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Do the Huddle!

How many of us have been in groups that struggled to complete a task that seemed more suited to individual work? How often have we tried to get students to collaborate around a task only to find that for every group that worked well together there was another that fell apart? There is no doubt that groups are challenging to manage, from the inside or the outside, but it does look like group work is here to stay. The Common Core suggests a renewed emphasis on group work as students are asked to consider multiple solutions to problems and as educators are held accountable for engaging every student. And we are seeing a resurgence of group work in classrooms as a key engagement strategy and forum for increasingly complex academic tasks.

Group work doesn’t have to be complicated. It can be as simple as a “turn and talk” where students are asked to share their thinking with an “elbow partner” during a class discussion. Paired discussions like these give every student a chance to engage with the material being covered, even in large classes where only a few students may get the opportunity to speak to the entire class. Teachers tell us that even the shyest or most introverted students are able to speak comfortably with a neighbor, especially if students are given time to think reflectively first before sharing. Most important, this strategy respects each child as having something valuable to contribute to the discussion.

More complex is productive small group work, where academic tasks are assigned to small groups of students to complete collaboratively. This is where group work often falls apart as more dominant students may take over the task and less confident students may defer to the loudest voice. So the challenge becomes one of fostering the richness of true collaboration and its potential to integrate diverse thinking into work products. Real collaboration is a far cry from the dreaded “group think” and it’s a challenging instructional strategy.

This is also where group roles are handy. There are many iterations being used in classrooms across the country but most often they include a facilitator or team captain, a resource manager, a recorder, and a reporter. The facilitator keeps the conversation on track and determines a structure to approach the task. The resource manager is responsible for making sure that all the necessary materials are collected and ready to use, such as assignment sheets, chart paper, math manipulatives…. The recorder makes sure that all pertinent information is written up in whatever way the assignment specifies so that none of the brilliance of the group is lost, and the reporter is the one who will report out or present their work to the class. Having assigned roles reduces the chance that one student will take over the work and if group roles are rotated on a regular basis, every student has the opportunity (and responsibility) to pick up different skills. Although it requires organization, rotating these roles is essential to an equitable classroom and full engagement.

One of these roles, obviously, is far more complex than the others. Facilitation is hard and requires processes that many adults struggle to implement. So how can we help students facilitate without standing behind them – an impossible task for a teacher who may have 6 or more groups going simultaneously. We have two thoughts on this – and yes, this is where the huddle comes in.

First, consider facilitation a skill like any other learning target, with a gradual release toward independence as your students learn the tricks of the trade. We’ve seen teachers be very transparent around modeling particular facilitation strategies, assisting, and then finding themselves on the sidelines as students gain confidence and skill in this area.

And then, we suggest you Do the Huddle before every group assignment. This is where you pull your facilitators together (often while your resource managers are gathering their materials) to make sure the task is understood and offer concrete process strategies for approaching the taskto make sure every mind is heard. This is most successful if the process strategies replicate what is already familiar with the class. For example, in a recent 3rd grade huddle we heard:

Teacher: “You know how when we’re in circle I ask you to first think to yourselves and then share with an elbow partner before we talk as a whole class?”

Facilitators nod their recognition.

Teacher: “So let’s practice that in your groups today. Give everyone think time. Then have them share with a partner. Then you can open it up for everyone in the group. Sound good?”

Facilitators nod and everyone high 5’s before disbursing.

Can you imagine how differently the facilitators approached their task, with a clear structure that is known to them and to the members of their group? Imagine how confident even the most introverted facilitator might be with a set of distinct moves, with language that will be understood and provoke familiar behaviors. And imagine how much more productive group time could be with a “think, pair, share” strategy to ensure all voices and brains are heard.

So the next time you plan your group work, try it. Do the huddle! (And then maybe throw in a little wiggle at the end.)

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