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!

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