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Ideas and Features For New Teachers and Veterans with Class

Volume 1, Issue 10

June 2005



Group Work in Class, part 1

By Mark Benn and Frank Holes, Jr. 

This is the first in a series on using collaborative groups in class.  

The business world tells us that they want people who are good at collaboration. Being that our job is to prepare the students for the future, this skill should become part of what we teach in the classroom.

Planning and preparation are key to getting your groups underway.  The first thing to do as you prepare to use group work as part of the learning process is to setup your groups. Never allow the students to set up the groups; you are only inviting disaster. There are many ways to set up groups. I like to spread the abilities out among the groups. The smartest student isn’t always the one who can lead the group through to a conclusion. I also like to mix boys and girls up in the groups. They tackle problems from different ways, so it enhances the learning taking place. Also, change the groups after every section, so they learn to work with different people. This makes it a more real world experience.

"The smartest student isn’t always the one who can lead the group through to a conclusion." Size of the group is another part of the equation. A lot depends on the lesson being used. Two person groups are fine for a short term group that lasts one day. If you are

going to have it go longer, the group should be at least three to four students. The reason for this is the fact that what is the group going to do if the next day one of the students isn’t there? With three or four students you will at least have a group of two or three to continue on if someone is missing.

As you begin the groups, realize the students may not know how to work in a group. This is something that we as teachers shouldn’t take for granted. Talk about using listening skills, the fact that only one person is speaking at a time. Explain that arguing doesn’t solve anything. They must learn, when there are differences of opinion, to share why they feel the way they do and support it with reasons. We also talk about the importance that everyone be a participant in the group process. Another thing I tell the groups is that they are not to ask me, the teacher, a question until they’ve talked about it in the group. If the group can’t answer the question, then I will gladly help them out as a group. This fosters dependence on their group.

Focus is the most important part of using groups as a tool for learning. If you as a teacher don’t provide a structure within the lesson, you will lose the students.  "As you begin the groups, realize the students may not know how to work in a group."

I like to call this the “Driving Question”. This is what they are to be focusing on as they work together. Decide what you want them to learn, set the goals, and then communicate to the students your expectations.

In conclusion, from observation and research that collaboration (group work) when used properly can be an excellent learning tool. I hope you will find using this learning tool as stimulating and rewarding as I have, both for the students and yourself.

The second part of this article will detail more of the 'nuts & bolts' of getting your groups underway, and describe a few example projects you can use in class.


Journal Writing, part 1

By Frank Holes, Jr

Middle School English Teacher

This is the first in a series on developing Journal Writing in your classroom, a writing technique that is applicable to any grade and any subject area.

We use the journal writing style for several applications in class.  The number one goal of mine is to provide students with a place to record their thoughts and to reflect on their lives.  I also advocate writing activities that can (and should) be done on a daily basis.  I really believe students need to write a lot and often; they become better writers with a lot of practice.  You can't expect students to be good at writing if they only write a few times each month or marking period.  But I also don't believe students need to formally write essays each time either.  Journaling is one way to break up the monotony of the formal style.

Creating journals is a very easy and fun activity that gives the students ownership of the journal. Pass out ten or so pieces of regular lined paper to each student.   I always keep a basket of lined paper at the front and back of my room anyway, so students can add pages to their journal at any time they need.  Then pass out colored construction paper for the front and back covers.  Each student receives three fasteners to hold it all together.  A suggestion is to NOT punch holes in the covers, as the fastener heads sometimes slip through, and the journals can fall apart.  I allow the students to decorate their covers with anything, as long as it's tasteful and appropriate for school.

Students must be given the freedom of choosing their own topics if they wish.  However, I always provide a topic for the students to use if they are unable to generate their own ideas.  Students are allowed to use my topic, or to change any part of it.  I'll share a few of my classroom journal topics in the follow up to this article.  Any idea can be changed into a journal topic - I usually add a few guiding questions for students to consider when making their responses. 

Some students also enjoy writing on the same topic for more than one writing session.  I even have some students who are writing stories, and complete chapters or stanzas during class time.  They may take a break once in a while and write on a different topic, but they usually end up back at their story.

Students are not allowed to stop and think for more than a few seconds - this is a writing activity, not a stopping and thinking activity.  And their grade is based on the amount they write, not the amount they think. "I really believe students need to write a lot and often; they become better writers with a lot of practice."

So what are the rules for a journal write?  Basically you get to decide!  Just keep them consistent and students will know what you expect within the first few writes.  In my class, students are allowed to choose the genre, such as poetry, drama, or prose.  They are encouraged to try out different styles.

Since the journaling is actually a form of active brainstorming, I don't worry about complete sentences, spelling, or mistakes in grammar or mechanics.   These are the guidelines we use, but you can feel free to adjust them to suit your class and needs.


In the follow up article, I will explain the easy grading system that is set up to MINIMIZE the amount of teacher work.  This stress-free system allows your students to write more and write often, without the massive paper stack for you to grade at home.  I'll also provide some of my sample topics to get you started.


"Twenty Dollars"

Themes on Life

A Short Course in Human Relations

A well known speaker started off his seminar by holding up a $20 bill. In the room of 200, he asked. "Who would like this $20 bill?"

Hands started going up. He said, "I am going to give this $20 to one of you - but first, let me do this." 

He proceeded to crumple the 20 dollar note up. He then asked. "Who still wants it?" Still the hands were up in the air.

"Well," he replied, "what if I do this?" He dropped it on the
ground and started to grind it into the floor with his shoe. He picked it up, now crumpled and dirty. "Now, who still wants it?"

Still the hands went into the air.

"My friends, you have all learned a very valuable lesson. No
matter what I did to the money, you still wanted it because it did not decrease in value. It was still worth $20.

Many times in our lives, we are dropped, crumpled, and ground into the dirt by the decisions we make and the circumstances that come our way. We feel as though we are worthless; but no matter what happened or what will happen, you will never lose your value. 

Dirty or clean, crumpled or finely creased, you are still
priceless to those who love you. The worth of our lives comes, not in what we do or who we know, but by ...WHO WE ARE.

You are special - don't ever forget it."

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In This Week's Issue 

(Click the Quick Links below):

Group Work in Class, part 1

Journal Writing, part 1

Themes on Life:  $20

10 Days of Writing Prompts

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Coming Soon:

Job Finding Part 3

Technology & Teaching: Setting up for Handhelds

Group Work Part 2

Building Positive Relationships

Journal Writing Part 2

Keeping Busy in the Summer

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