We had only a month left in the school year and I had completely neglected literature from the 20th century, so I put the students in groups and gave each group a decade to research and a project to complete based on what they found.
They were to identify a book from the time period and create a “suitcase” for one of the characters from the book filled with “artifacts” from the era they’d studied. The project had a rubric, a choice sheet, a task sheet – the works.
But unfortunately for me and my best-laid plans, giving students a project of this magnitude at the end of the school year (when they’d never worked in groups before) ended up in disaster.
Only one group finished its project. The rest ended up with ruined friendships, half-read books, mounds of lost work, and weeks of lost time.
What I had failed to do was prepare students earlier in the year for this grand finale. And a year later, informed by this experience, I did just that. The results were quite different. The projects were fantastic. These are some of the things I learned in the process:
- Discuss your expectations before you have students begin working together, and solicit their input in identifying what a group needs to do to make the learning experience meaningful and effective.
- Begin with something simple like pairing students and having them read and reflect on a passage. After trying a relatively low-risk exercise talk with the class about the benefits and drawbacks of the experience. Do these kinds of activities regularly until students are ready to move on to more complex projects. Mix up the groupings so they learn to work with different peers.
- Plan even a simple group activity well in advance and run your instructions/expectations by another teacher to see if they are clear. Make sure students understand what they are supposed to do before they break into groups to work. (This minimizes the time you have to spend answering the same question for every group.)
- If things fall apart (students veer off task, the project becomes unexpectedly complicated, etc.) take time to talk with the class about what went wrong and use their input to recraft either that assignment or a future group project.