Tag Archives: group work

Using Research and STEM to catch Leprechauns



Going 1:1- Combining High and Low Tech

It didn’t take very long to answer my earlier question about student engagement and laptops.  It was evident early on that students still need to move, talk, and create both on paper and on their HP Streams. The trick is figuring out when they can be pushed through frustration, and knowing when it is time to go old-school.

Lindsay and I decided to jump right in with the technology. We had the students create Excel Surveys to poll the students on their team about personal interests.  It was a frustrating couple of days, but well worth it.  The students enjoyed taking each other’s surveys.  Sorting the data was a challenge; I obviously did not do a great job of teaching them how to use Excel. (More on that later.)

When it came time to share their analysis and look for team wide patterns, the kids were ready to use big paper and markers. They needed a break from huddling around their Streams, and welcomed the chance to stretch out on the floor to share data. Hanging the ‘data gallery’ allowed for much needed movement and a chance to see the big picture.

Next,  it was back to the Streams to create infographics to share the data. Lindsay and I are excited to share some of them soon!

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Grouping and Pairing Students to Improve Engagement (Part 1- Beginning of Class)

The social studies teacher on my team asked, “What site do you use to get your grouping ideas?”

To be honest, I’m not sure. I know that I subscribe to professional magazines, newsletters, and blogs.  I also spend more time than I would like to admit looking for good ideas on Twitter and Pinterest.  🙂  However, I can not point to one single place where all of my ideas come from. Many are simply things that I come up with on the fly. Others are hybrids of ideas that I’ve read about.

If I accidentally share one of your ideas…Please remember – imitation is the most sincere form of flattery.

1. Index Cards – I love index cards.  They can be used in so many ways.  I like to hand them out at the door with instructions posted on the board. “Use the words/phrases/symbols on the cards to group yourselves in a logical way.” What I write on them depends on how I want to group the students:

  • pairs: synonyms/antonyms; cause & effect; riddles and answers; terms & definitions; state & capitol; picture & metaphor
  • small groups: lines from characters; quotes related to themes we are studying; characters and character traits; math problems with same solutions; colors
  • ordered lines: “I have…who has” (see post from Jan. 28); events related to unit of study; order of steps in solving an equation; order of the planets, events in a story

2. Playing Cards – Uno, Old Maid, regular playing cards…It really doesn’t matter.  There is just something so intriguing to students when you stand at the door saying, “Pick a card.  Any card.”

3. Dominoes – Practically indestructible.  One reason these are great is that you can group by: number of dots; color; sum of dots or many other ways.

4. Stickers – Kids love them.  Group by type, color, size, etc.  An added bonus is the opportunity for a quick hello with every student.

These are just a few ideas.  I would love to hear your suggestions.


Relevance – Making Connections

Composing an epic rap battle or poem for two voices based on two characters from the novel.  What does this have to do with my life?

Good question!

Today I had my students create a ‘tweet’ that answered that question.  I wanted to make sure that the relevance didn’t get lost in the fun/frustration of small group composing.

Here are a few ‘tweets’ from my classes:
  • Be on topic when you write a poem, rap battle or anything.
  • The life-long lesson for this assignment is to be able to show two people’s opinions on something.
  • ….to see if we can find the relationship between two or more people and write from two different points of view. #feartherap
  • …shows both side of the story….helps us practice conflict and comparison between two people.

  • How to talk and write things.  I say this because you need to write to get a job and talk to the person.
  • Using writing skills, reading and language to make sense.
  • Rhyming, writing, reading and seeing other’s points of view.
  • Show you how to see two sides to a situation, which can help you find a solution or strengthen your arguments.

  •  Getting the chance to write in different styles and express your thoughts in ways you never thought of.
  • Always see two side of a story and hear out the sides before choosing one. 
  • How to express a point, persuade people or learn to express yourself.  And learn how to work with others.
  • If you only do things that you are used to doing and make you comfortable, you won’t be able to do different things. Raps or poems change u.
  • Arguments or debates can be formatted and resolved in many different ways.

  • Vocabulary skills are a good thing to work on for life!
  • Manners and being nice are things I can use in the future.
  • Different people, different lifestyles: different ways people see the world/life.
  • Some things will be hard, but you have to do it anyway. #Philip’sLife
  • The best is to be able to see the argument from another person’s perspective to try to understand how they may react.
  • Ms. Narwin and Philip are showing how you won’t like everyone you meet, but you will have to work with them.






Synthesizing Information

After reading several articles on ice safety, students collected key details on ‘big paper.’

Then they rotated to another group’s work to see if they had identified any of the same details and tagged them.

Next steps… class discussion of tagged information, debate over ‘untagged’ details, consensus on key information…

They will use this to make a short ice saftey public service video.  Important stuff when living in New England!



Thank you, Jack!

Jack Berckemeyer taught us this at a NELMS conference.    Kate quickly made up a bunch of sets for both of our classrooms. 

Each group of students gets a set of letter cards. B, D, F, O, P, R, A, S, T, L, H, N; ambiguous M/E/W ; an ambiguous U/C  (If the students figure out that they can flip an ‘ambiguous letter card’ to create a new letter, they may.)  Then you give the students a task, and they get started.

What a great way to review terms for a test, generate word banks, practice with morphemes, etc.!

Check out Jack’s site for free handouts, videos and other resources.  http://jackberckemeyer.com/

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Seating Challenge – Getting to know your students the first week of school

It’s the first day of school.  Students you’ve never met are nervously milling around the classroom.  Some are getting frustrated and barking orders, some are clustered together chatting about their summers, while others are disconnected and trying not to be noticed. Rather than intervening, you are silently watching,  pointing to the board.

Sound like a nightmare?  It certainly resembles my dreams that start in early August and always include my inability to gain control of various situations.

However, this is what the first day of school has looked like in my classroom for the past three years.  After reading Teaching Secrets: Get to Know Students Through Seating Challenges by Sandy Merz, my colleague Kate and I decided we would give seating challenges a try with our eighth graders.  We chose several of the challenges in the article, tweaking some to make them work in our classrooms, and wrote lesson plans that included a challenge for the first five days of class.

Waiting by Shawn McCullough
Waiting by Shawn McCullough

Why would I choose to begin the year this way ?  There are plenty of  benefits for both students and teacher.

Giving a group challenge helps the students begin to get to know one another from the very beginning.  Often times in middle school we assume students know one another.  However, I find that they rarely know each other well enough to fully participate in an effective learning community.  Needing to immediately work together  means that there is no settling in period.  Students do not have time to be shy, nor let the naturally outgoing students set the climate for the year.  I find that students are often surprised by what they learn about peers who they’d thought they knew well.

Seating challenges also put me on the fast track to learning about my students.  As I observe the group attempt the tasks, it is easy to spot the leaders, the followers, the gregarious students, and the shy ones. A personality of the class begins to emerge. I’ve found it interesting to see that some classes do not have natural leaders, some have too many, some easily work together, and some argue the entire time.  Watching students as they struggled through each task helps me begin to understand students’ ability to follow written directions, communicate effectively, and cope with frustration. The tasks help to set the tone of my classroom by placing value on cooperation, communication, problem-solving and grit.

Processing daily with the students is the most valuable part of the entire experience. First they write in their think books about how they felt while they were doing the task, what helped their class to be successful, and what things they wish they had done better.  Then during a group discussion, we set goals for the next challenge-including time, and cooperation, and communication goals. These conversations naturally flow into setting year-long goals for the class.

Throughout the years, I’ve learned a few strategies to make the process run more smoothly.   Timing the class as they complete each challenge creates a sense of competition -something that adolescents love.  I usually begin posting times on the board the second day.  This creates healthy competition among my classes and helps focus groups who then want to beat their previous times.   I’ve also learned to prepare blank seating charts and post-it tags with student names, so that I can quickly create a seating chart to help me learn names and take notes during the rest of the period.

Giving students a physical copy of the instructions, in addition to posting them on the board, helps the shyer students who would rather figure out what needs to be done in the ‘safety’ of the back of the room.   Carrying a clipboard and taking notes about what I observe sends the message that there is much to be learned from the activity.  I always share my observations and provide feedback. The students appreciate that I am learning about them, and noticing all of them.  The clipboard also allows me to walk around the room. Proximity, even without talking, helps students stay on task.

Even though I know how valuable these challenges can be, I still find it difficult to watch students flounder and not try to help them.  Allowing a group of students I don’t know have free range of the classroom still give me bouts of anxiety.  More than once, Kate has had to reassure me that the students will figure it out.  In the end, they always do.   And even though these challenges take 15-25 precious minutes of the first periods of school, the relationships which are formed, and the insights gained,  justify the time spent.

My eighth-graders really like starting with seating challenges.  I can’t imagine starting the year any other way. I hope you try it. Good luck, I hope you have a great beginning of the new school year.