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  Workshop 7: Controversial Public Policy Issues  
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Workshop 7

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Teacher Perspectives: Group-learning strategies

JoEllen Ambrose: When I choose groups of students, I try to take a varied approach. When I don’t know the students very well, I’m comfortable numbering them off and putting them in groups of kids that they don’t know. As I get to know students, and depending on the nature of the topic, I like to have some control over those group decisions because I think I’ll get a better product. So I plan different ways of picking groups, depending on the activity.

I find that, especially with seniors, I get more out of them when they’re allowed to choose their groups because they’ve known each other for a long time. They have a high comfort level, and they’re not interested in me pushing them in a direction they don’t want to go in unless I have a real good reason why they need to work with other people. In a younger class, I will take a lot of care in making sure that even if they have different opinions or they don’t know each other, they can build that group process and class environment that I want them to have.

In organizing [this] lesson, I ask students to choose [partners] that they’re comfortable working with because that brings out, I think, the best in them. It can also create a situation where they are off-task, so it’s a two-edged sword. I think the structure really gives them a focus so they don’t get too far off the path.

[In] the group work, there’s a lot of accountability. When they see me moving around and listening, I think it brings them quickly back to the topic at hand. I have played around with different formal ways of evaluating group participation, and for the purpose of this activity, I didn’t want to add that. I want them to dive into the topic more than doing different identifiable roles. For example, some small-group activities will allow students to choose a role, [e.g.,] recorder, convener, question person. Because the nature of the activity was debate, it was pretty clear what [the] product would be, so I just let them have that informal relationship.

In choosing what groups of four that they would work with, basically, I did a real teacher-like procedural thing. I put their names on three-by-five cards, and then I looked at [the] partners. Knowing a little bit about the students and the perspective they bring into the classroom, I thought it would be fun to match them up with a pair that maybe was very opposing. I didn’t put a lot of thinking into some of them, and I put a lot of thinking into others.

High school [students] come to the classroom with a lot of experience in group work through their English [and] speech communication class so it’s a component of what I do, but it’s kind of easy. You can say, “Remember small-group discussions you’ve had where you take on a role? In this activity, I want the timekeeper, I want the discussion person,” and they have a sense of what that’s about.


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