Group Projects: The Good, the Bad, and the Ineffective

group work
Obtained from Pixabay

I’ve had group projects on my mind a lot lately. Group projects have become the driving force of both of my Master’s program classes, and have been a recent topic of conversation in school’s professional development as we work toward an instructional model that heavily features collaboration.

 

So what makes Group Projects work? And what makes them fall apart?

Group Projects fall apart when:

1. There isn’t a defined and obvious goal

Group projects cannot be effective if the entire group doesn’t agree with and understand the goal for the project. Simply asking a group of people to work on the same task results in everyone completing work without a sense of purpose. This is also true when the goal provided does not seem to match the task at hand. For example, if the goal is to practice having collaborative discussions but the project is to create a slideshow about an animal, the mismatch of the project and the goal can create a disconnect for the group members.

 2. Everyone thinks they have the best ideas

The give and take of true collaboration is a key component of a successful group project. If every group member comes to the project with the belief that they know best and an unwillingness to listen to others, the project will not be successful.

3. The group members are not invested in the task

Similar to a lack of a goal, if the group members do not all believe in the importance of the task or are not engaged in the task, the project will not be successful because the group members that are not invested will not feel compelled to do their part.

4. The task itself is not clear

If the task itself is not clear, group projects will not be successful. Group members will spend a majority of their time attempting to make sense of the task and what it is that they’re supposed to be doing and whether or not they are meeting the expectations of the teacher instead of focusing their efforts on a cohesive project.

 

Group Projects are successful when:

1. All group members have a clear role to fulfill

In successful group projects, every group member has a specific role. Whether these roles are self-chosen, or whether they are assigned by the teacher does not matter. Older group members may naturally fall into roles without needing to specifically define them, however, roles give each group member clear tasks and expectations. The roles below are examples of how to divide tasks up for a project to give each group member a specific job to do.

Screen Shot 2017-11-11 at 2.27.28 PM
Obtained from Teacher’s Notebook

2. There are mini-deadlines in place to keep the project on track

Projects are often packaged in a big-picture, final-product format. However, by creating deadlines along the way groups are much more likely to be successful because the task is broken down into smaller, manageable parts.

3. The project is relevant to all group members

Buy-in from all group member is essential for a successful project. Allowing for some element of choice can make this more likely, as well as clear goals and expectations.

4. There is a purpose for doing the project as a group

It is also essential that a group project clearly necessitates being done as a group. If the project could just as easily or more-easily be done independently, the group project will not reach it’s potential. Group projects are necessary when the project clearly requires varying perspectives, or when the learning is new or difficult and is made more accessible to learners when done with the assistance of other students. If the reason for the work being done in a group format is not clear, members will be resistant to working together.

Group projects have the potential to enhance learning and make the experience better for everyone involved if done with careful attention to detail. As teachers, it is our responsibility to show students the benefits of getting to work with other learners, so it is our responsibility to attend to the details and create a positive experience for them.

“Working with other people just makes you smart, that’s proven.”
– Lin-Manuel Miranda

What is the purpose of Global Collaboration?

Global Collaboration is becoming a bit of a buzz word in Education, or at least in the EdTech corner of the world. As with any buzz word, it runs the risk of becoming a box educators want to check off as something they have done to keep up with the trends. But what does it really mean? What purpose should it serve in our classrooms?

In her video entitled “Global Narratives Part I”, Julie Lindsey, author of The Global Educator, includes this quote from Al Gore: “We are witnessing the birth of the world’s truly global civilization. Rather than being places where students learn about the world, schools are becoming places where students learn with the world.”

This quote stood out to me because of Gore’s notion that students are learning with the world. Although Global Collaboration, as noted in the Global Connection Taxonomy below, can begin with connections inside the classroom, and can reach as a far as a global student to student connection that is managed by the students themselves.

Global Connection Taxonomy
Lindsay, J., Davis, V. (2012). Flattening classrooms, engaging minds:  Move to global collaboration one step at a time. Chicago: Pearson Publishing.

So if the connection itself does not need to be far reaching, the purpose of the project or task itself somehow needs to represent a global connection. Students need to utilize the project in some way to become more aware of the world around them and the experiences, beliefs, thoughts, and lives of people who are different from them. For example, the Global Read Aloud project allows students to discuss a book with people from across the world that are different from them. They are able to see how someone else might read the same book as them and have different thoughts about it based on their life experiences.

Although working with someone in another class, or another state, or another country on a task that requires students to work on a project together may technically be global collaboration, this type of project does not require students to learn about the experiences and lives of those that are different from them. To me, Global Collaboration would be more useful in a project that requires students to answer a question, such as “What is family?” or “What is adversity?” because this project would allow them to learn about the differences between their lives and the lives of the students that they are working with.

Although any type of collaboration is a good experience for students, it seems worth a second consideration when creating a global collaboration project to make sure that students are truly having a global experience that raises their awareness of the world.

Global Collaboration vs. Curriculum

I come to the idea of Global Collaboration with a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. It’s something I’ve always been interested in but wasn’t able to wrap my head around completely. As my building begins its journey to become an International Baccalaureate school, a program that emphasizes global learning, it’s been on my radar a bit more lately.

Then, my building’s librarian told us about a new website, PenPalSchool, which allowed kids to participate in a project and interact with students around the world. We chose the “World Exploration” project. The kids were thrilled, I was excited to give them an engaging and purposeful way to work on their writing, and it had easy and obvious connections to other content areas.

I quickly realized that this was not a spur of the moment activity if we truly wanted to make use of it.

Once the project started, my kids were put into a group of about 4 other pen pals. For most of these groups, there was one student from another country. Then, each week they were given a topic to focus on: History, Food, Pop Culture, Art and Literature, and Daily Life. Everything sounded like it was going to be a great experience.

The problems arose when I realized there was no way to do this program justice and create the kind of learning that it was capable of when I only have 60 minute class periods and the topics essentially asked for a research project to be completed each week for it to be beneficial. We also discovered inconsistency in how teachers from other schools were expecting their students to use the website.

It has been a somewhat frustrating experience that did not turn out at all how I wanted it to.

Looking, however, at the RWLD, I noticed several ways that I could use Global Collaboration more effectively in the future. The Global Read Aloud, as well as Classroom Bridges, would allow for Global Collaboration projects that would fit better into the existing curriculum that I am expected to follow.

These projects would allow standards and class content to still be taught within the framework of the project. I could focus on standards on writing, or

I look forward to learning more about Global Collaboration and how to fit it into the classroom.

Is this how you game? : An attempt at Gamifying 6th Grade Language Arts

I am not a Gamer. The whole idea of Gamifying the classroom was incredibly difficult for me to conceptualize how it worked. I understood it in theory, and thought it was a great idea, but could not picture how it would work in reality. I especially found this difficult to apply to a 6th grade Language Arts classroom, which is much more subjective than math or science, in terms of linear order and clear answers.

To be honest, I’m still trying to figure it out all the way, but it’s something I’m excited to  learn more about.

Based on reading and the videos I watched from Michael Matera, I realized that I needed to start small. I wanted to focus on one small piece of my classroom. Maria, my partner, and I, talked about options for what would work and ultimately settled on focusing on vocabulary because the very nature of word study allowed it to be Gamified somewhat naturally.  I have vocabulary set up to operate on a 10 day sequence. Day 1, students are introduced to 10 new words. Day 2, students answer prompts related to the words (what is something that might be submerged?, what is an antonym for obscure?) Days 3-5 students work on a variety of vocabulary assignments that help them get to know the words. These assignments are created by the curriculum my district adopted and I just modify them to meet my needs. Days 6-9, students take a short review quiz each day that asks them to match 5 of the words to definitions, or to fill in a blank in a sentence. Students take one of the words they missed on each of those days and complete something I call “vocabulary images”, which requires them to write their own definition of the word, find an image to represent the word, and explain how the image represents the word. On Friday, students have a vocabulary quiz that I have already been leveling based on Depth of Knowledge, or an attempt at them. Level 1 is matching words to their definitions. Level 2 of the test is writing the definition of words. Level 3 is putting words into blanks in sentences, and Level 4 is writing their own sentences.

Vocabulary is something that has proven to dramatically improve students’ reading comprehension. As a 6th grade team, we have chosen to focus on vocabulary because of how big of a different it makes for students. By gamifying this aspect of my classroom, I am hoping that students will take some ownership of their learning and will encourage others on their teams to do well. Vocabulary is one area that students are often not instrinsically motivated to succeed in – other than wanting to get good grades – so gamifying this process may cause students to take more responsibility for this learning.

Because this process is concrete and more objective than other things in Language Arts classrooms, this seemed like a good place to start, but I had no idea where to take it. Based on few things I read, I started by checking out Class Craft and noticed that it was almost perfect for what I wanted to do. It allows for customization for “behaviors” and “health points” which allowed me to tailor it to match our vocabulary work. I wound up with the following rules for XP points, Health Points, and Sentences – which are consequences if a student loses all of their Health Points.

Because we had just taken a test, it was very easy to give students XP points right away. One of my concerns with this process, especially how I’m approaching it, is because able to use it on a regular basis. Without consistency, students won’t have the same buy-in that they will if it’s present almost daily in the classroom. I have already discovered “The Makus Valley” which is a volume meter, and “Boss Battles” which allow for quick whole-class formative assessments, similar to Kahoot but connected to Class Craft. I also did not originally have the behavior of “complete a vocabulary assignment with 80% accuracy” but added this so that I could more frequently award XP points.

I have only been using Class Craft for two days and can already see that it is engaging to students. Students truly enjoy being able to create a character and are excited by the options they will have as they level up to customize their character. I know that it’s the new, shiny toy, so I know their level of interest may dwindle as the year progresses but I am thrilled by the level of excitement students have already.


Curricular goals: Students will require using  mental processing to be ready for college, workforce training, and life in a technological society, students need the ability to gather, comprehend, evaluate, synthesize, and report on information and ideas.
Standards addressed:
ISTE Standards: 2b. Students engage in positive, safe, legal, and ethical behavior when using technology, including social interactions online or when using networked devices
Iowa Core Standards: 21.6-8.TL.6 Essential Concept and/or skill: Understand the underlying structure and application of technology systems.
L.6.6 Acquire and use accurately grade-appropriate general academic and domain-specific words and phrases; gather vocabulary knowledge when considering a word or phrase important to comprehension or expression.

 

Could Language Arts be Gamified?

I’ve never really considered the Gamification of my classroom. I believe that gaming in the classroom would create more student buy in and would result in higher student engagement in their learning. However, I struggling to wrap my head around how it would work in a Language Arts classroom. Learning how to identify Least Common Multiples seems much easier to gamify than identifying the theme of a text, at least in an organic way. It would be easy to assign points if students get it “right”, but identifying theme doesn’t have one right answer.

As I started reading about the idea of “flow”, as explained by psychology Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi I was better able to see my classroom reflected in those ideas. Flow is something we’ve all experienced when we’re doing work that is truly meaningful to us and that we are fully engaged in and challenged by – something that is just difficult enough to keep our attention. I can imagine students in this state when they are reading a book that they are truly invested in, when they’re writing something they really want to write, or when they’re working on a project that they care about. It was interesting, then, to see how so many of the characteristics of Flow overlapped with the characteristics of gaming: immediate feedback, short and long term goals, a balance between what is difficult and what is known or already mastered. Although this connection makes sense and seems obvious, it isn’t something I had ever really taken time to consider.

Then, listening to an Edutopia interview with James Paul Gee really made me begin thinking about the fact for this sort of learning to take place in schools, the entire environment and culture of traditional education will need to change. Especially when he talks about how gaming is essentially assessment, that gives constant feedback, as well as allowing you to retry over and over until you are successful. The idea that textbooks/ manuals only make sense to us and area only useful to us once we have a reference and a need to learn information from them. It’s with this thought that I considered my TAG students first. If they were able to pass / achieve something without being directly taught, why should they have to sit through the instruction? Why should they have to read the manual? The process of a gamifying a class, in theory, could allow for much better individualization of instruction while still requiring all students to show mastery.

As I explored more and more topics about gamification of the classroom, ideas began to form. Could students find the theme of a story and submit it for a certain number of points, and if they weren’t quite right, I could return it to them with feedback in real time instead of doing an activity as a class, having them turn it in, and me have to grade 118 papers to give back to them in an amount of time that matters? Would it be possible for them to submit it, and if they weren’t quite getting it, be sent to a video or text that gives them more information? Or could they go in search of their own videos about the topic? I am definitely finding myself rethinking the ability to incorporate gaming in my classroom, although I’m still not quite sure how to manage it. Seth Priebatsch’s Ted Talk about the layer of gaming in real life especially helped with this, as many of the aspects he discussed are already part of the school environment (Appointment Dynamic – showing up to class or school on time; Influence and status – honor roll, reward cards, grades). I think the idea of gaming in the classroom reimagines the teacher as not being the center of instruction and allows students to take a little more ownership and invest themselves more in their learning, which is incredibly important in preparing them for 21st century learning.

In Paul Anderson’s Ted Talk entitled “Classroom Game Design”, he not only explains how he managed to Gamify his classroom, but also the challenges he faced when doing so. One thing that stuck out to me was his mentioning that some students stalled out when given instruction in this format. I think this is an important thing to consider, as there is a reason that an adult with a teaching degree is in the room. Could students, at some point, be required to meet with the teacher before they were allowed to try a level again? Could another level be meeting up with a peer for explanation?

Anderson’s Ted Talk also got me considering how to group students for certain levels for pieces of the activity. I liked the mention of “passion communities” from James Paul Gee, but do think that in some situations, intentional grouping is necessary to support and enhance learning. How can we group students to make the learning most effective? Should the groups stay the same throughout the entire course?

Although I definitely agree with Paul Anderson about trying to completely overhaul a classroom during the school year, I am excited to look more into the Gamification resources and consider how I could Gamify more of the elements of my classroom both in the next couple of weeks and throughout the semester.

 

My Personal Learning Network

This week, I thought a lot about my Personal Learning Network. Teach Thought describes a Personal Learning Network as “the group of people that you connect with to learn their ideas, their questions, their reflections, and their references.” This definition was helpful to me because it emphasize that a PLN wasn’t always about sharing resources, which is how I was originally thinking of it.

Using this broader idea of PLNs allowed me to consider even more aspects of what constitutes my Personal Learning Network, but I realized as I was making the map that I was taking in many more resources than I was contributing to, and that my PLN was largely limited to Social Media or resource sites.

I think one way that I would like to expand my PLN is to engage in more Professional Communities / Associations that are not directly related to my content area. It can often feel as though I am receiving similar information in different iterations when only engaging in English/Language Arts communities. Although becoming a member of other communities can be expensive, I would like to participate in at least two others. I am considering ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education), AMLE (Association for Middle Level Education), or IBEN (International Baccalaureate Educator Network). I would also like to explore how to be more involved with NCTE at this year’s conference.

I also think, in order to share more in my PLN, I want to make sure that I am regularly posting blogs, as well as tweeting out experiences from within my classroom. I am trying to actively use the #Teach180 hashtag, which involves tweeting out something from the classroom every school day for the 180 days of the year. Additionally, attempting to participate in more Twitter Chats will allow me to connect more with educators outside of my immediate circle, which will help to expand my PLN.

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A Digital Footprint Exploration

Digital Footprints are things we talk to students about constantly.

“Once it’s out there, it’s out there forever” is a phrase I’m sure they’ve heard so much that it has most likely ceased meaning anything to them, but I had never really taken time to consider the Digital Footprint I had created for myself.

My parents have always been involved with technology, and have coached me from a young age to be safe on the internet and to make sure my privacy settings kept my information secure for online accounts. When I became a teacher, this became even more important to me because I wanted to be able to live a life outside of school without constantly worrying if parents, or students, or colleagues would be able to see everything that I posted. When I received the assignment to Google myself for a grad class, I was please to find that nearly all of the results that came up were things I intentionally put out there: My teacher twitter and Instagram accounts, my staff listing on my school’s website, blog posts I wrote for companies (like this one about what teachers need from administration, or this one about being an introvert and a teacher), and a blurb for a book I reviewed on Netgalley. My vigilance for making sure all of the boxes are checked on my private social media accounts so the profiles do not show up in public searches has paid off.

My image search resulted in about the same results, although a picture of Chris Pratt with a stuffed rooster appears for no clear reason, but who’s to complain about that?

image search

The only blip in this is my old MySpace profile, which I have no doubt I had set as private at one point, but have no touched since approximately 2007. Since then, the privacy settings have probably changed and allowed old photos to show up in my search.

Although this is certainly not a significant problem, it is certainly not something I want my students stumbling upon, so I immediately went about deleting the account. How long, though, will those pictures remain in the search? I could not find any definitive answers about this, but am thankful none of the photographs I posted as a high schooler were anything more than slightly embarrassing. I am hoping the Google Alert I set up will help me monitor what else shows up without my intending it to.

I then took actions to intentionally expand my Digital Footprint, starting with About.me. Creating my About.Me page was a bit more challenging. I couldn’t decide what exactly I wanted to put in my bio, so I stuck with the site-generated information for now, and plan to do some research and continue working on it. I have added my About.Me page to my professional Twitter, and Instagram, as well as to the bio on this blog. I was also able to purchase my domain, TediSwanson.com from GoDaddy. Although I don’t know what I’ll do with this website, the possibility of a professional portfolio is intriguing to me.

The third action I took involved book reviews. Being involved in the book world is always something I’ve been interested in and I consistently use Goodreads, but Goodreads is a somewhat isolated world. This time, I copied the same review onto Amazon, a much more public market.

I think the important thing about this activity is that it made me think about actively creating the narrative that my Digital Footprint tells about me. I have been good about being a gatekeeper for my passive footprint, but have never truly considered creating and shaping what is available, beyond creating professional profiles. I think with students it is important for us to talk to them about this active footprint. It’s already frequently discussed that the persona created in public profiles is cultivated, but it is important to talk to students about the kind of persona they are projecting rather than using scare tactics or attempting to make them paranoid.

This summer, during a district sponsored professional development, I had the opportunity of attending a session with Rosalind Wiseman, who has a degree in Political Science but whose career is understanding adolescent social issues and teacher others about them. The session was about social media and started with an activity that asked us to look at our last 10 posts on the social media outlet of our choice, what that said about us, and if that was what we wanted said about us. I think an expanded version of this with students, potentially starting with made up profiles before asking them analyze their own posts, would be a great way to start talking to kids about how to cultivate a Digital Footprint that takes responsibility for what they are presenting about themselves. Helping students create an active Digital Footprint instead of merely telling them what not to do online honors the reality of technology in the 21st century.