Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Simple Secret to Keeping Small Groups on Task

I am a huge fan of small group discussions. Small groups provide an opportunity for every student to contribute, and you can group the students according to your specific, differentiated goals for them.

I use small groups for discussing literature, for editing and other writing tasks, and for working on special projects. Small groups are valuable on so many levels--but only if the students are all on task!

Over the years, I have relied on one simple--yet amazingly effective--trick for keeping students focused while I'm working the room and visiting other groups.

Hand-held tape recorders.

Yep. Accountability in a little machine.

I have a set of hand-held tape recorders. Mine happen to use the old-fashioned, regulation-sized cassette tapes. You could also use small digital recording devices if you're more technologically inclined.

When it's time for the small group to start their task, they set the recorder in the middle of their group and push the "record" button. There are four simple rules:

1. The group may not stop the recording at any point during the discussion. (I know how much time was allotted, so their recording had better be that long. Do I actually time them all? No, but I can, and they know that.)

2. Each student must say his or her name into the recorder at the beginning. (This step helps me keep up with which voice is which if I go back and listen.)

3. I should hear a specific group only on that group's tape, not on any other group's tape. (This rule keeps them from getting too loud.)

4. Students may not discuss how wonderful their teacher is in an effort to garner extra credit. (I had to add that rule after the first taped discussions. You can figure out why.)

You can listen to the tapes on your daily commute (if you take a hand-held in the car with you or drive a really old car with a cassette deck), or while you're straightening up your classroom, or (my favorite) while you're standing at the copy machine. Talk about multi-tasking!

Sometimes I listen to all the tapes in their entirety. Sometimes I listen to a specific group's discussion. (You know which groups you need to check up on more carefully.) Sometimes I just listen to bits and pieces of different tapes.

Sometimes, I confess, I don't listen at all. But as long as the tape is running, my students know I CAN listen, and that's powerful.

Different types of group discussions have different purposes, but sometimes I need to assess the students on their participation. For example, let's say I offer five different novels for students to read. I then group the students based on the novels they have chosen (allowing us to discuss the reading even though different students are reading different books). But I want to be sure they're all keeping up with the reading and contributing to the discussion in a meaningful way. So, I listen to the tapes and grade the students accordingly.

Each of my tapes is numbered and lettered. For first period, I have 1A, 1B, 1C, etc. For second period, I have 2A, 2B, etc. Then I simply make a list of which students are in group 1A, 1B, etc. for a particular discussion. For the next discussion, we just record over the old ones. A-plus for recycling.

Big Brother is watching. Dr. T. J. Eckleburg is watching. And I'm watching thanks to my little hand-held tape recorders.

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