Groups- Help Please!

I have made some major changes in the way that I teach this year.  I had previously been a students-in-rows, me-doing-notes-on-the-board, students-copying-them-down, then-you-practice-on-your-own type of girl.  It worked for me.  I don’t think I was a horrible teacher doing this.  We did group work once or twice a week, and it always felt a little chaotic, and I’m not a fan of chaos.  Last year, I was ready for a change.  In my 6th year of teaching, I had planning down, management down, assessment down… things were in no way perfect, I was always looking to improve and tweek and make things the best they could be.  I learned about foldables and started spicing up my notes.  I slowly moved to a notebook system.  It was a great change and I knew I was on the right track.  Then came the summer that I think will shape the entire rest of my teaching career.  I found the math twitterblogosphere and joined the new blogger initative.  I will never go back.  I have learned and grown professionally more in the past few months than the entire 6 years before that.  I do think I needed the first 6 years though in order to be ready to accept and embrace all of this.

So to get to the point, I think this year is going so well because I am doing the best teaching that I have ever done.  I have moved the kids to groups.  I was terrified, but there are so many great things about this.  I now incorporate collaboration and working together into everything that I do.  I encourage talking and interacting with the material.  I am obsessed with sorting activities where the kids have to move the pieces around and figure out how things fit together and actually WORK instead of mindlessly copying things down and spitting them back out. But I have a problem and I am hoping the people out there in the blog world can help me with it.

How can I get the kids to stay on task and work at a reasonable pace??

Everything is taking FOREVER to do.  The cutting of pieces, the gluing in, the off-task talking and then every so often putting a piece down.

Week 1: I gave the kids the expectations for group work, talked about why I want them in groups, talked about the alternative, everyone agreed that groups are awesome.  Then group activity #1- they get started immediately, I am walking around, listening to the amazing things they are saying.  When the activity is over, I give them a whole class point (blogged about here) on our hundreds chart.  I point out the awesome things, we are feeling great!

Week 2: Continue to feel great, point out those great things, continue to give points to the whole group, and now start table points as well as giving out red tickets to individuals doing awesome.  (These tickets are turned in to a bucket and I draw names for prizes at the end of the week.) 

Week 3:  WHAT HAPPENED?????  Kids came in Monday and they are different kids.  This is my 7th year, I understand that this is normal for the honeymoon to be over and the behavior to change.  I get that.  So I continue to remind them about how great groups are, why we love them, what the alternative is, continue to give team points.  Except now I have one or two teams that have ridiculous amounts of points and the rest of the teams are still there ho-humming along.  The problem is that they aren’t doing anything that is necessarily wrong or anything I could give a consequence for.  When I say, “I need you to stay on task”, the response is always, “But I’m working, see!”  And they are… mostly.  They just aren’t seeing the importance of getting things done at a faster pace with a little more focus.  So I tell them they have to get it done at home then.  Some do, some don’t.  So I say, but if you finish early, then you can start on your homework, (and this is what I really want to happen, because I WANT them to talk about their homework and practice together), this motivates some, but doesn’t really make a huge impact.

If you have managed to stick with my problem so far, I thank you!

So anyone out there with awesome ideas for motivation?  I have thought about a prize for the first group who has all correct answers, but understand that some kids work slower but they are really on task and working hard and I don’t want to punish them.  I have thought about putting 3 mini post its on each desk, and I would take away an individual’s post it each time they are off task, then giving a reward to those students who can keep all 3, but I can’t perfect this idea the right way.  I was thinking about offering a string of my red ticket rewards to the whole group and however many they have left at the end of the hour, they can keep… but again, I can’t seem to make this into a realistic workable idea.  So what do YOU do to keep things moving and focused and can you please share it with me tonight so I can start it tomorrow morning, please?

4 thoughts on “Groups- Help Please!

  1. I feel your pain. Working in groups can be so awesome and so frustrating at the same time. I’ve tried several different things to help keep students motivated and on-task. What works with one class doesn’t work with another, so it will take trial and error to see what’s best for each class.

    1. I give team points. Groups earn 2 points if every member has the homework completed when it’s due, 1 point for working well during class time, etc. (You could assign 5 or 10 specific problems that you want them to complete in a specific time period. Use a timer to help them keep track of time. Award points to teams in which all members have them complete)

    The bulk of the points come from tests/quizzes. After each quiz or test, I have each group calculate their mean and median scores and determine which one they want to use for their team points (for 2 reasons: first, it’s a content standard for Algebra I in my state that students determine which measure of central tendency best describes the data and which should you choose if you are making an argument and second, it doesn’t penalize a group that has that student that fails every assessment). The beneft is that groups realize the long term effect of every member of the group understanding all of the content…it leads to more points when everyone does homework and when everyone does well on the assessments. After each major assessment, I award a prize to the team with the most points (soda, bag o’candy). Then we switch teams. If you have large classes, split the teams into two “divisions” so you have two team winners.

    2. Carefully select your groups. If you have several “slackers,” split them up among the groups. Hopefully peer pressure from your hard workers will influence them to pick up the pace.

    3. Students who aren’t productive members of the group (i.e. they just sit there) get “voted off the island.” They sit in the back of the room at a desk all by themselves for a few days until they prove they can stay on task. Most of the time, kids don’t stay there for more than 2 or 3 days.

    4. A phone call home works wonders. I call the parents and tell them why I use the group structure, how important communication is, and why it is important for every group member to contribute. I ask for their help in communicating this to their child.

    Good luck! I’m anxious to read what others say about this topic. It’s a tough one.

    • Wow. Thank you so much for your detailed and thoughtful response. These ideas are exactly what I am looking for! Yet another reason why I am in love with my new found community of teacher friends. I am going to read this over again and work on bringing some (or all) of these ideas into what I am doing now. I really appreciate it!

  2. 1) How many of your kids really learned/worked/got it in rows? Probably about the same. Only now you can’t hide behind, “Well, I taught, ’em they just didn’t learn.” And it sucks. It sucks for you and it sucks for me.
    2) And then I went and read Daniel Pink’s book “Drive.” And you know what I found out? We can’t do anything about it. If it takes this long, this is how long it takes. The little beasts take 3 weeks to finish a project with excel and word because nobody ever really taught them before and expected them to use it. Nobody ever asked them to think before, and they don’t really know how to. So now you are teaching how to think, too.
    I gave mine a list at the beginning of the year – you must have accomplished this much by the end of October. I have them sending stuff in as email attachments, so it doesn’t get lost. Also, kids can turn things in and make corrections without their peers seeing – good in a “we hate school” environment. On Friday our website was inaccessible, and most of the kids made the right choice and worked on another of our requirements. Not all, but I’m used to 30% at D- or above in traditional classes, so most kids being spontaneously on task is awesome for me.
    It’s so hard to give choices and then find that the students choose something else. It’s so hard to “let them fail.” But this is the safe place to learn that you can’t goof off and still complete the work.
    Did I mention that it sucks?

  3. Hey Courtney,
    I love group work and kids are in groups ALL THE TIME in my class. I think you get a sense of it from my #180blog at

    I want to make sure you take a deep breath and know that there’ll be days like this. It’s almost like you want to ask these “strange” kids, “Hey, who are you guys? What did you do with the great group of kids I had on Friday?”

    I rarely talk about the points (if any) of an assignment at the start of it simply because I don’t even think of grading it. Unless it’s a bigger project where I have a rubric to go with it, then points are discussed.

    My first reaction, Courtney, is the activity itself. We want kids to be engaged and STAY engaged and I think this must come from the activity itself. Maybe it was a good lesson that simply fizzled because too much time had already been spent on it. Timing is very important. For example, math games like jeopardy, bingo, and block (tic-tac-toe) are all fun, but each one has a critical time threshold that we need to gauge and we do this from the “noise” in the classroom. Is it productive noise is just social chatter?

    Just last week I had to extend a group activity an extra two periods because the kids were truly having great discussions. I bounced all over the room to listen in and most (if not all) were just busy trying to do the work. Of course this doesn’t always happen, and that’s when I intervene and say, “You have 5 more minutes to be with your group.”

    “Except now I have one or two teams that have ridiculous amounts of points… ” I’m afraid this puts the focus on points rather than on learning. I WAS so guilty of this!! But right before I read your post, I was at Andrew’s post , so like Andrew, I think points suck! I know his post was about assessments via SBG, but the less we focus on points and make it more about our crazy love for learning and mathematics, I think it’s a win-win (or nguyen-nguyen 🙂

    But with all my mumbling, Courtney, I think you’re doing a GREAT job because you just blogged about this not-so-great day and you’re asking for feedback! We grow when we share our frustrations and know that others feel the same way.

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