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September 1, 2018
Vol. 76
No. 1

Inventories, Confessionals, and Contracts: Strategies for Effective Group Work

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Classroom Management
The group-work format often goes against the grain of how students expect to be assessed. Instead of a test, quiz, or paper—something completed in isolation, with clear individual accountability—group work requires students to not just work with, but truly collaborate with their peers to respond to an assignment. Ideally, the group work does not encourage a set of individual contributions that are identical or a final work that could have been done by each student alone—it should lead to a product that reflects the full integration of participants' diverse skill sets.
It is exactly this process that can make group work such a meaningful, even joyful, experience for a class. But when managed poorly, group work can make life a complete headache for both the students and the teacher.
At Science Leadership Academy, the public high school in Philadelphia where I teach, collaboration is one of our five core values, so students can expect group projects in every class (typically at least one per quarter). Our graduates cite this as one of the most difficult and challenging elements of our curriculum—and also one of the things that best prepared them for college-level and professional work. They point to the explicit strategies we employ throughout a typical project as the ones they use when they find themselves tasked with group work in their first university courses. They are often surprised to discover that none of their group mates have ever collaborated on this level in school before.
Here is a sampling of strategies that are frequently used at Science Leadership Academy to support students as they go through the phases of a group project—selection, design, implementation, and reflection. Like any effective instructional approach, these strategies aid classroom management by engaging students productively. Neither too strict nor too loose, the strategies are a scaffold onto which students can build their multimedia, models, and performances.

The Skills Inventory

Before I introduce a group project, I have students fill out a quick "skills inventory" on paper. The questionnaire asks them to rate their abilities on a scale of 1 to 5 for a variety of skills that are needed for the project. For a video project, the skills inventory asks them about script writing, being in front of the camera, video recording and editing, and project management. That last category is always included, and when students ask what it means, I explain: "If you are a successful project manager, you are able to keep everybody on task and sticking to the vision that the group agreed on. It doesn't mean that you are the supreme leader, in charge of everything—it means you are good at motivating everyone to perform well at what they are good at."
Once the questionnaires are completed, I explain the project and instructions in more detail. Then it's time for students to form groups; I urge them to keep their inventories in hand as they roam the room looking for partners. "You know what your strengths and weak spots are for this project," I remind them. "Make sure you are building a group that has all of the skill sets you need." I will occasionally insert myself into groups as they begin to form, asking, "Is this a well-rounded group or is this just a group of friends?" The inventories can also be collected and used to inform teacher-assigned groups.

The Opening Confessional

After groups have been selected or assigned, I invite students to have an honest conversation around the following question: "What weak spots do you bring to this group, and how can your group mates help you avoid that behavior?"
As they go around and share, I casually remind them of the different types of group-member personalities they may have and what the challenges of each are. Here are a few that I describe:
    ▪ The Type-A Micromanager: This student typically reports that they have no weak spots in group work … and that is their weak spot. They will do everything on time and to the exact specifications of the assignment—and will steamroll anybody who does not operate in the same way. This group member needs help making space for the vision and work styles of the other members.
    ▪ The Inspired Creative: This student can be counted on to provide essential ideas for the initial project design. Their creative vision will bring the project to life. However, they are not always consistent with seeing their ideas through to the final product. This group member needs help making consistent contributions after the design phase is complete.
    ▪ The Worker Bee: This student is great at following directions and getting tasks done, but they do not feel comfortable in a leadership or creative role. For the project to be truly collaborative, this group member needs encouragement to leave their mark on the design of the project and not just take orders from a micromanager.
    ▪ The Empath: This student recognizes every other worker type in the group and can play the essential role of keeping the group harmonious. However, this group member needs the trust of their peers to operate successfully; if they don't have confidence in their abilities, they will watch the group go through highs and lows and be unable to intervene.
By front-loading the conversation with a question about weaknesses, I'm encouraging students to address potential conflicts before they come up. "If one of the group members is a known micromanager, and their style bothers you, talk now about how you are going to communicate when it's crunch time," I tell them.

The Group Contract

Once the confessional is over, students fill out a group contract together. Originally designed by our former physics teacher Rosalind Echols, this contract has become a cornerstone of our school's culture. Importantly, the first section asks students to plot out their communication and work dynamic as a group—the project plan comes later.
Students must provide their contact information (phone and social media), assign roles (these vary by project, but likely include project manager, secretary, and teacher liaison), and devise a timeline that requires backwards mapping of what will be completed each day until the final deadline. The timeline includes days when class does not meet and activities that must be done outside of school hours.
The students then draw up group rules, outlining expectations that range from the logistical (check the group text thread every night) to the supportive (make sure there are snacks at each meeting). This section also includes a line about firing group members—an action that is rare and cannot be undertaken without a teacher meeting. The one time a firing did happen in my class, the student had been chronically absent and needed interventions beyond the scope of the group project. However, the mere contractual "threat" of being kicked out—and facing the insurmountable task of doing the project alone—gets everybody's attention and jump-starts a conversation about what accountability looks like.
Finally, each student must describe "why this contract works for me" and sign it. Once the group contract is completed—and only when it is completed—can students begin to work on the proposal or other initial project components.

Daily Goal Setting

While the group contract asks students to set daily goals for their project, the timeline inevitably goes through some revision as the final deadline approaches. Students should be given a minute or two at the start of each work period to revisit their timeline and set a hard goal for that day, such as "collect three sources each for our annotated bibliography" or "finish shooting our video footage." I typically have the group write this goal on a sticky note that can be displayed on the corner of a desk—often with brief descriptions of what each individual intends to accomplish that period. That way I can check in with minimal disruption, only asking clarifying questions as needed.

Daily Point Distribution

One way to support accountability is with group point distribution. Each day, students have a set number of "points" to parcel out at the end of the period, based on whether individuals achieved their goals for the day. For this activity, try having groups work with 60 points a day—an amount that can be evenly split between anywhere from two to six group members. This point distribution can be recorded on the group contract or on a separate paper. The distribution can then be converted into a daily class participation grade or folded into an individual grade as part of the final project.
Using daily points requires some additional framing discussion about repercussions. Students can make a pact to always distribute the points evenly, but then they have less leverage if one of their group mates starts to slack. And what will the procedure be for a student who is absent from class? Will they automatically lose points for that day? What if they are ill or have an emergency? How about if they communicate and complete the work on their own time? Teachers can design more or fewer rules for the point distribution depending on the level of experience students have with group work. Ultimately, students must agree on the distribution reported—if they are in conflict, that naturally triggers a meeting with the teacher to help address where the communication has broken down.

The Peer-Mediation Meeting

All of these group-management strategies are designed to help students avoid falling into direct conflict with one another. However, teachers have to be prepared for what happens when groups invariably go off the rails and need an intervention.
The group contract emphasizes that, if students are addressing a serious problem in their group, they should keep the teacher looped in at all times, whether it's by having the teacher casually observe group brainstorms or working sessions in class or copying the teacher on any relevant emails (particularly ones that are seeking to address a breakdown in the plan). Either a student or the teacher can call for a mediated meeting at any time.
During the meeting, the teacher minimizes his or her role as judge, and instead takes part as a neutral facilitator. The format of the meeting loosely follows that of a peer mediation—the party who brought forth the complaint is invited to review their concerns and describe the problem, and then the offending group member has a chance to describe the events from his or her perspective. If possible, I ask students to answer the following question on their own: "With x days remaining, how can you all get this project back on track?" This is where, depending on the level of frustration of each group member, the teacher can decide how active a role he or she needs to play in building a path to the finish line.
If students are venting, I encourage them to think about the impact of their words. Will their complaints help bring the group to a better understanding of what to do next? Or will they push away their peers, who may be struggling to understand the plan or stay on task? Empaths are likely to be considering the same questions, and mediation meetings are a great time to nudge them into a leadership moment.

The Closing Reflection

Ideally, students are given a venue where they will be able to read, view, or otherwise witness the final products of their peers and give them written feedback. Once groups have had a chance to look at comparable projects, they complete an individual reflection that includes (but is not limited to) these three questions:
  1. What was your group's greatest strength in this process?
  2. Where did your group struggle or fall short?
  3. If you could start this process over, what would you do differently, as both an individual and as a group?
Students can reference their answers at the start of a new project, reminding themselves of past mistakes before they go into another opening confessional.

The Payoff

Productive group work encourages students to hold one another accountable in an authentic way, thereby removing some of the burden from the teacher without allowing the class to descend into chaos. When implemented consistently, these strategies give students an opportunity to build not only better projects, but stronger working relationships with their peers and a more nuanced understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses. The hope is that students carry these skills into successful future collaborations in college, the workplace, and beyond.

Guiding Questions

› Is assigning group work a norm across your school? If so, do educators share or coordinate strategies for such work?

› Can implementing Pahomov's strategies help reduce conflict or misunderstandings during group work? Which ones are you willing—or unwilling—to adopt for your own classroom?

› When conflict inevitably does arise, what steps can you take to guide groups toward their own resolution? What role will you play during those discussions?

› Do you set aside time after a group project for students to reflect on their individual contributions, as well as how the group, as a whole, succeeded or fell short? What prompts could you provide to facilitate a discussion or written reflection?

Larissa Pahomov teaches students English and Journalism at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, an inquiry-driven, project-based, 1:1 laptop school considered to be one of the pioneers of the School 2.0 movement. Larissa has been published in NCTE's English Journal and is a contributor to the National Writing Project's Digital Is website. She lives in West Philadelphia with her husband.

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