Tuesday, March 3, 2015

How My Group Roles Keep The Learning Train Moving

Describing the group process in my class is easier when I use an example of the type of work that is group-worthy in my class.  Group-worthy is key here, as skill practice from a book or worksheet will not deliver the desired result.  Group-worthy tasks require students to share information, ask questions, press each other for reasoning and have multiple ways to think about the problem.

For example, I will show a video of four friends going to the movies. They buy tickets, popcorn, candy and in my state there is sales tax.  The video will show someone dipping into his or her wallet of cash for each purchase. By the end of it, students are asking how much did all that cost? (After they ask what movie they were going to?)  I feed them the information a little at a time, and they share that information with each other and progress as a group.  In my experience, the ideal number of people in a group is four.

Here is how the process works:

Reader:  This person reads the material from the text or the handout. The reader makes sure that everyone is working together.

No one likes to be reading out loud and have the people at their group talking.  So the Reader makes sure everyone is listening when they read directions, prompts or questions.  If they see someone starting to zone out, they gently bring them back to the group conversation using one of several sentences stems we have practiced in class. Once the information/question has been read then:

Coordinator: This person is the overseer of the conversation in the group. The coordinator is the only person who can ask the teacher a question if no one in the group knows how to find the solution to the problem. The coordinator also gets and returns necessary materials during the class period. The coordinator also makes sure the group area is clean before the class is dismissed.

The coordinator begins the conversation by asking everyone in the group what they think the group should do to start solving the problem.  This is a time to just collect everyone's ideas.  Once everyone's ideas are heard, the group decides on the best method to solve.  Their words at the beginning will sound like this, "What do you think? What do you think? What do you think? Here's what I think... Now what do WE think?"  Nothing should end up on paper until the group agrees.

For the example above the group's ideas could vary.  One person thinks they should find the cost of all the tickets, then the cost of all the popcorns, then all the sodas and then add it all together before finding tax.  Another person thinks they should find the cost of tickets with tax, then the cost of popcorn and sodas together with tax and add the two totals.  Another person says multiply the cost of one ticket by four, one popcorn by four, one soda by four, then add those totals and find tax.  Students will have to either defend their idea, or understand someone else's before moving on.  While the groups are working, the teacher will circulate to observe the students' work.  When the teacher sees a paper with a teachable moment, then:

Scribe: The scribe is the note taker of the group. Responsibilities include making sure everyone has the notes and handouts. This person also writes group responses (if necessary) and fills in the homework sheet and handouts for missing group members.  Scribe restates group’s responses as all members are writing them.

The teacher can use the Scribe's paper under the Doc Cam, or have the scribe write their work on the board for a whole class conversation.  

For the example above, the teacher may use the scribe's paper from two or three groups and ask the class which group's work appears to be the most efficient method, understandable method or best method. Students will need to justify their reasoning and build supporting arguments.  The scribe also restates the group's responses as they are being written is one more way to reinforce the math learning that just took place.  Some teachers claim that 30 problems are needed for repetition, but this process asks students to see it, say it, hear it and do it.  Four repetitions per problems means only 6-8 problems per day and deeper learning. 

But what if the group gets stuck and needs the teacher?

Spy:  The spy is the only person that is allowed to walk around during a group activity with the sole purpose of seeing what another group has done with the problem. The spy can seek help from another group. This person also makes sure that the group’s work is mathematically correct.

For the example above, let's say the group is moving along quite well, but after they found the cost of the tickets, popcorn and sodas combined, they forgot the sales tax percentage.  The coordinator can send the Spy to another group to ask that specific question.  The spy does not look at or ask for an answer to the problem, they just ask for one piece of information and then return to their group.  They can check with up to three groups and then they must return to their group. They cannot go around the room and talk to everyone. 

When the group is stuck, and the Spy did not find an answer, this is when the group decides, "Is this the one question we ask Mr. Adams?"  I tell them that each group only gets to ask me one question a day, so choose wisely.  This is fun to play up to the kids when a student will walk into class and say, "Hi Mr. Adams. How are you?"  And I respond, "I'm good. Your group's question is done for the day."  The momentary panic before they realize I am joking is priceless.  Back to the process.  If the group decides to ask a question, the coordinator raises their hand and I come ask them, "Are you the coordinator? Did you send your Spy to three groups?"  If either answer is no, I walk away.  If both answers are yes, then this is a formative assessment for me.  By this group needing to ask me a question, that means at least four of my groups will need assistance.  I should then momentarily stop class and redirect them on this topic to save them and myself valuable time.

This process keeps the conversation at the group.  They rely on each other and not just the teacher.  The first five weeks of the year is tough and it takes a lot of training.  Sentence stems are a must at the start, and don't be scared off when a one-day lesson takes two at the beginning of the year.  The students and you will get the hang of it and it will make the rest of the year run more smoothly.  A well-oiled learning train, moving forward.


  1. I know this was a long time ago, but could you clarify on the sentence stems? Also, do you have a document summarizing the roles, including the model sentences that you provide for the reader to redirect the group? I want to implement this next year.

    1. Dawn,

      I am so sorry for not getting back to this earlier. I could list excuses but that does neither of us any good.

      The sentence stems come from Fisher and Frey's work with productive group work. http://fisherandfrey.com

      I do have some documents I could email you. Send me an email at mr.adams76@gmail.com

      Thanks and again, my apologies!