time they told me some things I needed to work on and improve. It is always ood to hear feedback from someone your own age!" --C.V.

"People were very specific of what they did like, which is good. But when it came to where you would say something ithey needed to work on, no one was very specific. We would just say things like, 'you could describe things more.' But we wouldn't say what specifically they needed to describe more. I think we did tha tjust because it was our first day reading the others' work. I think that no one wanted to hurt anyone's feelings. But I think that the more we are in these groups, the easier it will be to help the others on specific things." --J.P

I also took notes on what I thought we could improve on based on student evaluation of their writing groups:
1. More time needs to be designated to writing groups
2. Some students were either too quiet or were not focused
3. Some students felt judged
4. Some students wished they had received stronger feedback
5. More communication
6. More enthusiasm for workshops
7. Work on listening sills
8. No laptops allowed (we are a 1:1 school) during group time because they become a distraction

I am setting up new teams this weekend and we will begin this process again while discussing the 6 Traits of Writing. We'll see how these teams work!


In response to "So This Is Nebraska"

Today in my English 9 classes we journaled in response to Ted Kooser's poem "So This Is Nebraska." I used the poem as a springboard to talking about our place--Ogallala, Nebraska. I try to journal with the kids, so here is what I wrote:

"I hate this place," a student declared after we read "So This Is Nebraska" by Ted Kooser. How do I get my students to love this place where rolling hills and bluffs exist--this place where cactus and sunflowers line 10th Street? I love this place and its people. I love the small hardware store that smells of sawdust and nails. I love walking into Hokes Cafe, the bell on the door ringing as it slams shut, where as soon as you walk into the restaurant heads turn to see who has just come in. I love Friday night football games and Thursday night volleyball where people from town gather no matter their differences, no matter what their opinion is on the school bond. When I think of my place I think of cowboy boots and jet skis. I think of the skatepark that sits in the middle of town--an oddity for a town just barely over 5,000 that is dominated by spurs and chaps. Yet it's a beautiful sight to see kids skating in this town--it reminds me of the youth--the people who can make this town great if they only try.


Place Conscious Teaching Musings

I intended to be in bed by 8:00 tonight, but here I am...sitting up in bed at 10:00, blogging while listening to Wilco (I swear, EVERYTHING is better with Wilco).

I started on my reading assignments for my Place Conscious Teaching course tonight; I read "Place Conscious Education, Rural Schools, and the Nebraska Writing Project's Rural Voices, Country Schools Team" by Dr. Robert Brooke (my prof. for this course). After reading through it, I have so many thoughts running through my head. So I'm going to try and get them all out in hopes that I can sleep a bit:

1. As a teacher I have a strong desire for my students to be engaged and motivated to succeed in my class--I want them to want to succeed. I want them to think critically and to not be passive learners. I want to captivate them...Dr. Brooke writes, "Learning and writing and citizenship are richer when they are tied to and flow from local culture." Based on this quote, I think this place conscious thing is my ticket to engaging my students. I am convinced that, in order to make my class (which is a required class) relevant to my students, it must be tied to the local.

2. Curriculum is "ideas and practices that the learner retains and can use (Brooke 6)" and "[u]nless acquired information is used by students to construct understanding about the world as it currently exists for them, the time spent in acquisition will have been wasted (Theobald)." Wouldn't it be nice if every teacher/administrator/curriculum coordinator had this notion of curriculum?

3. Since I've started this class a few weeks ago I've been pondering what I could do in my classroom with place conscious education, but I've had a tough time identifying anything because I haven't been quite clear on what place conscious education is or what it looks like. Well folks, Dr. Brooke has saved the day. In his introduction to Rural Voices he points out five issues (as identified by Toni Haas and Paul Nachtigal in their pamphlet Place Value) that a place conscious curriculum should address:

(*I say students just because I am thinking of the classes I teach, but I see a place conscious approach to education helping me understand the community I live in as well).
  • Ecology- In order to live well in a community, students* must have an understanding of the biology of our region. Students must understand how that biology connects to other facets of the community (local industry, agriculture, and other bio. issues that concern our community).
  • Government- Participating in a community requires students to have an understanding of the local government and the ways our community makes decisions (city council, school board, economic development committees, etc). This understanding is best gained by participating in local government; by being invested in local issues.
  • Livelihood- Students need to have an understanding of what people "do" in our community. They need to be aware of what career options are available and what experience is necessary in order to make a sustainable livelihood out of these careers.
  • Spirituality- According to Haas and Nachtigal, this refers to "a person's way of understanding the connections and relationships that form a life, whether or not that understanding is based in any given institutionalized religion" (Brooke 12). Students should have an understanding of how people in our community have formed and continue to form connections. This could lead to studies of heritage or to connections people have with the land...this concept is still difficult for me to comprehend.
  • Community values- This could take many forms. Basically, from Dr. Brooke's introduction I have gathered that students need to understand "who their community is and why it is that way" (12) which would require a study on heritage, values, history, and contemporary culture as well as encouraging a vision for the future that includes the community. Encouraging an investment in community values will teach students to be able to "act effectively in and with the community" (12).
Though this is all appealing to me, it is also a bit frightening. Embracing a curriculum like this would require me to make a commitment to the community of Ogallala. I have not been one who favors "settling down" and for the past five years I have been migrating. I've lived in Columbus, Kearney, Lincoln, and Ogallala and have worked in all of the communities previously listed as well as Gibbon, Holdrege, Elm Creek, and Grant. My adult life has not required me to put down roots. However, if I am going to incorporate place conscious teaching into my classes then I will need to be invested in my community. I think it is a step I am willing to take, but I am quite certain it will be a bit of an emotional struggle for my nomadic personality.


Mapping out where I'm from- high school and college


So I know I've already touched on Columbus, but I felt like I needed to write more. Although middle school was rough for me (lots of fights, kicked out of classes, nearly suspended from school, grounded quite frequently, etc.), high school was not so bad.

Four days before my first day of high school I was hit by a car. I was already sporting a hot pink cast on my left wrist that I gained from playing softball and was set to get the cast off the next day. A friend of mine and I were walking across the street en route to a boys house (stupid boys) when a car going about thirty-five mph hit us. My friend walked away from the accident with a sprained knee. I wasn't so lucky. I suffered a busted shoulder, several head injuries, and had a severe case of road rash on my left leg. As a result, I spent four days in the hospital, two of which were in the ICU. As terrible as the accident was, I do think it wised me up.

Throughout high school I felt confined and I think it was due to my place. I felt like the town was too small for my large personality (I had several hair colors...red, purple, pink, black, bleach blonde and gauged ears). As a high school senior I spent many afternoons and evenings leaning up against my favorite tree at Pawnee Park (I couldn't find a decent link to attach here...sorry!) playing guitar, reading Kerouac novels, and dreaming about living in larger places. I don't know if I ever really appreciated Columbus...I sometimes wish I was more connected to this place.

Kearney- Part I

In August of 2004 I moved to Kearney to attend UNK with grandiose plans of becoming an actress. UNK was my second college choice, my first was Nebraska Wesleyan. But UNK was more affordable. I quickly fell in love with Kearney. It had a small town feel (28,000) but had all the amenities of a larger community. I fit in quickly on campus and involved myself with the Navigators where I led worship on Thursday nights. I also sang in two choirs at UNK: a large concert choir and another smaller chamber choir (choir is where I met my husband). After about five majors, during my sophomore year of college, I transferred to UNL. My husband and I had wanted to to live in Lincoln--The Land of Opportunity. So tearfully, I said good-bye to Kearney and headed east down I-80.


Moving to Lincoln was an exciting time. When I was in high school I had spent many weekends in the Lincoln/Omaha area attending concerts or visiting friends, so I felt like I was moving into a familiar place, but there was still an air of excitement. We loved living in Lincoln, but it ended up being a short stay for us. At the time, my husband was searching for his first teaching job and had no luck in the Lincoln area. In fact, he ended up getting a job in Elm Creek which is 15 miles west of Kearney. The move back to Kearney was for the better. I did not really enjoy my time at UNL. Though I loved living in Lincoln, I just didn't feel like UNL was a good fit for me...I felt foreign the entire semester. Being a transfer was difficult, everyone else I met had already carved their place at UNL, they were settled in and I felt like a wanderer.

Kearney- Part II

After my husband and I got married in July of 2006, we moved back to Kearney and I started up at UNK again this time as a Language Arts Ed. major. I wasn't sure that we would find a place in Kearney again, but we did. I fell in love with the town even more. I loved the apple orchard in Riverdale (about 6 miles northwest of Kearney), Cotton Mill park and the Oldfather Prairie trail where my husband moutnain biked and I ran, and my favorite coffee spot- Barista's Daily Grind. I loved seeing the Sandhill Cranes that stopped in the Kearney/Gibbon area or at Rowe Sanctuary every year--these cranes would fill up the field behind our duplex....if you haven't ever seen the cranes in this area, you ought to...it's a beautiful sight. I loved the rock garden at Harmon Park and I loved visiting MONA to look at the art and to listen to poets and author's read excerpts from their books in the main gallery, their voices echoing off the marble floors. I loved the downtown area that houses wine festivals, live music, an awesome used book store, several antique/thrift stores, and the occasional poetry reading. I felt at home in Kearney, in fact I oftentimes find myself telling people that I am from Kearney. Kearney is a beautiful town that will always hold a special place in my heart. We will be passing through on Friday as we travel to Lincoln, so I will try and take a few photos of my favorite spots to post on my blog.