"You allowed the class mood to stay relaxed by allowing us to pick our own study groups. This gave every student the opportunity to open up to each other and talk about their mistakes rather than be ashamed. Also, these study groups became close to each other and we found ourselves really pushing each other to turn in the best contract possible." —Melissa M., student
“We are about to embark on a new phase in this class, and begin the process of refining one of the most important learning tools we have at our disposal - you. We’re finally ready to form permanent study groups.” It is mid-October, and the leaves of the poplar tree outside the windows are a golden yellow. It is a bright fall day, and the sunlight reflecting off the tree is actually changing the color in the room.
Over the past six weeks, my students have been working randomly with every other student in the room. They know not just each others’ names, but a lot about everyone’s working habits, strengths and weaknesses. They have come a long way towards recognizing that there is a remarkable range of skills and interests and motivations in the room, and that the best experiences happen when people are open to sharing what they are good at with each other. They have been told repeatedly to pay attention to who they work best with. Friendships have been formed, and people who blow off the work are starting to feel some social pressure as it becomes clear to everyone that they’re not helpful in doing the work, in being successful.
“All of you have a pretty good sense of who we all are in this class, and it’s time for you to decide what your ideal group will be. As you know by now, study groups are very important in this class; you already have experienced how much you learn from talking to each other. Once you form permanent groups, you will form working relationships of even deeper trust and loyalty to each other.
“Over time, you will be able to share your learning experience much more deeply with your group than you ever would in a normal classroom structure. You will form a deeper sense of community in a small group, and as you already know, the conversational learning in these groups is a powerful learning technique that will get better as you learn how to work together more successfully.
“Trust is critically important to the learning process. If you are going to learn from your mistakes, you have to be able to share them with other people, and that takes trust. Over time, I think you’ll find that your study group is your home within the home of this classroom, that you’ll start to look out for each other, and dive in deeper whenever anyone in your group is in trouble, academically or personally.
“The process of actually forming permanent groups will be a blend of what you want and what I, as your teacher, understand about the strengths and weaknesses each of you can bring to a group. It’s important that every group have a healthy mixture of different skills so that you can share the wealth optimally. It wouldn’t be useful, for instance to have five people who ace every test but are not very good with hands-on experiences in the same group. I also like to see a mix of gender and race in each group, because we all have a different point of view, and besides, it makes things more interesting to work with people who don’t look like you.”
In fact, I know that there are two groups who have already become extremely functional that are all of one gender, and I will ultimately let my preference slide because they work so well together.
“What I’m going to do is give you a slip of paper, a secret ballot, that you can write the name of two or three other people in this room that you feel you would work well with. Remember, it’s not necessarily the friends you walked into this room with six weeks ago.
“There is also a place on this form to write the name of one person you really don’t want to work with. This is optional, and I only want you to put down a name if you have had such terrible experiences working with this person that you anticipate it being a real problem.”
In many classes, there are one or two people whose personalities are such that almost no one wants to work with them. Finding a home for such people is often one of the big challenges of creating groups. Sometimes, I have to create a group and hold my breath as I announce whose working with whom. I always give everyone a private way to let me know that there is a serious problem, and sometimes I have to have private conversations with several students to try to work through the bumps and bruises as they get used to working with each other. Other times, I really have to adjust the groups, and do it in a way that it isn’t obvious why they are being reorganized.
“It will take me several days to figure out the final groups. I will do everything in my power to honor all your requests, but sometimes there are bigger priorities in finding balanced, functional groups. If you have strong feelings about the question of who you want to work with, find some time to talk to me privately about it over the next few days.”