Ellen Adolph is a “Teacher With Habitudes.” Ellen Adolph teaches third grade at Woodward Academy, a school that values all Habitudes! She finds it rewarding to watch students learn life skills such as independence and responsibility. These lessons require self-awareness, perseverance, and adaptability sprinkled liberally with curiosity and imagination. She and her students travel a journey together as thinkers, problem solvers, and life-long learners.
Who doesn’t love third graders? They are the genuine article when it comes to learning, and I hoped to make our classroom the perfect playground for collaborative skills. Collaborative learning has always been part of many projects in my room. Previous years’ experience has shown that group tasks improve with every project, and our most successful collaborations didn’t usually take place until winter-spring. I was hopeful that with a new focus and lots of practice, we could build some momentum earlier in the calendar. So many life skills and Habitudes are the framework for successful group work.
The first step would be to first establish our classroom climate via class rules. The first week of school we spent time three, 45-minute periods at our class “Think Tank.” This is a meeting area where we use giant tablets, clipboards, and sticky-notes to meet and think “aloud.” Students brainstormed and created their rules, and we modeled “what these rules would look and sound like.” It would be important to use an important lesson learned from Debbie Miller and Angela Maiers: the need to model the obvious. The kids had great fun modeling good and bad examples of listening or being considerate of classmates, and those activities were important to establishing class boundaries. We spent lots of time modeling different classroom skills and routines that would be important to successful group work. We were on our way as one large group to begin working in smaller groups with some very specific tasks.
Many lessons lend themselves easily to working in groups. Whether it’s sorting spelling words to rules or using manipulatives in math, there are often opportunities to practice collaboration. I provide ample time for questions so students are clear on the project at hand, and I use a giant Smart Board timer reminding children of time left in a task. We distinguish daily seat assignments from our “5 groups” or “3 groups” which yield improved productivity. The first half of the year, groups are purposefully organized to provide a balance of weak and strong, girl and boy. Our first group experiences provided successes and pitfalls, and we discuss examples of both. Time is never enough as group activities take longer than more traditional instruction. After these first activities, I know the children are ready to grow with some more challenging collaborations.
Using the children’s group learning experiences to date, (week 8) we met at the Think Tank to reflect on our group work. I asked them, “Why do we work in groups,” and their answers reflect some astute points for third graders. Answers include, “it’s important to learn to cooperate and work with others,” “we learn about new friends,” and “to get excited about something new.” One child made a connection to the fact that, “Our parents are in meetings at work all the time. That’s how adults discuss work.” My favorite answer was, “You cooperate with each other and use teamwork. And when you appreciate each other you work harder.” Wow.
Next, we talk about what successful group work looked like and sounded like. The kids began pouring out observations. The trending answers used the words talking and listening. Another important category was fairness. This included how groups decided who did what task or deciding on a path for the solution to a problem. Even if the children weren’t 100% successful at a collaborative task, they knew most steps to getting there.
Over the next weeks, using our novel Ramona Quimby, Age 8, the children practiced more challenging collaborative learning tasks. With our focus on developing stronger sequencing skills, the children worked in “5 groups” to sequence several chapters of the book. The first assignments were choppy with some disgruntlement about roles, but the sequencing was great. By the time we finished the book, they were pros. Our culminating activity for the novel was a literature circle. In their “3 groups,” the children answered very open ended questions based on the novel. They were encouraged to present their answers using any creative format. They were efficient with deciding what they would do and collecting materials to start. Every group had a detailed plan, and four of the six groups decided on a script to help them be more organized. They were doing great!
The day of their presentations, I was so proud of their efforts. The class was engaged and attentive to their classmates’ work. Four of the five groups hit a home-run with their presentations. (The previous planning day, despite redirection about not being “on task,” one group had decided to change their presentation, but all did not agree. One student worked, one pouted, and the third was just being silly. They learned important lessons about making group decisions and about trying to work together to solve a problem.) I could not have been more pleased with the thoroughly done work on a challenging task so early in the year.
So, where are the Habitudes in all this? Several Habitudes are the foundation skills for these collaborative tasks. With all our tasks, flexibility and adaptability are key pieces that third graders practice all year long. With the literature circle tasks, we saw curiosity and imagination. One group wanted to be a “living” advice letter to Ramona and asked to see how an envelope is folded so they could make a giant one as a costume. Excitement and passion are evident in the lengths the children went to show how much they understood Ramona and her problems. Courage was evident in accepting what your group decides even if you’re not completely in agreement. Courage was very evident with one child taking a huge step and donning a costume he was not comfortable about wearing. This child got over his hesitation and wore the envelope for his classmates. That’s live courage!
I am so excited about the progress my class has shown in only 10 weeks of school. I am even more excited about the life-long Habitudes my third graders are learning!