Wednesday, April 13, 2011

I Like It When Kids Value Each Other

I make my students work in groups pretty much every day. It's hard work (for me and for them), it can be extremely frustrating (for me and for them) and it's often the most challenging part of my class (for me and for them). But one of my fundamental values as a teacher is that kids learn better when they talk about their ideas. I believe that verbalizing their ideas is the best way for them to make sense of concepts. This means that they have to work in groups and that the groupwork must be structured very carefully. We've all had bad experiences working in teams, so I want my kids to learn now, for lack of a less business-trendy word, what high-performing teams look and feel like. A subset of these goals is that students learn to value each other's ideas and learn to see each other's smarts. Part of being a high-performing team is learning interdependence and finding how each person's unique skills are crucial to the team's success. These teamwork skills will make students better people and I believe happier people down the road.

Without question, my classes this year are the most successful groupworkers I've had. Or, I kind of like to think, this year has been my most successful year of teaching (if I'm teaching kids to do groupwork right, it follows that they're learning the content deeply). I think especially that many of my kids have come to value each other's ideas and that they really listen to each other. Most importantly, I think that a lot of them value everyone's ideas, not just the kids who they deem "smart." Today I felt like I had this confirmed, at least somewhat, when I took a poll on who students want to sit with for their last seat change of the year. Here are some of the highlights:

  • In 3rd period, one of the most requested students was A., a girl who averages C's on tests. Math is challenging for her and in her group she rarely has the brilliant idea that moves the group forward mathematically. But she is the group member who asks the questions other kids are afraid to ask. She's the group member who says, "We need to slow down" and who demands that every step is justified. She's the group member who says, "I need you to explain it another way," and who then repeats back what makes sense to her and what she doesn't understand. I think that the students recognize that having A. in their group means that every idea will be examined and thought through until everyone understands. A.'s not the person who's going to teach you the math, but she's the one who will guarantee that you understand it. 
  • Even though I don't like to compare intelligence levels because I believe everyone is smart, there's one girl who I have to describe as the smartest person in the entire freshman class. She is smarter than me and smarter than most people I know. She could do everything I ask on her own and frankly doesn't need her classmates (or me, probably). Her seat request? To stay with her current team, which includes one of the kids who I think came into this year with the biggest skill deficit in the class. But she feels like she benefits from him. Her other request was to sit with A., the girl I described above. 
  • With the exception of just a few kids, my students did not request to sit with friends. That tells me they recognize that school is for learning, not for socializing. Of course they picked kids who they enjoy working with, but enjoyment did not seem to be correlated to who they sit with at lunch. I was even more pleased that a number of kids specifically requested not to sit with their friends. I got a lot of, "I love her but we talk to much!"
  • The kids who were requested the most are students who especially skilled at including other kids in groups. I have a lot of kids who are willing to put their ideas out there, but fewer who will ask their teammates what they think. The "popular" kids were the ones who are super-patient, will ask for everyone's opinion, and who will force their teammates to explain. What a powerful thing at an early age to be able to recognize the people who bring out the best in you.
At the end of my last class as kids were filling out this survey, one boy held up to me what he'd written and sighed, "Can't we just do this?" I expected something annoying like, "Not do math anymore" or "Have class outside." Then I almost cried when I saw what he wrote: "One big table with everyone."

1 comment:

Linda said...

Makes your heart sing. I am so happy for the success you are having. It kind of helps when things are not going so smoothly. Your kids are lucky to have you.