Strategies to Probe Deeply into the
Text: Learning "More When We Work Together"
Meeting Needs: Promoting Learning and Student Interaction
In the midst of the pressures and responsibilities of day-to-day teaching, it's
tempting to push aside the knowledge we gained during our early years of teacher
preparation. However, in order to make teaching and learning fun, energizing, and
meaningful, we mustn't forget the vital information we gleaned from our undergraduate
days. Research on growth and development informs us that students learn best when
actively engaged; therefore, it is essential to use interactive strategies in our
In addition, doing what's best for the students means reaching the students and
teaching them at their own levels. Adolescents are social creatures by nature. They
strongly desire time to interact with their peers. As teachers, we can use this
knowledge to our advantage. The students can have their needs met while also meeting
our needs of teaching content and standards.
According to Abraham Maslow and his hierarchy of needs (see Figure 1), in order
for individuals to reach their full potential, their basic needs must be addressed
first. Unfortunately, in today's society many students don't have family environments
that are as supportive and loving as we'd wish for them. If our students' basic
requirements can't be met at home, I believe they can be met at school when teachers
and administrators establish supportive learning environments. A safe, caring, inclusive,
inviting, and intellectually stimulating environment at school allows students to
have their desires of belonging, respect, and recognition fulfilled. When these
needs are met, students can achieve at higher levels.
Figure 1 Maslow's hierarchy of needs
Furthermore, William Glasser's research on choice theory informs us that people
are driven by basic needs (see Figure 2). I think that in trying to fulfill those
needs, some teens join gangs. Wouldn't it be great if teens could get their basic
needs met in today's classrooms instead of having to do something so negative? I
am convinced this is possible! If we can take the students' behavior situations
and turn them into something positive such as working with the teacher and
classmates on common goals, we can accomplish great things. I believe this can be
done through the implementation of good cooperative learning practices.
Figure 2 William Glasser's choice theory (also known as control theory)
Over the years I've learned firsthand that a great way to motivate students and
to actively engage them in the content is through the use of cooperative learning.
Cooperative learning isn't simply assigning students to groups and expecting things
to work out somehow. Cooperative learning is thoughtfully creating teams to work
together for common goals, teaching students the skills they need in order to be
successful working and learning together, and facilitating, teaching, and coaching
throughout each step of the journey.
Cooperative learning is real-life learning. Sadly, statistics tell us that people
are more likely to lose their jobs not because they can't do them, but because they
can't get along with others. What a great service we can do for our state and country
by teaching needed social skills while also integrating the content and standards
we are required to teach. Besides, cooperative learning makes learning fun! One
of my eighth graders summed up a number of students' feelings when she said, "I
like cooperative learning because we can talk and together work on problems and
questions. I don't like sitting in rows doing worksheets."
Class- and Team-Building Structures
Following Spencer Kagan's style of cooperative learning, I first engage my students
in class- and team-building structures. Class-building structures are developed
with the intent of engaging each student in the class in a common goal and activity,
while team-building structures engage the group members as they work toward a common
Kagan's structures are based on four basic principles:
- Simultaneous interaction (everyone working at the same time)
- Individual accountability (each person is responsible for his or her
own learning and receives his or her own grades)
- Positive interdependence (meaning "Your gain is my gain" and "I want
you to do well too")
- Equal participation (automatically built into Kagan's structures)
Two fun, effective, and easy-to-implement class-building structures are Inside/Outside
Circle and Face-Off. These structures work at all grade levels and with all
areas of content. It is best to use these activities when a discussion is
needed. Freeze Scene, the last of the activities below, is a team-building activity.
This structure allows the students to delve back into the literature while working
collaboratively making decisions in regard to their performance.
Inside/Outside Circle (Class Building)
Instead of calling on one student to answer a question, increase your student participation
to 100 percent by simply using this class-building cooperative learning structure
called Inside/Outside Circle. Here's how:
- Students number off.
- Odd-numbered students form a circle and turn around and face outward.
- Even-numbered students stand in front of a peer.
- The teacher provides prompts or discussion pieces.
- After allowing time for discussion, the teacher has the students in
the outside circle move a few peers to their right or left, therefore greeting a
- The process is repeated with a new set of partners.
I used this strategy when the students read Steinbeck's The Pearl. Typical
discussion questions included:
Inside/Outside Circle: Students pair up and discuss questions based upon The Pearl
by John Steinbeck.
- Do you think Kino was a good husband? Why or why not?
- Why could the theme of this book be "money can't buy happiness"?
- Would you have kept the pearl? Why or why not?
Face-Off (Class Building)
This strategy is particularly good for fostering not only discussion and critical
thinking but also organization of thoughts. In Face-Off:
- The teacher poses a question that should result in a variety of answers.
- The teacher informs the students which side of the room they should
stand on based upon their responses.
- The students are permitted to stand in the middle or to be "on the
fence" if unable to determine their position.
- The teacher facilitates the debate as the students try to persuade
their peers why they should change their minds or positions and go over to their
I used this strategy when the class read Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli. Debate
questions might include:
During Face-Off, students line up to debate whether Stargirl (from Jerry Spinelli's
book by the same name) would fit into their own school or not.
- Would Stargirl fit into our own school? (face off with yes/no/maybe
- As the saying goes, "Love is blind." Is this truly the case with Leo
and Stargirl? (yes/no/maybe)
- Do you think Leo will stay in love with Stargirl even after she's
- Do you think Leo (Stargirl, Archie, etc.) is brave? (yes/no/maybe)
Freeze Scenes (Team Building)
Freeze Scenes challenge teams to think about what they have read and to translate
their thoughts into scenes their classmates will recognize. The strategy works this
- The teams are assigned two to four chapters from a novel (different
chapters for different teams).
- The teams go back into the literature and determine which scene they
- The teams may bring one or two props to use.
- Each team member writes down a line he or she may say if more information
is needed by the audience of classmates in order to determine what scene from the
book the team is acting out.
- Teams take turns "freezing" their scenes while their classmates review
the novel's happenings.
Scott O'Dell's Sing down the Moon is a book I have used with success to engage
students in Freeze Frame.
A team of eighth graders freezes a scene from a chapter of Sing down the Moon
by Scott O'Dell while fellow classmates guess what scene from the story they are
Dewey and Me
My rationale for cooperative learning is based on the constructivists' viewpoint
of learning (meaning that learning is social in nature and that opportunities for
collaboration are vital). This theory is rooted in the work of researcher and scholar
John Dewey. Dewey believed that learning should include inquiry and social interactions.
This theorist wanted schools to engage students in meaningful activities where they
had to work with others on problems. Purposeful activity in social settings was
the key to genuine learning in Dewey's view.
I support Dewey's "learning by doing" philosophy, and my students endorse this too!
By way of endorsement, I end this article with a simple, succinct comment from one
of the students in my language arts class: "We can learn more when we work together."
O'Dell, Scott. (1970, republished in paperback, 1997). Sing down the moon.
New York: Laurel Leaf.
Spinelli, Jerry. (2000). Stargirl. New York: Knopf Books for Young Readers.
Steinbeck, John. (1947, republished in paperback, 2002). The pearl. New York:
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