My Problem With Standards: Implementing Group Work in the Non-Traditional Enlish Classroom
This experience opened my eyes. I learned a lot, and my ideas and ideals have changed since I completed the first part of this project. As a student teacher in a vocational program, academics were not the priority of these studentsótheir specialties and there outside jobs were. At first, I found this challenging in a negative way; but gradually, I saw possibilities.
The biggest challenge that I saw as far as my inquiry project went lay in how I would implement all of the research that I had done on ì how great group work is all around.î Mainly this was due to the fact that I approached this topic with a very idealistic, wide-ranging view.
The first part of this project was very much a ìhead knowledge/research approvedî paper. As I read over it now, I could not possibly have had a lot of hard ideas on how I could actually implement itóand even if I did, I doubt that would have profited me. As I entered my class eight weeks ago, I had all of those wonderful ideals of collaborative learning before meóit is what I wanted to see. But, as my grandmother always told me when I was little (and occasionally now), ìI want doesnít get.î
I see now that if all of my ideals had come easily to me in this experience, I wouldnít have learned a thing, and I definitely wouldnít have learned how to deal with the personality types and the needs of the students that I had.
The class itself was within a non-hostile environment for the most part. The students were used to having too much autonomy, and thus my research statistic of ì70-90% teacher talk in most classroomsî was put out of touch. The problem consisted in not only the studentís having control of the class, but the fact that they had plenty of oral language abilities, and there was no need for me to try and develop them.
These seniors had been working on one assignment since the beginning of the year, and they were tired of looking at it. Having said that, 80% of the students only had three, pencil corrected pages to show for a yearís worth of work. All of them were not responsive to correction. After my four weeks of observation, I was doubtful that these kids would do any learning, much less group learning, at all.
Because of this strong willed control, there was no sensitivity or care on their part to be a part of a ìcommunity.î Therefore, any approach to group work from this standpoint would not be successful.
Another part of my project dealt with the benefits that collaborative learning has on multiculturalism. Because this class was 100% white/ lower class, this wouldnít be able to be as diverse of a multicultural ìexperimentationî for me to observe. What was interesting, however, was their incredible attentiveness to the ways of different cultures around them, as I soon found out.
My main objective for the group work part of my planning actually was successful: ìstudents will use group work to understand the relationship of an instructor/presenter to an audience.î
In a class where students have been conditioned to just monotonously work on one thing, with no motivation or varied activity, these students saw no need to do anything productive; only what they could to ìget by.î The more that I became involved with them, my activities, and their work, I found this very disheartening and disturbing.
I knew that any activity that I could trust to give them in group work must immediately engage their short attention spans. The lesson must be short to the point, and clear cut. This was an incredibly important goal for me as well, because I needed clarity up front in my own head, so that I would be ready to change the directions or focus of the task on immediate notice. Most importantly, I had to become flexible. The hardest lesson for me, and the most effective, was being able to let go of my agenda, and focus my energy on what the immediate need for the students was. Many times, that resulted in a spontaneous direction that my lesson plans didnít even cover.
Overall, the students participated in three effective group activities. The first one was within the setting of a game. I called it ìCreative Outburst,î and the game was an effort to increase the studentís descriptive abilities. To start divided them into two teams, and gave them a minute to pick their own names. Right off the bat, they had to collectively come up with a decision together. After that, I explained the game to them. I had collected random items from my apartment and from the classroom. In alternating style, the studentís had to take turns, come up, pick an object, and describe it to their group before the allotted time ran out. If they could not get it, the other team had one chance to guess what it was. The winners got a candy bar.
The kids took a liking to this different activity right away. I was very encouraged, and motivated to continue. Soon, I found that the task was too easy, so I had to immediately shorten the time span, change the task, and scramble for new items within my co-opís desk. The studentís had to select one member from their team, and that person had one minute to come up, see an item, return to their team and describe it as best they could. When they solved it, that person had to come up and get another item. Whoever got through the most in one minute won.
This took place during my second lesson, and was a very valuable tool. I was able to establish the interest that they already had from my media presentation the day before, and much more importantly, I was able to see that they all had descriptive abilities at one level or another. The challenge then laid in applying these abilities to their projects.
After the first two weeks, the written part of their paper was finalized and handed to me. All of the studentís had added some form of description to their projects. Although their papers would not be honors material for the regular curriculum, they were to me. My students had put forth effort and improved both their work and their attitudes. The next transition for me was in getting the written research reports into the form of oral presentations. I gathered together four movie clips to show as examples of good and bad presentations. Before I showed them, I gave a mini lesson on basic speech techniques. The students were then divided into four groups, each being responsible for one clip, and the effectiveness and drawbacks of their actorís presentation.
This time, my partner, my co-op, and myself spread out and worked with the kids. In the end, they responded very well to the activity, and really understood the speech techniques that they saw. Seeing a model of what they would need to do was very effective in opening their eyes to presentation techniques. Some of the groups even argued a little on what was and what was not useful. In the end, we gathered a great positive/negative list on the board, which I compiled and gave back to them in the form of a handout the following day.
The next day brought a final group lesson. I provided them with three articles from Readerís Digestís ìHow Do They Do That?î The students were divided into three groups, and I explained to them that all of the presentations that they had seen on the movies had started from factual data, like they had done in their papers. From there, I had their attention. Their job was to choose an article, pick out the main points, and categorize the information.
As I was talking them through the activity, I knew that I would have to change my planning. First of all, the groups were not equal. I had arranged their desks in clusters as they arrived that day, and that provoked immediate mayhem and excitement. After struggling to get them to sit in these clusters, the group numbers were oddly distributed. As I had gone through heck getting them to sit down, I was not about to mess with seating arrangements any further. Up front, three guys were together. They were all rowdy, but they had respect for me, and I knew they would do a decent job. To the other side, two guys and a girl sat together; they were immediately rowdy and distracted. In the back of the room, I had a group of five. Two of these students were willing to work, one had been giving me continual confrontational behavior about making him work, and two were just thereópreferring to do the task on their own.
I shortened the exercise to save time and questions, and just asked that they read over the article and outline the main points as a group. The first group of guys were great and went right to task, all of them being involved. The second group continued to be rowdy and distracted, and only the girl went through and randomly underlined a few points. The third group in the back was a mess. Two of them worked together, two worked alone, and one continually complained and distracted the entire class. As I glared at him, he quieted down, and began drawing. At this time, one of the group members took charge and demanded that the others help her out. Eventually, they all finished this ìsimpleî task.
Next, I asked them group by group to call out the main points that they had outlined; every group got the main idea, and had points to add. Once I had a board scattered with pieces of information, I asked them how they could narrow all of it down into three categories; to my amazement, many of them contributed, and gave me collectively four connected categories.
At the end of class, I went over how this related to what they now had to do with their own projects. As I spoke, they all looked at me curiously, realizing that they had accomplished something.
Even though I had to pull a few teeth to get them to sit together, the activity turned out to be successful. I learned that even though this activity was different from how I had planned, this worked for them, and therefore it was successful.
I also learned that it isnít a bad thing to vary groups. Once students are familiar with each other this fa into the school year, it is a good thing to mix up the groups ñeven if it is only for behavioral management. This is something that I hold to, and I disagree with the views that only encourage remaining in the same group in order to build a better community. By continually integrating students, the class itself will become a community, whether they know it or not.
I also learned that having differing abilities and attitudes in groups is not a positive thing all of the time. The next time I implement group work, I will go against what research says and organize groups based on primarily similar skillsónot totally, but primarily. I think this will serve in helping more students to get involved, and in distributing the work more fairly among group members.
I do still agree with my research and idealistic philosophies that it is the teacherís job to present information in a varied and interesting way, and then to let the studentís ìgo.î However, I have seen a need for continuous teacher interaction with the groups. Even the most analytical, intelligent students will get off track, or misunderstand the whole activity. The face of a teacher in their face established authority in my classóeven if it was momentary. Having continual participation with my studentís gave me the stance in my class and the respect that I needed.
Before, I would have liked to say that group work proved itself to be incredibly instrumental in stimulating my studentís interest in becoming better thinkers/writers/ presenters. But, I am glad that I canít say that now. Itís not the process of group work that interested my students. A big factor in any success that I saw was that they were offered something different. Giving them the opportunity to work together may not have excited and stimulated them, but it provided a different way of doing things, and improved their end product.
Group work must be continually re-defined in the student-centered classroom;
especially in maintaining an effective learning environment. There is
no one standard full of positive data and successful applications that I
can use; indeed, many will come to me five seconds before I finish presenting
an activity. Even then, not all of the factors that I want to work will
work. But, as I invest time and thought into what is best for my students,
I will encourage them to be inquirers, and I will end up with successful