Helping Students Learn to Pull Together
Without slipping too far into my teacher voice (which has the effect of putting you, dear reader, to sleep and also drives my editor crazy), let me begin with my core belief that American public schools should be places where children are drawn closer together rather than pushed apart. We must be able to work with people from different backgrounds and beliefs if we want our “Grand Experiment in Democracy” to succeed.
OK, teacher voice is now switched off.
No matter how diverse your school environment may be, most students will align themselves with like-minded classmates if you leave it up to them. Children forming factions — athletes, overachievers and such — is not a bad thing; it’s just human nature. But you should work to de-emphasize these social groupings because your students need to be preparing for the much more diverse and pluralistic society they’ll encounter when they get out of school.
Try these tips for bringing students your together:
Don’t pit students against each other
Competition in its most simple form is a good thing, and I doubt that anyone regrets taking part in a competitive activity as long as they are evenly matched. Yet if you aim to create a sense of fellowship and collegiality among your class, your activities should not be overwhelmingly competitive.
Rather, work on developing cooperative learning activities that require them to solve a problem as a unit. Provide some necessary background literature, let them process the information, discuss it and publicly defend their conclusions.
Establish your norms
Establishing proper norms of behavior and interaction at the start of any project is essential to its long-term success. You can develop norms independent of groups, but experience has shown that cooperatively developed norms (i.e. let all members speak or each group member participates equally) is the best way to go.
The norms should be posted and reviewed at the start of each work session so that they eventually become part of the “DNA” of the group.
Pay attention by not paying attention
Students’ personal developmental needs encourage them to define themselves by their peer groups — they see themselves as reflections of the people they hang out with. Therefore if a “jock” wants to think she’s a part of that group, that’s who she will associate with.
One way to address this is to be deliberate in designing your class workgroups, but never explicitly talk of how or why you’re creating the groups. Instead, place the children into deliberately “random” groups. This helps reinforce the expectation that they must develop the skills to work together.
Show process and product
To help foster interdependence and collegiality, be certain to emphasize to students that they’ll be graded on how they reach their conclusions, not just what they conclude. Pay as much attention to the group’s processes as its results, and grade them accordingly. If you want to break down the barriers between students, make sure your activities will achieve your goal. A rubric outlining students’ expected behaviors can be a quality tool in these cases.
An educator for two decades, Brian P. Gatens is superintendent/principal at Norwood Public School in Norwood, N.J. Gatens has worked at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. He has been a classroom teacher, vice principal, principal and now superintendent/principal.