Practical Theory - The Origin
The Scholars in CyberEnglish
ToDaY's MeNu - Ted

Monday, May 5, 2008


I started my teaching career in a small private school. I had a total of 32 students in 4 classes. No class had more than ten students, and the headmaster apologized for that one class of ten students. For compensation, I had a class of four students. Imagine my surprise when I moved to New York City ten years later to teach in a NYC public school. I had five classes of 32 students each. I was overwhelmed. I needed to find a way to involve all of my students in every class, all class long. This was going to be a challenge. My supervisor provided me some literature on group work. I spent a weekend reading the book and journal articles she gave me.

Monday morning, I decided to divide each of my classes into groups. I had already organized the class in the typical alphabetical method into rows. My seating chart, a Delaney book, reflected organization for me, so I could remember names. Alphabetical was easiest for attendance purposes. It wasn't an efficient class, but it was organized. The easiest method of dividing them into six groups of about five students each would be spatial. I would select five students in close proximity so putting the groups together and reassembling the desks for the next class would be easy. Notice the word easy is the optimum word so far. Pedagogy has not come into play yet. Making my classes manageable was my prime directive.

After doing some reading on group work, I understood why I wanted groups. Group work will provide a better learning experience for the scholars. In group work, they can draw on each other's knowledge and perspective, share different strengths, do peer review, be responsible to others, keep on task, and model working styles outside school. In group work I knew they would socialize, negotiate, collaborate, problem solve, develop a thesis or argument, be actively involved in their own learning.

So Monday, I put them in groups and explained to each class how this group method will work. I told them there would be a recorder who will report to the class and all the others are worker bees. I assigned different parts of the homework for each group to do and then they would report back to the class at the end. I hoped by using the homework, I could demonstrate how group work would work. This was how I wanted them to get used to group work. Share work done for homework as individuals, share in the group, and then come to a consensus about what was to be reported.However, I wasn't happy with how this was going. They weren't working together well. There were too many squabbles, too many disagreements, and too much time spent on negotiating. The groups just weren't working. After about two weeks of this disaster, I was about to give up.

Then it happened, the gods were looking down on me. It just so happened we were studying Greek and Roman mythology. I was sitting at my desk preparing for the day. A student walked in who was reading the paper. Another student from the same group walked in.

-- What are you doing, she asked.
--Reading my horoscope, he replied.
--Oh, tell me mine.
--What is your sign?
--Aquarius, she replied.
--Oh cool, so am I, he exclaimed.
A third member of that same group came over and inquired about what they were doing.
--Oh tell me mine the third member asked.
--What is your sign, the boy asked the third member.
--Wow, said the girl, no wonder we don't get along in group, we aren't compatible.

I stopped what I was doing and reflected on what I had just heard. This young lady had just solved my problem. I scrapped what I was doing and ran down to the library to get a book on horoscopes and to find what the signs were, when they were, and to which element they belonged. I put the elements on the board and listed the signs below each element. So, for example if a student was a Scorpio, s/he belonged to the Water group and so did Pisces and Cancer.I had the scholars write on their Delaney cards, our attendance method in NYC, their element. I rearranged the scholars into their new groups of Fire, Earth, Air, and Water, based on their astrological signs.

In the next couple of weeks, I found the groups were working without my intervention. Why this was working made no sense to me, but it did. Maybe because the scholars and most people hold some belief about astrology. They willed it to work. Perhaps there is something about the stars after all. At any rate, from that point on, I have always set my class seating according to the stars. I have explained it to some classes and not to others to see if it was bogus or not. In all cases, the scholars worked well and have helped each other in their groups. I found it very useful when I moved into a computer classroom, because I found this compatibility allowed for easier cooperation and assisting of each other as we were learning new things on a computer. I couldn't be everywhere and students had to help each other. This grouping seemed to have some benefits to it. By grouping the scholars by their elements, I believe that force helped them become more efficient group workers.

I had found my groups. I got them working. In the next few days, I will discuss some protocols that I have used that are useful in working with groups as well as some other ways in which group work can be useful.

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