Grouping is that tried and true way to make your classroom look cutting edge. No, seriously, ask the average student how often they're encouraged to talk with their classmates about things during a class period. It may depress you. The number of "would you look at that" comments I get about my room layout is equally concerning.

But not you, you are super down for this group thing! Except, you may be concerned about how to handle it. Who should sit with who? What are the "roles" going to be? Where am I going to come up with great group task ideas?

The short answer: don't think about it so hard. My success with grouping has come with not treating it as anything special. Start with desk arrangement. Creeping class sizes have gotten me to what I call my Standard Group Unit: 6 desks with a screen and a supply bucket.

Here's a better look at the front half of the room (featuring 3 Standard Group Units):

Given the density of people in my room, this is the most efficient use of limited floor space. Groups are nothing special, it's just how we sit around here. Your group is your family. Historically, some groups have latched onto that idea quite heavily.

Now that they're sitting in groups all day, every day, how do we leverage this? You might think I conduct a lot of projects with defined roles and detailed rubrics for grading final products. You'd be wrong. The groups exist to take an overwhelming class of 36 and make it six neat little families. Ok, so what the heck, there's got to be more to it? Indeed.

  • Take a problem set of considerable length, assign half to even desks and half to odd
  • Take an exploration activity, work on it with a partner from your group
  • Take an activity with not quite enough work for six people, divide your group in half and complete the activity
  • Take an extensive construction project, work on it with a partner from your group
  • Take a design activity, require each group member to complete the same task, collaborating with but not copying the work of other group members
  • Take a problem set of considerable length, make it into a deck of cards using half size index cards, trade problems within the deck among the group until each group member has solved X number of cards, have that be step one of a game like Log War 
  • Take a problem set (usually requiring a graph or some other illustration) of considerable length and equal difficulty, have each group solve the full set and compile the results as a poster

Running groups this way reduces a lot of the overhead commonly associated with group work. I'm not fretting over who works with who because I figured that out a long time ago making seating charts. I'm not fretting over one group having three thumb twiddlers while the other three do all the work. The groups are small little six person classes within a larger whole. All the situations I outlined are just a small fraction of the big picture. On a daily basis, the groups are just who students sit with. If we're taking notes, it's who they'll turn to if they miss something. If we're doing classwork, it's who they'll turn to with questions. As I wander, I can address the needs of many with only a few stops.

Many kids tell me how much they look forward to their time in my room. Part of it has nothing to do with me, it's all about family time with their group (and maybe the lava pits).

AuthorJonathan Claydon