I kid you not, I really do sing this song to my 7th and 8th graders. Don’t even get me started on what I sing when the class phone rings.
Getting my students to work well together in groups has always been hit-or-miss for me. When it’s time to collaborate and cooperate, many of the kids end up off task, chatting about random stuff, goofing off, or just sitting there. I’ve experimented with many different ways to develop teamwork skills in my students, but it wasn’t until the 2017-18 school year that I came up with something that kind of worked.
I had spent the first 4 days of school going over typical beginning-of-the-school-year stuff like the class syllabus, class procedures, who their AH-MAZING science teacher was, lab safety, getting to know the kids, notebook set-up, etc. At this point, many teachers would start getting into their subject matter… but not this teacher! The New NGSS standards are big on teamwork, and rightly so, because, like it or not, we all have to learn to work together to get things done quickly and efficiently as adults.
So, teamwork was what I did next. I showed the movie “Spare Parts” for the next several days. The film is based on the true story of a group of mostly undocumented high school kids who built a remote-controlled underwater robot for a university robotics competition. Their $800 remotely operated vehicle (ROV) beat out ones from ivy league schools (like MIT) that cost thousands of dollars each. Each day, I’d pause the video at certain spots and ask the kids how those scenes exemplified good (or bad) teamwork. I’d also point out certain traits each character from the movie demonstrated that I especially wanted the kids to notice. Despite not knowing much about robotics, Oscar took charge and got everyone going. Cristian was very timid, but stepped up to lead when he knew how to fix the robot’s sluggish response time, then relinquished command back to Oscar. Lorenzo did the same when they went shopping for parts and he knew what they should and should not buy. Luis was the least knowledgeable on the team, but he learned from the others and contributed what he could. Oscar and Luis did not get along, but they still worked well together for the good of the team. All in all, the movie was a great way to trick the kids into learning teamwork skills.
The film ended after 4 days. On the 5th day, each group got a poster paper and a set of markers and were given about 20 minutes or so to make a list of the qualities of good team members using the movie as a reference. Before letting them work, I went over formulaic expressions with the students, which I already had posted up on one of the walls in my class (Fig 1). Formulaic expressions are pre-written phrases kids can use to give them a place to start when they don’t know what to say (or write) to each other. I’ve got a chart for all sorts of formulaic expressions, which you can download here, courtesy of the amazing Faith Clevinger from the Colton Joint Unified School District. Let me present to you hypothetical conversations about the qualities of good team work between groups members with and without formulaic expressions.
Conversation Numero Uno (with NO FORMULAIC EXPRESSIONS):
After silence for 2 minutes….
Student 1: [more silence]
Student 2: [more silence]
Student 3: I think maybe being a team player is a quality of good teamwork? I think.
Student 4: This is so stupid.
Student 1 :[shakes head in silence]
Student 2: [speaking to Student 3] The f*** does that mean?
Student 3: Never mind.
Student 4: [starts talking to students in the group behind her about everything except what she’s supposed to be discussing]
Conversation Numero Dos (with FORMULAIC EXPRESSIONS):
After silence for 2 minutes….
Student 1: So… what do you guys think? What’s a good quality of teamwork?
Student 2: I don’t know.
Student 3: I think maybe being a team player? I think.
Student 2: What do you mean by that?
Student 3: I don’t know. Like, helping each other out, I guess.
Student 2: That sounds good.
Student 1: What’s your idea, Student 4?
Student 4: This is so stupid.
Okay, maybe I exaggerated here a bit, but I hope you see why formulaic expressions are so important. Most elementary, middle, and even high school kids have no clue how to talk to each other in an academic/business setting. They literally don’t know what to say because almost all of their experiences have been from how they ordinarily interact with their friends and family. They’ve never had jobs or been to college, so they don’t know how to speak more formally. That’s why we have to give them formulaic expressions first so they have a list of items they can choose from that get the conversation going and keep it going. Otherwise, you end of with Conversation Numero Uno.
Anyhoo, once the 20 minutes I gave the kids to collaborate on the qualities of good teamwork were up, each group held up their poster and read aloud to the class what they came up with. I typed up their responses so I would have them digitally. Later that evening, I looked for common and powerful words from their posters and used them to create a word cloud (I used this one), which I printed out and gave to each kid. I also posted a copy of the word cloud (click here for a sample) on the class bulletin board. This way, they (and I) could look at it as a reminder of how to be good team members whenever they had a group assignment.
Paper Table Challenge
Now that the kids knew what good teamwork looked like, they had to put it into action. So, I looked online for a simple team activity and came across a “paper table” engineering project, which you can download from here. The details of my instructions to the students on how to go about designing and building their paper tables are explained in my “Introducing the Engineering Design Process” post (coming soon). One thing I will mention here is that I did select leaders for each group, who were responsible for getting the team going, asking everyone for ideas, making sure to include everyone, assigning jobs, keeping the team on task, and reporting to me if a member is disruptive. Once all my other instructions were given to the kids, I cut them loose to collaborate and work in their table groups.
Over the next 2 and a half days, I circulated throughout the class, observing the groups, telling them the occasional, “Try it,” if they weren’t sure whether an idea would work (The AVID Goddess herself, Raquel Castellanos, over at Ruth O. Harris Middle School, taught me that simple phrase) . Most importantly, I monitored the groups’ ability to work as a team. If a student was goofing off wildly, I reminded them of the word cloud and asked them if there were any qualities of good teamwork they were not living up to. If they weren’t sure, I’d pick the quality off the word cloud they represented poorly and ask if they violated it. I then reminded them that they already knew how to be a good team member, and not to do anything to make it difficult for their group. I’d also tell them that it’s okay if they don’t know anything, but they could be like Luis from the movie. He helped out when the team asked him to do something, and the rest of the time he stayed out of their way, paid attention, and learned. In addition, I’d remind the team leaders of their duties because if they monitor their own team members, then I don’t have to. Less work for me is always nice.
The kids worked really well for this challenge, even the squirrely ones. Sure, there were two kids I had to completely remove from their groups because they were really disruptive, but that’s not too bad considering I had about 170 total students at the time. What’s more, one of those kids was allowed to return to his group and behaved just fine from then on. The other student also went back to his group, but I had to remove him again for being disruptive to other teams. I placed him away from his group at one of the corners of my room where I have a spare desk, and let him continue with the challenge on his own. I also made sure to call home for both kids, which is probably why the first one changed his behavior.
I didn’t care if the kids could build a good paper table. The point of the challenge was to give the kids an opportunity to practice their developing teamwork and Engineering Design Process (EDP) problem-solving skills. As long as I saw them exhibiting the behaviors of good teammates and using the EDP, they got an “A” on the challenge. It’s important to note that if I didn’t remind the kids of the qualities of good teamwork for subsequent group activities, the kids would devolve back to their old, Conversation-Numero-Uno ways. And of course they would. Speaking informally is what they know. It’s familiar. It’s easier. It’s also frowned upon in most workplaces. You and I have to teach them that there’s a time and a place for informal and formal speech. When it’s time to work (like in groups on an academic subject), then that’s when the formal dialogue should be utilized. They have to know that THIS. IS. SEWIOOOOUUUUS! Sorry. Watch the video below if you don’t get the joke. Moving on.
Make sure to give the kids a refresher every so often, especially after extended time from group work (i.e. Thanksgiving break, winter break, spring break, God-Awful high stakes testing that lasts for 2 weeks, etc). During the end of the 2nd semester of the 2017-18 school year, I had to remind the kids how to work together for almost every single group activity for May and June. Don’t be offended when the kids slip back to their old habits. They’re probably just tired. Give them another reminder (and another, and another, and another, ad nauseum) of the qualities of good teamwork. They’ll come back.
That’s all I have to say about teaching the kids teamwork. It works. Try it. If you make it even better or you’ve got another way of teaching teamwork for me, please comment away!