One Week Left!

I’m a camp person (you may have gathered) and so I’m used to working in communities of hard-working people willing to share their inner emotions for the betterment of themselves and everyone else. We’re having the hottest summer of our life here at Shiloh this summer, and it’s been tough, but we’re finding ways to have fun and to keep the campers at the forefront.

I forget that people everywhere want to live like this. The passion I’m seeing going into the 13 presentations (so far) at the Virtual Conference on Soft Skills and the dedication to improvement that is clearly evident in the middle of the summer is inspiring. As teachers we’ve chosen our method of improving the world, and I, personally, am really glad we’re getting so good at it. Thank you for your work in your classroom!

There’s still a week to contribute to the conference. Read through the presentations that have already been made, think about what you have to contribute, or, heck, just write about what you know you still have to learn, or get up the courage to try, or smooth out the edges around.

I have a sneaking suspicion that many of you that read this blog regularly are good teachers (though I obviously have limited and circumstantial evidence). Let’s keep getting better!


Specifying Behavior with Explicit Roles

Virtual Conference on Soft Skills

Uninvolved students do not learn in any particularly meaningful way, but getting students involved is hard.  Participation points?  Cold calls?

I rely on students’ desire to be involved.  When a student actually does not want to be in the classroom, or is afraid to be involved, I use different approaches than that described here.  Luckily, most students want to involve themselves, and this article is about helping them do that by defining roles for them.

Defining roles for people makes it easier for them to act because it makes a lot of decisions for them already.  Costume parties are easier to participate in when you can crystallize ideas for your outfit on a theme (80’s dance party? Wild west?  Alice in Wonderland, anyone?).  Social dances with defined steps and a “lead” and “follower” are easier to do gracefully because the lead knows he’s responsible for leading and the follower knows he’s, well, supposed to follow!  The definition of the roles takes the responsibility out of some of the participants’ actions, which lowers the risk of engaging.  And we want as many people engaging as we can get!

This year in my math class I experimented with a method I learned about from CPM, and I found it wildly successful.  The idea is to put students into teams, give each team a powerful problem or question to chew on, and to give them the framework they need to chew on it.  The roles I gave and the training I used are below.

The Facilitator

The student assigned the facilitator role is responsible for three things: reading problems or prompts aloud to the team, keeping everyone in the team involved, and keeping discussion going when it stalls out.  This means the facilitator should now allow Tim to space out or Susanne to answer every question without consulting the others.

To train facilitators, I gave my students a list of phrases they could use.  To include people, for example, they could try, “What do you think, Tim?” or, “Can you explain why you think that, Susanne?”  To drive a conversation when it seems like everyone is stuck, they could say, “What have we tried so far?” or “Is there anything we could try a little bit differently?” or “Can we work on a different part of this problem and come back later?”  We literally practiced saying these things as a class, in unison.  You’ll have to decide what method of practice is comfortable for you, but please do not think that students will jump right in to using phrases like this without practice, or that they already possess the skills to facilitate a meeting.  Only a small percentage of adults have a solid grasp on facilitation techniques.

The Resource Manager

The resource manager in a team is the team’s liaison to the outside world.  If the team needs a ruler, the resource manager gets it.  If the team needs to look something up, the resource manager goes to the computer or dictionary.  If the team needs to ask me (the teacher) a question, the resource manager is the one to ask it.  When I teach classes in team formations, I actually refuse to speak to anyone in the team except the resource manager.  The students think I’m joking at first, but I do it for the same reasons I don’t let them sit next to me in study hall.

The resource manager’s role has a subtle but important facet: before the resource manager can use a resource, each member of the group must agree that that resource is needed.  When a team wants to ask me a question, they must agree on it first, and figure out how to word it.  Often, in this process, a team answers its own question, and they all learn how to answer their own questions.  When they can’t answer it, but do come to agreement about what to ask, they all learn how to formulate a question and narrow down the specifics required to make the answer useful.  They know that I’ll make them agree on every single question before I answer it, so coming up with concise questions becomes important.  The resource manager’s role includes orchestrating these discussions.

This role also needs training, and a list of possible phrases.  “Is there a single piece of information that would help us move forward?” or, “What information do we already have?” or, “Before we ask Riley what this symbol means, what are our guesses?”

The Task Manager

The task manager’s primary role is to keep track of time, make sure that the team is spending appropriate amounts of time on different parts of the assignment, and alert the others when it seems like the whole group is moving off task.  This role overlaps with the facilitator quite a bit, but the concreteness of having specific target times is helpful to students and I’ve never felt like this role is redundant.  Especially when the facilitator is busy trying to lead a stuck group, it’s helpful to have a task manager to keep track of more administrative details.

As always, when expecting a certain behavior from students, we should show them what it looks like.  Training task managers can look like a skit, a list of useful phrases, etc.  You can emphasize the task managing you do in your class all the time – instead of saying “please take out your homework,” write a schedule for the period on the board ahead of time and say, “I see that it’s time to take out our homework.”

The Recorder / Reporter

The recorder takes notes and creates minutes, if you will.  The notes can be her own, but the minutes must be presented to the team regularly to be sure that they are fully representative of any agreements the team has come to together.  These minutes are the final permanent product of the team and can be turned in so that I (the teacher) can give in-depth feedback on a team’s mathematical understanding later.

The recorder is also the reporter, who may be asked to give impromptu oral reports of the team’s progress to the entire class.  Occasionally I ask this of a team that is understanding something fast or in more depth than the other teams, or use a quick round of reports as a closure for a class period.

The training for this role is the hardest, I think.  What if you have students that don’t have practice writing summaries?  This year I practiced with the whole class: we would have a ten-minute discussion and then summarize it on the board, making sure we noted all of the important parts and only the important parts.  Still, I was least satisfied with the work I saw from this role throughout the year.

Together, these roles give the students a powerful framework for their behavior during class.  Since every student has responsibilities to every other student, disengaging becomes less desirable and also less acceptable to the students.  In a large class with no specific roles, if Tim zones out it doesn’t really affect anyone else, and Tim doesn’t have an easy way to zone back in.  With groups and specific roles and responsibility, when Tim zones out his teammates notice immediately, and can prompt him with aspects of his role to re-engage right away.  So great!

These roles make me more comfortable with my guilty admission: I don’t care very much if the kids learn math.  I mean, I’ll teach them some math, and when they leave they’re going to see more of its beauty and be equipped to use it in society.  But which is more important, vector addition or working in a team?  Factoring or formulating questions?  Integrating or leading peers?  Obviously, obviously, the math comes second.  It’s just lucky that learning math provides so many opportunities for learning the more important things.

Building Opportunities for Investigation with Passive Media

The first sign is easy to see, but not particularly exciting: a plain old brown arrow on an off-white sign, about 8″x12″.  It stands halfway up the upper cabin trail and, by all appearances, points randomly into the woods.

If you take the time to look carefully into those woods, though, you’ll see the next sign.



The next sign has an arrow on it that points in a new direction, where, if you walk a little ways, there’s a third arrow waiting.  There are six arrows in total; the seventh sign is a cute little thing with a message about curiosity and a place for people who find it to write or carve their names.  It takes about ten minutes to get from the beginning to the end.  It takes you past some old ruins and an old low ropes course that’s fallen into disrepair and been forgotten.

It’s awesome.

This is one of the tools I use to teach my campers (students) to be curious, and I love it because both the initiative and the payoff come from the student.  No parent or teacher tells the intrepid explorer that he did a good job or a bad job – the kid feels great from within himself, and gets practice setting his own values (and working for them!).  If he doesn’t want to follow the arrow, or only wants to follow a few… fine!  There’s not the suggestion of pressure to complete the task that comes built in to explicit instructions.  In fact, the utter lack of instructions increases the mystery of the thing: “what is this arrow for?”  The arrow itself is inherently interesting, somehow.  Why?  And how can we get more of this magic in our text books and our classrooms?

PS: A new presentation is up in the convention center!

Please Proceed to the Grand Ballroom

The Virtual Conference on Soft Skills is starting.  Please make your way to the Grand Ballroom (located in the Central Hall, up the Main Stairway, through Entrance One by Alpha Lot) to see the first keynote speaker, Dan Meyer!

Right this way!

Afterwards, check out the rest of the convention center!  The convention center page will update throughout the month as new presentations are added, so check it regularly.