Spartans learn from a young age the importance of working together. Woven throughout these interactions: navigating challenges, finding common ground, and learning to collaborate.
This year, Middle School Social Studies Teacher Craig Redmond-Cilley has been exploring ways to reduce some of the frustrations that inevitably pop up when students work together. Recalling a project that he worked on with students last year, Mr. Redmond-Cilley explained, “The project was a hit, but there were plenty of frustrations because students had to make decisions as a group and collaborate in ways they had never done before.” As Mr. Redmond-Cilley approached the same unit this year, he pondered how to reduce the frustrations his previous classes had encountered.
“I realized that my students had not had any practice making decisions as an entire class,” said Mr. Redmond-Cilley, who decided to expand on the concept of student-centered learning. “The students decided as a whole class what order to do the work in and how to best complete each task,” he explained. “If they decided to split into groups, they determined group sizes and appointed tasks.” Mr. Redmond-Cilley’s role was to make sure students were making choices that upheld the three standards that he set: all students must turn in a fully completed copy of the work for the day; all work must be high quality; and every student must contribute meaningfully during class.”
Mr. Redmond-Cilley has found that, under these new guidelines, students generally select a leader or leaders to facilitate decision-making. The leaders then check in among the groups and adjust pacing as needed. When tasks are complete, each smaller group instructs the others on how to complete the section they have mastered. “That way, students become ‘experts’ on that portion of the classwork and teach it to their classmates so that everyone has fully completed work by the end of the period,” he said. Gradually, Mr. Redmond-Cilley has felt his role become more observational as students take more responsibility.
“I watch students interact and record notes about positive group dynamics, frustrations, and areas of growth,” he said. “If a major frustration arises, or students aren’t meeting one of my three expectations, I pause them for in-the-moment problem-solving. They are responsible for brainstorming solutions.”
At the start of each subsequent class, students celebrate what they have done well and problem-solve growth areas. “During the initial days, I had to pause students regularly to point out negative behaviors and prompt them to find a solution,” said Mr. Redmond-Cilley, “and then I saw a big shift. They began to notice when struggles were occurring and stop themselves to find a solution. Students started saying things like, ‘You already had a chance to share multiple answers; why don’t we let someone else go?’ or ‘I think we need to add more details to our work for it to be good quality.’ As they felt more successful as a group, they encouraged each other and made sure everyone was included.”
Mr. Redmond-Cilley is excited about his students’ commitment to the collaborative process. “Seeing them hold each other accountable has been so powerful!” he said.
“My biggest hope is that they will take the collaboration skills that they have learned into other group dynamics and interactions. It’s important to me that they start practicing these skills now.”