If you are trying to encourage collaboration in your classroom and are having trouble, read on. You will see 7 steps that will help you build stronger student collaborators in collaboration activities.
What’s All the Hubbub?
Why is collaboration such a big deal all of a sudden? Everybody wants to collaborate: songwriters, businesses, school districts, teachers, and now students. What is it, and what, if anything, is its importance?
Well, as it turns out, collaboration boosts creativity and thinking. Teamwork works for big jobs and also for small jobs.
“The ability to work in teams is one of the most sought-after skills among new hires, yet research suggests that students may not be graduating with the level of skills needed to succeed on the job.”
That’s reason enough for me to start incorporating collaboration into my classes to allow my students the opportunity to practice and attain those collaboration skills.
For two years, I encouraged collaboration in all of the classes with which I worked. After awhile, I started to wonder whether all the work to set up collaboration was really that important. Then I was present for a presentation by Anthony Kim of Ed Elements. In that presentation, Kim shared some data with us from John Hattie’s Visible Learning. What caught my attention and subsequent dedication to collaboration is the graphic below.
Taken with permission from Anthony Kim’s presentation. @anthonx
In it, Hattie shows that 0.40 is the effect size for one year’s growth. The highest growth effect comes as a result of … you guessed it, peer collaboration and discussion coming in at a whopping 0.82!
That means that, according to Hattie, peer collaboration and discussion result in students learning more than twice what they would learn in a traditional classroom with a traditional teacher. Even more than differentiation and immediate feedback.
That’s worth restating. Peer collaboration and discussion result in students learning twice what they would learn in a normal year’s growth.
Whoa! That’s amazing! With growth like that, we should all be collaborating and discussing all day long, right?
Were We Successful?
Well, my teachers and I worked on collaboration in our classrooms. We learned about, planned out, tried out, and reflected on blended learning station rotation that required a collaboration station. The results were very telling.
At our end-of-the-year meeting we reported out our findings. Of our group, 95% said that the collaboration station was the least successful. Upon reflection, here’s what we surmised: students don’t need just the opportunity to collaborate; they need to be taught how to collaborate well.
How Can We Improve Collaboration?
All summer I thought about why we failed and how we could succeed. I knew there had to be a way to teach students how to collaborate well, and I processed and researched and finally put together this infographic called “7 Steps to Building Student Collaborators” (see right) for teachers to follow as a scaffold for building strong collaborators. As everything else in education, this is a work in progress, so please try it out and send me some feedback to improve it for all who might happen upon it and try it out. Here is a detailed description to help you get started. As it is a progression, feel free to jump in wherever makes the most sense for your students.
Step 1: Begin with open-ended discussion questions for the students to process their thoughts. Google Classroom is a great tool for this because the answers to Classroom discussion questions are hidden until after a student submits his/her answer. No copying, folks. What you see is what you get. Set the settings to allow students to respond. (This allows them to see other’s answers). However, you must go into the Student section and change the rights to “Only teachers can post or comment.” (see graphic) You want this because in step 2 you have to teach your students how to write an appropriate response to a post.
Step 2: Teach students what makes an appropriate, well-written response to a post. To do this, share How-To videos 1 and 2 below and Accountable Talk/Moves charts like the one below that demonstrate well-written responses, and practice, practice, practice. Maybe your students could be empowered to create their own video, blog, vlog, or infographic for others to use.
Step 3: Give students the opportunity to practice using accountable talk (found here and here), and practice responding as a whole group to one another’s posts in Google Classroom. As a modeling exercise, the teacher will type the responses as the students formulate them together. You can start out whole group and move toward small groups formulating responses as one entity. There are plenty of apps to assist you. Socrative allows students to post their answers and then vote on the best one. Google Classroom allows teachers to post a discussion question for group responses with only one person per group submitting a response. A shared Google Doc with a table can be used to share out the final group responses. A shared Google Drawing can be used with post-it note style text boxes for each group to claim and fill. Please know that once is not enough. Students need the opportunity to practice, practice, practice. Once you are confident that students know how to write group responses, change the Google Classroom settings to “Students can post and comment.” This will open up discussion questions for peer response. Once you feel confident that students understand the phraseology in writing, you need to transition to verbal responses.
Step 4: Move to an on-the-spot, think-fast, response system that requires accountable talk or sentence starters. Socratic seminars are just the activity for this. If you are not familiar with Socratic seminars, they are basically student-led discussions with the requirement that everyone has to contribute something to the discussion. The teacher is responsible for formulating questions that are open-ended and draw out student interpretations that should then be supported with text or some other data. Great Book, Junior Great Book Shared Inquiry discussions, and Fishbowl discussions are similar to a Socratic seminar. It doesn’t matter what system you use as long as students have to piggyback on one another’s responses. This is where the accountable talk comes in. It gives students the phraseology to have civil agreement and disagreement. It also encourages deeper inquiry instead of superficial analysis of a topic.
Step 5: Now that students are becoming comfortable with more academic phrases and sentence starters as a whole group with teacher monitoring, it is time to set them into small groups to monitor themselves. Create simultaneous small groups each with the same task: run your own Socratic seminar or Great Books discussion for shared inquiry. Formulate starter questions as a whole group or as small groups, and then share out before beginning the activity. Formulating questions is a skill that our students could practice more. Scaffold here as needed.
After the activity, debrief and give students time to reflect upon what went well and what could be improved. Practice these small group synchronous discussions a few more times until you and they feel confident that they could monitor themselves completely during a station rotation class period. It’s now time to move toward asynchronous collaboration.
Step 6: Today is the big day! Your students should be better prepared to rotate into a collaborative station without needing your help. This is a huge accomplishment and should be celebrated by you and your students! Your job is to create 3 or more stations: Independent, Collaborative, Teacher Directed. If you are not familiar with Blended Learning Station Rotation, check out Blended Learning Universe through the Christensen Institute.
Step 7: Finally, take time to allow students to reflect on the experience. Debrief with them to get their feedback, so together you can build a better station rotation each time.
Reflection Tools: Journal, blogs, Google Classroom, Google Forms, Think-Pair-Share, ClassKick, Nearpod, Seesaw, Vocaroo, audio recorder, video recorder, Screencastify, etc.
The Power of Feedback
If you are ready to try collaboration with your students, please try out this scaffold and send me some feedback. I’d love to hear about your successes as well as your recommendations for how, together, we can make this process better. It’s all about the collaboration, right?
Here is the infographic in case you’d like to print it out.
Being a teacher can be stressful and time-consuming! When I was in the classroom teaching 4th-graders through 12th-graders, I wanted to make every lesson important and effective. Doing something new was important to me because I bored easily, and my students did, too. I was not the type of teacher who could use the same lesson year after year or even period to period.
Analysis and reflection are important parts of being an effective teacher. Sometimes our lessons are a huge success; other times, our lessons fall short or are complete failures in our eyes. As I completed lessons, I would reflect on what worked and what could be improved, and I applied what I learned as soon as possible.
Why do teachers put so much pressure on themselves to have the perfect lesson on the first go round? The following shows the growth of an activity that was good in its first iteration and grew and improved with each iteration into an amazing, powerful, authentic activity. If you want to grow with the lesson, read on. If you are really only interested in the final project, jump to the third take. Either way, be confident that your lessons can grow and improve with each iteration. As you read along, pay close attention to how real-world involvement and application grow with each iteration.
Authentic Activity: Take 1
Setting the Scene
The teacher is Ms. Heyward. The class is English 4: British Literature, and students are mostly seniors with a few juniors sprinkled in. Paradise Lost by John Milton is the literary work of study. Students will participate in a mock trial to put the characters of Paradise Lost on trial. Students choose which group they want to belong to: 1) characters/actors in the live trial, 2) defense team, 3) prosecution team, and 4) news media. Each group is responsible for knowing his/her role whether it be developing a character from the story or becoming a lawyer or media blogger.
The judge listens as the prosecution questions the witness, God.
Eve is sworn in before being questioned regarding her involvement in the fall of man.
The concept of a legal team was daunting because only one or two lead lawyers were needed. To include all members, each team developed a research team responsible for digging into the text and researching things on the spot. The presence of iPads made using a back channel as a collaboration tool possible; the back channel used was Today’s Meet. The research teams used it to feed questions and information from the story to their team’s lead lawyers to support the questioning and cross-examination of witnesses. Everything occurred in real time, on the spot. You either were prepared or you were not. There were no re-dos.
Satan is cross-examined by an attorney.
An attorney for the defense returns to his seat after questioning a witness.
To include more students in the process, there were three media teams tasked with reporting and blogging in the style of three major news outlets: NPR, CNN, and Fox. Understanding political bias came into play with a review of powerful propaganda words. A Google Original site was created for each class (see them here: period 1 and period 3) documenting the project.
In preparing for the mock trial, students knew they had a responsibility to their team. The actors had to know their storyline, the legal teams had to know the characters’ stories inside and out, and the media teams had to cover the events in the room while writing in the style of their specific news outlet. There was not a student in the class whose job did not matter. Engagement was high, and students left the room talking about the experience. The use of an authentic activity raised the level of engagement and understanding.
Authentic Activity: Take 2
A real judge presides over the authentic mock trial.
Fast forward 2 more semesters. Ms. Heyward saw an opportunity for growth and improvement. In an attempt to make the activity more authentic, she brought in real lawyers to train the students in actual trial proceedings and booked a journalist who recently covered a high-profile trial as a guest speaker to share her insights with the class. Ms. Heyward also booked a real judge to oversee the trial and had 12 adult jurors from the community serve, deliberate, and assign a verdict.
There was much excitement as the trial date approached. Students worked on their teams to prepare. Witness statements were taken, pre-trial hearings were held to determine what will and will not be admissible in court. Arguments were developed. Media teams created their own mock news sites and started blogging.
The Big Day
For this authentic mock trial, a 12-person community jury is sworn in.
The prosecution worked collaboratively to prove guilt.
Each attorney is trained in how to properly address a judge in court.
This authentic activity has a bailiff to swear in each witness.
Finally, the big day arrived. The Media Center was reserved, increasing the feeling of authenticity. A table at the front was reserved for the bailiff, judge, and witness box. The jury sat to the right of the judge with the Defense and Prosecution teams sitting opposite the judge and the news outlet teams behind them. It was very exciting.
Witnesses were sworn in, attorneys stood to address the judge and question witnesses, jury members sat stone-like listening to the proceedings as Eve, Satan, God, the Son of God, and even Sin were called to the stand, sworn in, questioned, and cross-examined. Finally, it was time for the jury to deliberate.
The 12-person jury deliberated in a private room to decide the fates of Satan and Eve.
As one of the jurors, I can tell you we had a tough time agreeing upon a verdict. Assumptions were made and called out, outside information was brought up and disregarded. We had to focus only on what was said in the courtroom. Information we wanted had not been sought by attorneys, so we did not have the information we needed to find both defendants guilty. Upon returning to the courtroom, the jurors stated the verdict, and the judge took one guilty defendant into custody. Before wrapping up, the jurors were asked to share their experiences deliberating over the fates of two people. It was important that the students see and hear the points that jurors disagreed over, questioned, and finally voted on.
In debriefing after the activity, Ms. Heyward and I found the following strengths:
Each student fully took ownership in his/her role.
Students showed mastery of the themes of Paradise Lost.
Students gleaned information about our justice system and the roles different people play within that system.
Students collaborated well on teams working toward a common goal.
Some students had increased creativity in developing the backstories for their characters
Some defense and prosecution members increased their creativity as they built arguments to defend or prosecute characters.
Students thought critically about the parameters of our justice system and tried to manipulate it in their favor whenever possible.
We also found the following weakness:
Students were not able to think quickly on the spot. Per the jury, the legal teams’ follow-up questions were weak or non-existent.
Some of the characters did not develop their backstories on the stand leaving gaps in understanding for the jury
Upon reflecting, strengths and weaknesses were identified. In general, the students clearly understood the text and its themes; however, their questioning skills were weak. We surmised that perhaps the final project was too much all at once. Perhaps the students needed more scaffolding along the way to prepare for the culminating project. Our new challenge: to find ways to incorporate similar types of activities throughout the entire curriculum.
Authentic Activity: Take 3
Upon returning from winter break, Ms. Heyward was excited to share with me that she had revamped her entire curriculum to address the issues making “Trial” the theme of her course using British Literature as the content covered. Each unit provided a guest speaker including lawyers from a local college and court reporters from the local CBS news station.
Unit 1: Composing an Opening Argument
Content: Pursuit of Happiness
Students will present themselves to the class in the format of an opening argument
Unit 2: Innocent Until Proven Guilty
Content: Canterbury Tales
Creation of Google websites with character analyses
Regular blogging as a character
Unit 3: The Art of Argument – Building a Case
Content: war protests and speeches
Voices of Protest
Silent discussion on War
Socratic Seminar on women’s rights
Today’s Meet backchannel analysis of Edwin Starr’s song War
Student analysis of song of their choice
Unit 4: Hearings and Motions – Pretrial Hearings and Motions
Refining witness statements
Deconstructing trials in teams
Unit 5: Closing Arguments
Argument of Good vs. Evil
How to make a strong appeal – rhetorical triangle
Final product: individual paper
Unit 6: Do We Have a Verdict?
Content: Paradise Lost
Full trial proceedings including all skills in units 1-5.
The next class to experience the trial will have completed each step once in advance and will be compiling and returning to all of the lessons learned throughout the course: opening arguments, creating witness statements, collecting and analyzing evidence, building a defense, interviewing witnesses, creating follow-up questions, making objections, and addressing the judge.
I’ll be back to share the details of the big trial.
Ms. Heyward and I have already decided for the next iteration we need to transport the students to a real hearing room in the county. We’re not sure we can pull that off, but as my mother always says, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
Just remember you, too, can develop a lesson like this.
Don’t expect to do it all on the first try. Give yourself time and room to grow with the activity. If you take on too much too early you might be more likely to fail or get burned out.
Good luck, and please share your ideas, comments, successes and failures here with the rest of us.
If you would like to receive more stories like these to your inbox, please subscribe to our blog.
For differentiation in the ELA classroom, No Red Ink is a godsend. Although it has always been available via the noredink.com website, many teachers learned of it through Edmodo as an app. However, it is migrating completely to its website on June 30, 2016. See the company announcement below.
As you may have heard, NoRedInk will no longer integrate with Edmodo starting June 30, 2016. On that date, we will transition your account to the NoRedInk website. Your data and classes will travel with you, and the site will look and behave just as it always has. The only change is that you will begin logging in at noredink.com rather than through an Edmodo app.
On June 30, we will send instructions to this email address. If you’d like to use a different address, please launch the NoRedInk app and go to your settings page. You can learn more about the change here. Also feel free to reach out with questions.
Thanks for all that you do,
The NoRedInk Team
If you haven’t already been using No Red Ink, now is the time to go to their website and set up an account. This app offers grammar practice with parts of speech, sentences, commas, parallel structure, MLA citations and more. This app could take you from 3rd grade through college.
If diagramming sentences did not excite you, try No Red Ink on for size. It just might surprise you.