DISCLAIMER: This post deals with my students, ALL of whom are seniors in high school, MANY of whom are college bound and need my class to graduate. Thus, I know that my experience is at least somewhat unique in that there is a significant amount of buy-in for my students to work in class and complete the assignments in my classroom with a limited amount of pushback.
One of the things I’ve done in my classroom this year is to group my students into “writing cohorts”. I took my cue from my OWP 4-week last year.
I tried this last year, but it failed miserably after a few days. My problem was that I had arbitrarily grouped my students before I even met them. I randomly assigned seats in ProgressBook and then arranged the desks into convenient groups, with complete disregard for student personalities, friendships, beefs, relationships, etc.
This year, I tried something different.
My research focus this year is on conversation in the writing process, and it started out with conversations between ME and the STUDENTS. I quickly realized, however, that I would have to shift that dynamic if I had any hope of helping all of my students, rather than the 4 or 5 neediest kids in my class. With this in mind, I thought back to the writing cohorts from OWP. Sure, I had tried it in the past, but this year was going to be different. After reading Keri Franklin’s English Journal article, “Thank You for Sharing: Developing Students’ Social Skills to Improve Peer Writing Conferences” (Vol. 99, No. 5 [May 2010], pp. 79-84) I got the idea to give the students most of the input in the selection of their writing cohorts. I made copies of the seating chart and asked them to identify students that they were willing to work with, students they didn’t want to work with, and if they were willing to work with anyone. This allowed me to group them with students they liked/respected over the course of the next few weeks/months. Sure it took some legwork on my part (see the chart below) but in the end, the groups have overall worked very well together.
The big change that I made (aside from letting the students basically pick their groups) was that I didn’t group them until about week 8 of the school year. Until this point, they were sitting in rows, working relatively independently, occasionally with random partners or row mates. But since the end of September, they’ve been in these writing cohorts every day.
One unexpected benefit was in handing out work/small group assignments. While the primary function of these groups is to work on writing assignments with a built in peer network, having the students in groups has been handy in passing out things like reading packets or completing small group activities.
There has also been an unexpected issue (well, not unexpected, but something I had to deal with). One of the things I have had to constantly remind myself of, and something that I am mindful of every single day, is the idea of letting go and letting the kids talk. A primary focus of my research is: what effect the simple act of conversation has on my students’ writing. So that means…letting them talk. It’s tough for me, as I am generally a teacher that prefers a quiet, “focused” group of students. I don’t shush a lot, but before this year, I would find myself redirecting students frequently on work days.
Now, some of you can already see the problem here. When they’re writing, most of the time, they’re actually working, but on those days when we’re not working on a writing assignment, I was struggling with chattiness and TOO MUCH conversation. It was difficult to manage the chaos, and I felt myself losing them.
Here was my solution: give them time to talk at the beginning of class.
I had a conversation with each of my classes about the chattiness and the side-conversations. I suggested that I give them 2 minutes at the beginning of each class to just talk to their friends/cohort. BUT! after that 2 minutes, we would get to work. I start each class with a poem, an image and 5 minutes of journaling. With this structure in mind, I had to give them 2 minutes of the remaining 45 minutes, but hopefully it will be worth it in terms of work gained later in the bell.
It’s been two days, and so far two of my three classes have adapted well, the third is it’s own special snowflake that I’ll have to explain on another day, but…so far, so good.
So do me a favor, and let your kids talk sometimes. They spend so much of their lives staring at a screen that they really do need that face-to-face interaction with their peer sometimes. And if we don’t give them that time, they might not get it anywhere else.