Creating groups for all the projects that we do as a class is something I spend a lot of time on…more than I should, maybe. Sometimes I feel that I’m engaged in a really tense game of chess as I move around students and try to figure out the consequences of each dynamic: will S. finally be able to work with Y.? Will J. be able to quell his need to be in charge so that K. can be more of a leader this time, since her ideas are often better anyway? Are T. and L. still feuding? They did sit together at lunch this week, after all. So it goes. Middle school life being what it is, kids who were the best of friends in the morning may very well hate each other’s guts by the afternoon- so all the planning in the world cannot fully take into account the volatility and utter unpredictability of middle school.
But still, I try.
I try to mix abilities, I try to mix personality types, and I always mix boys and girls. Always. As the mother of two girls, I firmly believe that boys and girls need to work together to sort out projects, problems, issues – that’ the way life works. Right? Well, not always. Both my daughters complained about the guys in their group learning efforts at school: they fooled around, they never did their work, they would even lie to their teachers about the work they did, and (worst of all) take credit for for work they didn’t do. To be sure, there were exceptions to all this, but these were few and far between. And, interestingly, this was mostly a middle school thing. By high school and AP classes, things had improved. As for my son, he was mostly silent about such things (as middle school boys often are) and I never really had a complete picture of his middle school project experience.
So, I form my groups based on what I observed both at home and at school. And I have all my kids fill out a co-operative learning rubric at the end of every project, so that I can have a glimpse into what really happened as each group worked on their projects. For the most part, this keeps them honest. This year, though, I have a class that has defied all grouping rules and plans: a big group of rather impulsive and immature boys, and a small group of mature, gifted girls. It has been an interesting journey so far. The girls have struggled to keep their game faces on – “Sure, Mrs. Smith, I’ll work with J. and Z.” they say, but I can tell from the edge in their voices, the grim set of their mouths, the slump of their shoulders that what they are really thinking is: “OH, NO!!!! NOT AGAIN!!!! WHY MEEEE???!!”
Last week, as we approached the midpoint of our school year, I changed seats. This time, and for this class, I went through my usual chess game with the boys, but decided to seat the girls together. The looks on their faces as they walked in to class was priceless – huge smiles. “We are free!” one of them exclaimed. Interesting. The boys looked chastened. Intrigued. “Is that fair?” they asked. “Is that even allowed?” they wondered. And then I watched as each table group began working on their Lewis and Clark map projects. The girls commandeered the best cushions and the best spot on the rug to work. They looked for and assembled their research materials quickly and then set to work. They were louder than I’d ever known them to be, laughing and talking and enjoying the experience. They took the best markers and rulers, and kept them. They got a bit goofy from time to time, but worked as efficiently as always. The boys watched in awe. They turned in their project first, pinning it to the board with a great flourish. “Wow – that looks awesome,” one of the guys said, as they collected around to admire the work.
The girls were now free to find the best reading spots. The boys quietly got back to work. Whenever someone drifted off-task, they would be reminded to get back to work. Whenever someone was tempted to cut corners and just “get it done”, a team member would point to the girls’ project – the bar had already been set, and it was high. At the end of the day, changing the groups seemed to free the girls in this particular classroom…and it also has had some positive effects on the boys. I’m still figuring out what lessons I can learn as their teacher, but it’s been an interesting experiment.