I have a tremendous amount of respect for anybody who teaches the little ones in kindergarten, first and second grades. While I love and adore these children, I could never spend the entire day with them. But I am blessed to have several friends who are amazing primary teachers, and I love to listen to the stories they share about their daily adventures.
While I can only speak for those I know, I’m sure many other K-2 teachers would agree: there is much more to teaching 5, 6 and 7 year olds (and even 8-10 year olds) than just addressing the academic standards. The work my primary colleagues do with our youngest students focuses a great deal on teamwork, collaboration, and building community. My friends who teach these grades take pride in the relationships they build with their students, the relationships their students build with each other, and the family atmospheres in their classrooms. This community and collaboration has always been a catalyst for the work their students complete in every subject area.
We’ve lost valuable team-building time
One thing my primary colleagues have shared more and more over the past decade is how their instruction for our youngest students has changed. With the more stringent approach to academics and assessments in public schools, our primary teachers have watched the time they had to develop community relationships and collaborative skills dwindle away. They try to fit in these activities when they can steal time here or there, but it’s challenging when the value of community building is being questioned at the top. In some schools, the time for these team-building activities has been completely removed from schedules. It seems strange, with the emphasis on anti-bullying programs, that this would be the case, but my friends have lamented the fact that they just cannot work on developing classroom relationships and collaboration skills like they used to.
As an intermediate teacher, during the early years of my teaching career I took for granted the foundation of classroom cooperation and teamwork that my colleagues built. I always complimented them for sending me well-prepared, sweet, hard-working students. But at some point in the 2000s, I began to notice more and more that the kids just weren’t working together as well my newly arrived students once did. There was more bickering, less listening, more trouble making.
It was sad, but we all knew our hands were tied. With so many guidelines being put in place and so much professional choice being taken away from us, the time for bonding activities was simply going away. While it was challenging in my school, where teachers were able to sneak in a few things here and there, it was even worse in schools under strict state sanctions. ALL academics, ALL the time, with no thoughts for the relationships that were being lost.
Students don’t know how to work together
Fast forward to this year, as I try to shift my teaching, make inquiry a major focus in our classroom, and have my students be the leaders in their learning. One might assume that my biggest difficulty is finding time to do project-based learning in a public school setting. Nope. You might think that the challenge is incorporating PBL with my required curriculum. Wrong again.
The biggest challenge I face is that my students have no idea how to work together.
Even with my efforts during the first months of school, which were inconsistent due to flooding and other issues, and my continued emphasis on strengthening collaboration skills, a majority of my students struggle to work together. They don’t listen to each other. They want things done their way and only their way. They don’t share. They aren’t respectful. And it’s frustrating. This should be the easy part, and it’s the hardest part of all.
Let’s steal the time back
You might be wondering, what can I do? What can I, one little teacher in one little classroom, do to affect a change in education and make this grand shift that everybody talks about possible? I say to every teacher at every level, but more so to our elementary teachers: we need to steal the time and make community building a priority in our classrooms, from the first day of kindergarten. If it takes subversive activity — so be it. It’s a critical success factor not just for teachers but for our students, who will have a lifelong need for the 21st century skills of communication, collaboration and group problem solving.
Teach your students how to be team players. Help them learn how to build relationships. Show your students the beauty and wonder in working together to discover new things. Help the kids understand how much more we can gain when we work with somebody, whether it’s in person or online, instead of doing everything all by ourselves.
No shift in education or in society as a whole will ever be successful if we continue to train our children to be solo players who can fill in bubbles but don’t know how to communicate and work together. Let’s take a stand, take back the time we need for community, and help our students grow into well-rounded human beings who are truly connected in all the ways that matter.
Images: Creative Commons, woodleywonderworks
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I simply love your phrase “we need to steal the time and make community building a priority in our classrooms, from the first day of kindergarten. If it takes subversive activity â€” so be it.” Right on!!!! Power to those who are brave enough to take it. Especially when it helps us fulfill what I think is moral responsibility of our profession.
So how to practically do this? As a 6th grade teacher, I’m in the same boat with you.
For me, one of the first things I do at the start of the year is to talk about what students in different roles will not only do…but what they will look like and sound like when they do it. It’s probably leftover from my Johnson & Johnson Cooperative Group training from prehistoric times (does anyone else remember this movement for cooperative groups?) but a big part of the modeling is to have students brainstorm what it would look like. I sort of molded it into a game of Statues where they would “look like” they were actively listening, or doing the job of a good Materials Manager.Everyone would busily act it out but silently. Then we model what it wouldn’t look like.
Then I layer on what it would sound like. Of course, since we’ve been silent during the first stage…now it breaks out in loud chaos. But you can still see kids getting it. I usually end by asking them to show me what 2 voices sound like to get the room back under control.
I know it’s not as good as the days when we did cooperative group/teambuilding Tribes exercises…but I still find it effective. Then if I see something falling apart, we can go back to What does it look and sound like? before we start.
So I know exactly what you mean by taking back the time….and this is one of my subversive secrets for keeping those critical group processing skills alive. Don’t tell anyone!!!!
Thank you so much for your kind words and your comments! I may not specifically remember the Johnson and Johnson cooperative groups, but my teammates and I were all there for that movement and wholeheartedly supported it! It’s only now that I truly realize how valuable that movement was and still is! We have to make the time for those cooperative learning / Tribes activities. We know how important they are for our kids’ futures – we can’t let others tell us they aren’t valuable enough to fit in our days!
I can connect with what you said when you talked about training what the different roles are, look like, and sound like. My teammate and I model all three of those for our language block activities, I haven’t ever done it for cooperative group roles – what a great idea!
Do you have specific jobs that you use for every project throughout the year or does it vary be project?
Marsha – could you give us an idea of the different roles you’re talking about? Like, what would it look like in your science class?
Becky – Can I offer up an “AMEN?!” I realized this year when I put together a PBL unit for my 4th graders, that it was virtually a worthless effort if I did not invest the time to teach my students how to work together. I think from day one, that community/team building piece has to have a place in our classrooms.
I recently wrote a Voices post (coming soon!) about PBL, and addressed this very topic. Teaching kids skills such as active listening and constructive feedback are critical to successful group work. I mention a number of resources in the post, but in particular I’ve had success with Kagan structures, some of which are listed here:
I agree with you, though, that we wouldn’t have to work so hard at this, if we made time for the relationships and conversations in those oh-so-formative K-2 years. We have greatly underestimated the value of learning through imaginative play, which helps students begin to form these skills at an early age.
I recently heard a quote that said, “High school is the last time students will work in isolation.” If we are truly preparing our students for a collaborative, global society, why have these critical skills been put on the back burner?
Thanks for a great post, and your continuing efforts to make your classroom a place that truly prepares students for the world ahead of them!
Thank you so much for your kind words and for sharing that resource. I will definitely be checking it out to add to my bag of team building tools!
And when you said, “I recently heard a quote that said, “High school is the last time students will work in isolation.” Really? Then why are students working in isolation at all? Another example how education is not a reflection of what our kids need to be prepared for in their real lives.
I have a bunch of roles in my room….so it just depends on what we’re doing. Let me explain a bit more.
When we do science lab activities, we have a Reader leader. That person is usually a really good reader, hence the name. They also work on learning and using leadership skills. I sit down with all my Reader Leaders in a huddle before the class gets underway and talk about the skills they’re going to use that day. If they’re doing a group discussion, I might pull out the talking chips and show them how to use those so everyone gets an equal chance of talking. Whatever it is, I help them know how to lead the other kids.
We also have a Data Recorder. That person is in charge of making sure everyone knows how to do the math/graphing/table making within the group. It’s their responsibility to make the master data collection tool and to see that everyone else understands it. Again I might pull them aside and double check that they know what to do so they can return to their groups as the expert.
We have a Materials Manager…these are the go-fers and usually a person who has trouble sitting still. This way they can be up and moving about. Just today, though, they had to use different skills. We’d built hydrometers to test density and I had to change up the size of the beaker they were using. So I had a 1 minute huddle with the Materials Managers about how they were going to adapt their tool….we sort of pre-brainstormed approaches based on the goal. That way when they went back to their group, they could help other people.
Again….all this huddling and talking through is so the kids can go back with some sense of what to do to help the other kids. They can be seen as an expert of sorts to lead the others. Underneath the surface, of course, all of this is promoting teamworking skills, effective communication among colleagues, collaborative thinking.
We also have other roles that aren’t lab related. We have a Twitter-er-er-er. And I’ll bet you can guess what that person does. They Tweet out ideas we are developing in class. So if we’re in brainstorming mode and the class is throwing out ideas or if we were developing a class focus question, they would tweet it out. We have a class account and sometimes the parents and other classes that follow us on Twitter will tweet us back with ideas. It’s a very sought-after job….but you have to prove you can type and spell before you can be considered. Sometimes we decide we need a helper or assistant if someone wants to try it out but aren’t sure how well they can handle the pace or the machine gun typing ability you have to have.
Becky, you asked if we have the same roles. And I’d have to say that we have core roles that really never change much. But when we do different projects, the kids might tell me that something is going undone. If that’s the case, we might stop for a class meeting, decide if we need to create a special role and just define what it is. That happened on one of our projects where we needed someone to be in charge of emailing our community expert. I had thought the kids would absorb it into Reader Leader or Data Recorder. Instead they wanted to have someone specifically tasked with sending the emails to our “consultant,” then forwarding the answer to everyone in the group and being responsible for discussing the information they got back. Fair enough. So we create the Master Emailer position for that project.
All this would look like 30 people all going in different directions if you were to step into my room. The thing about it is that all of these roles are being performed at the same time. So each kiddo has to be sure of what their responsibilities are and stay tuned into doing them. But if you step back and watch carefully, you’d see that the students – learners and leaders – are purposeful in how they are interacting with each other. They are helping each other, and most importantly, they are listening to each other. It’s the whole interdependence thing — the set of skills and understandings that Johnson and Johnson talk about as being a key factor in distinguishing between uncontrolled group behavior and real cooperation.
Does that help explain my chaos and thinking?
It absolutely does! I love this part the most:
“All this would look like 30 people all going in different directions if you were to step into my room. But if you step back and watch carefully, you’d see that the students – learners and leaders – are purposeful in how they are interacting with each other. ”
That reminds me of my friend’s basement. When I walk down it looks like absolute chaos, but when she goes down there she knows exactly where to find the one item she’s looking for. Your kids may look like absolute chaos, but the know the basics of working together and know how to perform their tasks to get the job done. It sounds like I would be quite at home in your classroom.
I promise this will be my last comment. But it occurred to me today that the other way we can increase student kindness, cooperation and leadership is simply to coach them through it.
This hit me as I was helping students today. I do the whole proximity thing….where I try not to be out walking through the classroom. I know that sounds against all things we’ve been taught as teachers…but I stay perched on my stool, watching from a distance. They know I’m there but just not “right there”.
So today when I looked out, here’s what I saw. One of my 4-person teams has 3 boys and 1 girl. A quiet girl to boot. The boys were busily working away and she was watching and helping…but not really in the middle of it all. So I asked two of my leader boys to come over…and I mentioned to them that she looked like she wasn’t as involved as they were.
It dawned on them that what I was pointing out was right. Immediately they’ve done a much better job engaging with her, and when I look over there, she’s right in the middle of things. They just weren’t aware of what I could see from my perch but now, with just a mid-course correction, they’re a team of 4 instead of a team of 3.
I had forgotten how important it is for me to be present in the classroom without being right on top of them. They have to have breathing room to practice. But they also need me to coach them and help them see what I’m able to see from this distance.
Maybe this is another way we can support more a cooperative spirit in our classroom.
I think you hit on another important point here, Marsha. I often hear people say, “Well that was horrible, these kids just don’t know how to _______________.”
Of course they don’t know how to _______________ – in my case they are 9 and 10 years old. We probably didn’t know how to do that either when we were their age so let’s take the time to teach them!
Your story is a great example of how kids can grown from the learned helplessness (i.e. not thinking for themselves, expecting answers from adults) that we are causing in many of them to successful collaborators. Please, feel free to keep commenting! Your insights are so valuable to this conversation!
Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this critical issue in our schools. I know a number of teachers that DO considerable team & community building in their classrooms, but overall they are rare. And they are generally in music based classes that are much more conducive to team-building for a common cause (band, choirs, etc.). It is difficult for most however, as team-building and community-building activities are generally not supported administratively or legislatively (i.e. No Test, I mean Child Left Behind?).
I left school teaching and am now a resident camp director. As I see it, camp directing allows me to be a ‘whole child’ educator much more than I could be in a school setting. If you’re looking for ideas to include team & community-building in your classroom, seek out a local camp professional. Chances are they will have endless ideas and activities (and we love to share!!) – we do this all the time as we train our staff and then guide our campers. And you know what – it plays a huge role in reducing behavioral issues in our camp communities. Once a child feels a sense of belonging, a part of the team or community, they tend to naturally reduce their acting out, belligerent or anti-social behaviors.
If you’re not sure how to find a camp in your area, check our the American Camp Association website at ACAcamps.org for an online database.
Thank you so much for your valuable input! I am a camp counselor over the summer, and I completely agree with you: working in a camp setting allows so many more opportunities for meeting the needs of the whole child.
Camp directors and counselors could be a tremendous resource to those of us in the classroom, and even being directly involved I didn’t think of it! I appreciate you chiming in and sharing a resource for others to make connections with camp directors!
Thanks for all of you do to help our kids learn and grow outside of the formal school setting.
What am amazing post! I found myslef shaking my head about our students really dont know how to be respectful and work together as a group. Is it odd that some groups sometimes have that ability naturally and others don’t? I totally agree with you that we need to TEACH these skills in our classroom no matter how “old” are students actually are. Being a high school teacher for 11 years, a teacher of middle school for 17 and now an educator for adult learners, the skills of collaboration are key. Gone are the days in which we teach in silos!
Thanks for your openness and sharing this amazing journey!
I work at an independent school where my elementary colleagues are well versed and focused on teaching community and collaboration. My middle school colleagues have a social curriculum as well as teaching collaborative skills and team building. In the high school we double in students and all of a sudden all of that know how is diluted! By the time I see my juniors and seniors their ability to manage a team project of two, four or the whole class requires reminding in some cases and teaching anew in other cases.
I am struck with the shift in culture, and the messiness of being in the middle of it, I find in the high school. We are in the midst of this shift towards collaborative learning and we are still very concerned with the individual standardized test. I still have too many colleagues who throw up their hands with “I don’t have time for PBL, I have to get them ready for this test”. Or, “they don’t know how to work together so the end product I get is horrible so I am going back to tried and true lecture and test.
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