Pick a Partner: What are the rules?

Last week, we talked about what teachers can do–before the students even set foot in classroom–to make group work manageable for all students. Today, we’ll talk about the importance of including students in the planning as well, and why this should be part of the “big picture.”

Have you ever watched the reality show  “The Apprentice?” On this program, groups of entrepreneurs or celebrities work together on tasks in the hopes of eventually being named Donald Trump’s “apprentice.” As with most reality shows, it’s chock-full of drama, stemming mainly from the friction between team members…the group dynamics frequently ignite a firestorm of arguments.

The problem, it seems, is that the groups have very little time to talk about how they are going to work together. They’re immediately thrust into managing tasks; getting to know one another and establishing “norms” for the group are considered irrelevant. The result? Misunderstandings, hurt feelings, errors, and incomplete work.

My advice, then, to teachers who are planning group activities: “Be ye not so rushed.” The time you invest in helping ALL kids learn how to work together will pay huge dividends, not only in students academic achievement, but in their social-emotional development as well. And, if you’re teaching in the church setting, you’re helping kids to understand more fully how to be the Body of Christ.

Here are some steps for helping students work together…

Create rules Before we allow children in the cafeteria or on the playground, we give them a set of expectations  to keep them safe and to help them manage their interactions. The same logic applies to group work. I’ve quoted my colleague, Sheri Halagan many times on this blog, but her words are worth repeating: “Kids don’t know as much as we THINK they know about how to behave.” We need to remember, too, that some students with hidden disabilities struggle with social skills…and thrive on structure and rules. Before starting group work, gather the class together and facilitate a discussion about rules that should govern the tasks and interactions.

Make “Sense” of the Rules Many times, students can create appropriate rules, like “Be kind” and “Do your best job,” because they have heard the phrases before. However, we need to be certain they truly understand what the rules mean and why they are important. Jolene Philo, an author and veteran teacher, developed a method of helping students understand rules in a multi-sensory way. Instead of stopping at “Be Kind,” Jolene would ask her students, “What does being kind LOOK like? What does it SOUND like? What does it FEEL like.” She then recorded their responses in a chart to visually reinforce their discussion. This allowed for a deeper reflection about the need for these boundaries. (Download a copy of Jolene’s chart here: Look/Sound/Feel Chart)

Reinforce the Rules As teachers and volunteers who work with children and teens, we’re constantly reviewing and re-teaching. Anything we teach…from subtraction to science to Scripture must be reinforced so that it can be remembered. That’s just how students learn. In the same way, we need to review the social curriculum for students so they can internalize how to interact with each other in a positive and productive way. Responsive Classroom Consultant Margaret Berry Wilson writes,

It is important to keep discussing and practicing the rules all year long. Students cannot possibly learn all they need to about how to live and behave as a community during the first weeks of school. Time spent together deepens their understanding of how to truly care for each other. Also, keeping the rules alive and ever-present in children’s minds gives you the ability to ask “What do our rules say about . . . ?” when challenging situations arise. (full article here)

These comments readily apply not only to the classroom in school, but to church as well. In both settings, students need consistent, kind reminders about the rules that govern positive teamwork.

Your rule-based friend…


Next: Assigning roles that make groups positive and productive.

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