Friday, November 11, 2016

There's more to group projects than meets the eye

From tomorrow's Briefing:

The longer I teach, the better I understand that the classroom offers a bundle of lessons beyond the district curriculum and my plans -- for both student and teacher.
Take this week, for example, as my fourth-graders have been researching extreme weather events.
I divided students into groups of three, four or five and assigned a topic: tornado, tsunami, earthquake, flood or hurricane. For homework, each student gathered resources, and the next day they received questions to guide their research.
I allowed each group to divvy up roles. Students decided who was responsible for researching causes, effects or safety precautions. I stepped back and listened.
Some groups divided tasks quickly and wasted no time getting to work. Others negotiated, wheedled, demanded and whined, eventually settled on roles, then started reading and taking notes.
Without fault, after tasks were claimed, every single group worked cooperatively. They shared books, articles and video links. One student, responsible for causes of earthquakes, found an interesting long-term outcome and eagerly shared it with her teammate in charge of effects. Some groups couldn't contain their curiosity and attacked all the questions together.
Officially, they were practicing nonfiction skills: setting a purpose for reading, making connections, asking questions, summarizing, synthesizing. Less overtly, yet just as crucially, they were practicing their collaboration skills.
These 9- and 10-year-olds are working toward a common goal. They want to perform well as individuals (almost all of them are conscientious about following directions and earning all available points on the scoring rubric), yet they also support one another and revel in shared discovery and success.
They represent families who are native Texans and families who immigrated in the 21st century. They all speak English, and many speak or understand at least one other language. They represent at least four major faith traditions.
Some are athletes; others chess players. Some dance competitively; others spend most of their free time playing video games.
They squabble about the rules of four square and freeze tag. They irritate one another. They compete for first in line for lunch. They have started to sort themselves into cliques.
Give them a problem to solve, though, and they are all onboard. They don't necessarily set aside their differences; instead, they capitalize on them.
Some students have background knowledge about hurricanes because they've lived near a coast. Some have relatives who've been affected by flooding or earthquakes. Many have grown up terrified of -- or fascinated by -- the tornadoes that plague North Texas every spring.
Some fourth-graders are online research whiz kids. Others are lightning fast with an old-fashioned table of contents and index, narrowing in on topics faster than you can boot up your laptop. Some record extensive notes in precise handwriting. Others scribble efficient (and sometimes incomplete) phrases.
These young people, all 41 in my charge this year, inspire my optimism for our future. They are the antidote to the vitriol and doomsday declarations from both extremes in our country.
These children -- and millions of others just like them across our nation -- remind us that kindness bears civility, that compromise is possible, that strength lies in our differences, that we are greater together than we are torn apart.
Our children -- every single one, without distinction -- deserve a country in which the adults take notice and start to model our behavior on theirs.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

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