Just Listen: Kids Talk About Collaboration

Working as a group has advantages, Garlyn told me: “You can bring all those ideas together and come up with something bigger than what you would do on your own.” Yet, like most kids, she sees disadvantages, too. What if the other kids don’t all do their parts? Listen as she weighs the pros and cons:

But just as the social elements of learning can jump-start interest in a topic, so collaboration often clarifies and spurs students’ thinking. Kenneth noted that peers are often better than the teacher in explaining things so kids “get” them.

For Michecarly, whose geometry class was assigned to create a scale model, working in a small group made all the difference. “We helped each other with little details,” he said, “’cause we were each good at a certain part.”

Like every skill, teamwork takes coaching. When kids reflect on their most successful collaborations, I notice, their teachers had always provided deliberate practice in negotiating the dynamics of a working group. These students learned how to assign individual parts to play and how to trade off tasks. They had protocols by which to fill in the gaps of each other’s knowledge and to adapt as the work developed and changed. They had respectful ways to assess each other’s participation.

Take 10 minutes to watch the full series of 11 short clips in which kids give their views on collaborating at school.

Then ask yourself how you coach collaboration in your classroom. I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to whomever shares the best reply in the Comments field below.

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Just Listen: Kids Talk About Life at Home

“It’s kinda like I just had a baby,” Wedjeena told me, talking about her ten-month-old brother. “He’ll pull my homework, crumple it up. Eat it.”

As the winter holidays arrive, adults tend to think of youth as the receivers of our largesse. It’s easy to forget that many youth go home from school every day to shoulder the responsibilities of adults.

Whether it’s babysitting, doing household chores, or translating for non-English-speakers, their contributions matter enormously to their families and their communities outside school.

But they may be invisible to their teachers. What would you do differently if you knew the work that these four students are doing out of school? How might you celebrate and build on their strengths?

Take 5 minutes to listen to what they say. Then pass their voices along, and let us know what you think!

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Just Listen: Kids Talk About Project-Based Learning

Hands-on projects get students interested in a way that regular schoolwork may not. Attacking a real-world problem, exploring an issue of personal interest, or just trying something that involves a little action — all these add value and increase motivation, kids tell me.

“I was like, ‘You know, that’s something I wanna do,’” said Rashaun about a documentary project his class took on. “There’s so much you can do with this. I’ma go all the way.”


Take 5 minutes to watch the full series in which students describe learning through projects.

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Just life . . . but solved as word problems

Can life be seen as math, when you’re just going into eighth grade? The middle schoolers in this short video “Case Study in Practice” talk about their new coats, their baseball averages, and even the weather with a curiosity that drives them to figure things out mathematically.

Coached by a college student who is a summer teaching intern at Providence Summerbridge, they are learning to describe their everyday concerns using the language of math.

Nic talks about picking out his school clothes in the morning, and he’s suddenly talking about permutations and combinations: “You can put six to seven different ways into one pants and two shirts . . . you just have to find out the outcome of it.”

Shaniece pleads with teachers to make the math connect to things kids do: “Like, use props. Do something. Do a little skit. Bring food. Let us come up and teach the class. See how we understand it, and see what works.”

We learned a lot by eavesdropping on these middle schoolers, as they

• Look for math in real life
• Frame their experiences as word problems
• Try out ways to solve those problems, and
• Explain and share their thinking.

What does this suggest for what your math students are practicing? We’ll send you a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind if you’ll share your thoughts and experiences with us in a reply.

Learning on a different wavelength

You can hear the beats sounding loud from the open windows of passing cars on a balmy afternoon in downtown Oakland, and you may catch snatches of a radio host interviewing the guest of the hour, or a commentary you wish you could hear more of.

But you might never know, walking past the sleek four-story downtown Youth Radio building at 1701 Broadway, that just inside it young people from 15 to 21 are working at newsroom desks and in soundproof studios to send those voices and that music into their community and the larger world.

Since Youth Radio began in 1990, it has introduced some of the freshest voices in broadcast journalism to listeners who tune into local stations, National Public Radio, and, most recently, streaming Internet sites. It trains 1,300 youth each year to develop core competencies in audio, video, web and print and to produce the highest quality original media for the widest possible audience. An estimated 27 million people hear and read the often-overlooked perspectives of young people through Youth Radio’s work each year.

However, Youth Radio also provides a compelling example of collaborative learning through peer apprenticeships, whose effects reach far into the lives and futures of Bay Area youth.

From the moment they come in off the street to fill out an application, these young broadcasters start building and sharing their skills—not just in research, writing, speaking, and media production but in workplace interactions, personal relationships, and life management.

This video presents the powerful 4-part strategy through which Youth Radio strengthens those skills through deliberate practice. It’s worth studying closely, through the voices of two young participants, Denise Tejada and Shaw Killip, whose lives it changed. Send it on to a teacher who needs a lift this week!

The hole in the wall

I’ve heard of Sugata Mitra’s Hole in the Wall series of real-life experiments from New Delhi to South Africa to Italy, in which he gave kids self-supervised access to the web and saw results that could revolutionize how we think about teaching. But the images in his TED talk really underline for me how much curiosity and the shared interest of a peer group drive our motivation to learn.

Mitra concludes with, “education is a self-organizing system where learning is an emergent phenomenon.” What does that mean for how we should be setting up our formal learning environments? Shouldn’t we be setting up a “granny cloud” of mentors such as Mitra describes? Shouldn’t classrooms be much messier, livelier places, driven by mystery and inquiry?

If so, we’ll have to learn in another culture altogether—one that tolerates and even promotes the chaos of youthful energies when they are going where they want to go. What conditions make that possible? I am waiting to hear your ideas!

P.S. I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to the best responses that come in this week.

Get kids to chart their progress

“Interviewing is my challenge,” said the high school student you see in this video, as he began his journalistic internship at Educational Video Center (EVC) in New York City. To chart his progress, his teacher gave him the camera and asked him to document how he developed the art of asking questions.

One of the finest examples of “rigor and relevance” in the world, EVC workshops not only provide students with academic credit and professional skills; they give them the chance to express themselves and be heard. Teachers learn, too, about how to use videography as a means to develop critical skills and content across the curriculum–and incidentally, as a way for kids to chart their own learning.

This student’s 2-minute piece, made as a “practice video,” is just the beginning of his journey. At EVC, even students who have never succeeded in school before often go on to win awards and scholarships and to work in the media industry. And they start with just such small steps as this: asking questions that matter (“What does it take to get good at interviewing?”) and documenting the answers, as new skills build on each other right before our eyes.

Best work: Teacher-made curriculum

My guest post today is by John B., a veteran history teacher from Vermont whose comments frequently enliven our dialogue on this blog. John is always thinking of ways to make good curriculum better, and here he describes a semester-long strategy he devised to give students practice in both deep critical thinking and collaborative work. This will be the first of several guest posts in which we invite master teachers to share their most powerful curriculum projects in detail. Please write in to suggest your own contribution to the series!
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Preparing to teach the 20th century era in my 10th grade world history course, a few years ago I came upon a good theme for the spring semester: the Theory of Unintended Consequences, also called the Law of Unexpected Consequences.

I decided our class would first conduct an overview of the three world wars (World War I, World War II, and the Cold War). Then, each student would explore any event in each of those conflicts that had unexpected or unintended consequences. To present their findings, students would write at least one formal written report and make one oral presentation to the class. (For the third report they could choose between a written report or a presentation). We would assess these using rubrics that the students already had for writing and oral presentation.

But what could we do as a closing activity in the spring, when kids’ focus is not at its best? I wanted the students to work together in some sort of team project, one of the most important skills students can develop in high school. So I decided to devote our final two weeks to preparing team presentations on the Law of Unexpected Consequences, as illustrated by the three world wars we had studied.

We agreed on a format for their 45-minute presentations, to include an introduction, an explanation of the Law of Unexpected Consequences, an overview of each of the wars, an example of the Law at work from each of the wars, and a conclusion. Each student had to speak for an equal amount of time. They could call on each other’s work from their prior reports and presentations, but everyone’s work had to be used. Each team had to support its presentation with visual materials. We decided to invite their advisors, parents, and an administrator to come to each presentation. I also required each group to attend another group’s talk.

The students’ focus was fine! The quality of the work was so good that it gave me chills. Without any pressure from me, each group worked together to revise their previous work to better contribute to the team’s presentation. They did more research to fact-check their previous assertions. They prepared a common triple-spaced script for easy reference, and they rehearsed (in and out of class) more than I could have imagined. They worked together to prepare the visuals to support the talks. On their own initiative, they even dressed up in nice clothes for the presentations. Parents and other teachers were actively and authentically involved in the question and discussion session that followed each presentation. When it was over, students and parents left the classroom beaming with satisfaction.

I have now used this same model several times in this and other classes. It has never failed to both keep the focus in the spring and help move the students toward mastery of many skills.

Those who know, teach!

What would it take to invest students deeply in helping each other really understand the material? After reading Dan Pink’s post on “flipping homework” (described here), one algebra teacher posted a fascinating comment describing his out-of-the-box approach.

Every class day, this teacher gives a one-problem quiz. Afterward, the teacher readies those students who correctly solved the problem to help those who didn’t solve it, on the board.

Next, each student who still didn’t solve it gets help from those who solved it (either on the quiz or on the board) until all students understand the problem.

Exams are taken by only one student of the teacher’s choice. All students get the grade attained by that student.

The result? “Learning and exam preparation become a group effort, and all win or lose together,” wrote this teacher, identified in the comments only as Durfa.

I want to know more about this strategy of coaching collaboration and academic material at the same time! Do you know someone who has tried it, in any subject? How did it work out? Send in your example, and I’ll send you a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind. Those who know, teach!

When kids jump in to a challenge

What makes kids want to work at something hard? I was thinking about that the other day, as I watched an episode of the TV show “Parenthood” on Hulu. Max, who’s about 8, is seriously avoiding getting out there with his dad to work on his baseball skills. It’s easy to see that his over-anxious dad is pushing too hard—but when Max’s 14-year-old cousin takes the lead in tossing the ball around, Max brightens right up, and somehow learns to catch.

The scene rings true to what kids tell us in Fires in the Mind. When other kids they admire beckon them into a challenge, they’re much more likely to put in the effort.

Kellie, for example, first learned to jump rope with her playmates on the sidewalks of New York. Right away, the complicated maneuvers of Double-Dutch had her mesmerized. “The first thing I had to know was when to jump in, to get inside of the rope,” she said. “My sister helped me, by counting from one to three or five. I would jump in from the right side, between the rhythm of the ropes or the count in my head, and the rope closest to me had to be in the air. It would usually take me so long that the turners would stop turning and look at me!”

Kellie has so much to teach us here, about motivation and also about mastery. She saw something that looked amazing to her, and she wanted to do it — but it took her older sister’s encouragement for her to get up the nerve to try it. That first hurdle crossed, Katie immediately started breaking down the steps to getting it right, again and again. She was on her way to getting good!

Whether it’s a baseball game or a homework assignment, when have you noticed your kids getting past their reluctance to work at something hard? What drew them in? What happened next? I’ll send a free copy of Fires in the Mind to whoever leaves the most interesting answer in the Comment box below.