Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Apr 30 2012

Ideas for Group Work (NCTM Takeaway 2)

By popular demand (and because I need somewhere to organize this for myself), I’m going to put up a series of posts about what I learned at the NCTM conference. If you’re a math teacher, I hope this is as valuable for you as it is for me!

(If you’re not a math teacher, I promise I’ll include “NCTM Takeaway” in all the titles so you’re warned in advance. These are posts you definitely don’t have to be reading. I also promise I’ll return to regular posts soon enough.)


Below are some new ideas to spice up group work and help keep kids actually on task and learning. These come from Juliana Rohrlack and Liz Gates (you can find Liz’s blog, which includes more details on this, here.)


Ideas for Group Roles

*Surveyor – Makes sure all students’ papers are the same as they work (I like this so much better than “recorder”… this seems like everyone would have to stay on task more.)

*Interrogator - Makes sure all students can explain all parts of the group’s work. (As you practice this, the kids should eventually get a good idea of the types of questions you’ll ask, and start parroting those to make sure the group will be ready for them.)

*Directions Checker - Makes sure the directions are written down and being followed. (I bet this could also be extended in problem solving to making sure that the right question is being answered.)

*Peace Keeper - Settles mathematical disagreements (could they settle personal ones, too?)

*Spy - When group is stuck, they can go look at other group’s papers to get ideas. (This doesn’t have to be it’s own job… someone could have this as a second job)

*Huddler - Meets with teacher to gather information to share with group (This could be a great job in problem solving if you are willing to give hints as groups get stuck)


Change roles as often as possible (daily is best) so that kids don’t get accustomed to them. Also, assign them randomly (by height, by having everyone in the group pick a color, by seat placement, etc.) so that kids can’t always claim their favorite jobs.


Ensuring Good Group Work

*Have a small token (marble, paper clip, etc.) that you can give groups every time you see them doing something good. I especially like the idea of specifically recognizing correct performance of group roles. Make sure to precisely explain what the group did to earn the token. Have periodic rewards (group picture with a special trophy to hang on the wall, fun pencils, donut breakfast, participation grades) for group with most tokens.

*To make sure all team members are fully participating, take all papers and shuffle them when the group is done. Randomly select a paper, and then randomly pick a kid to explain part of it. If they can’t explain it well (and hold up under good questioning), then send the group back to keep working and make sure everyone understands. Frame your response as, “I’m sorry your group let you down and didn’t make sure everyone was properly prepared. Take a minute to get back together and make sure you’re all on the same page” so that it’s a group failure, not an individual student failure.

*The more you get involved in group problems/questions, the less your groups will function. Be a broken record and ask, “Have you asked your group yet?” every time a kid tries to get your help.


Good Group Work Activities

*Prepare an activity with group roles in mind, especially at the beginning.

*Have groups for things that involve multiple solutions or that promote discussion and debate. (If your groups come up with a variety of answers, put them all up on the board and let kids “Defend or Destroy” any answer, even their own, that they see up there.)

*They shared a great idea for something called Silent Conversations (hello, dream classroom!) but Liz has done a phenomenal job of explaining it on her blog already and I can’t compete. Check it out here.

3 Responses

  1. Cal

    Oh, lord. The “roles” are such garbage. So faked. Why do people find them even remotely appealing?

  2. I love those group roles! They’re kind of cheesy, of course, but I think my 7th graders could really get into them. Right now my kids are getting really sick of group work and producing really poor-quality work.

  3. mathinaz

    My kids LOVE the roles. We tried it yesterday and today in groups of 4, using Surveyor, Interrogator, Directions/Question Checker, and Huddler/Spy.

    The “Spy” is allowed to go glance at other papers when the group is stuck, but other teams don’t have to make their papers available to them. It turns Spying into a really exciting sneak-attack on other teams, which adds a huge element of fun and excitement to the whole thing.

    I’m giving out a lot of tokens for good performance of roles, and I was pretty harsh on the first groups to try to turn things in when all the papers didn’t match or when someone couldn’t explain any part of their team’s work to me. Now they are performing their roles really well, and my groups are working more collaboratively than I have ever seen. They might sound contrived if you don’t teach middle school, but my kids are so excited about these new groups and so am I!

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