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AdLIT In Perspective > 2005 > November/December
Classroom Vignette

Strategies to Probe Deeply into the Text: Learning "More When We Work Together"

by Angela Thomas


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 own classrooms.

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)

Cooperative Learning

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 goal.

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)

Examples
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:

  1. Students number off.
  2. Odd-numbered students form a circle and turn around and face outward.
  3. Even-numbered students stand in front of a peer.
  4. The teacher provides prompts or discussion pieces.
  5. 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 new partner.
  6. 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:

  1. Do you think Kino was a good husband? Why or why not?
  2. Why could the theme of this book be "money can't buy happiness"?
  3. Would you have kept the pearl? Why or why not?
Inside/Outside Circle: Students pair up and discuss questions based upon The Pearl by John Steinbeck.

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:

  1. The teacher poses a question that should result in a variety of answers.
  2. The teacher informs the students which side of the room they should stand on based upon their responses.
  3. The students are permitted to stand in the middle or to be "on the fence" if unable to determine their position.
  4. 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 side.

I used this strategy when the class read Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli. Debate questions might include:

  1. Would Stargirl fit into our own school? (face off with yes/no/maybe categories)
  2. As the saying goes, "Love is blind." Is this truly the case with Leo and Stargirl? (yes/no/maybe)
  3. Do you think Leo will stay in love with Stargirl even after she's gone? (yes/no/maybe)
  4. Do you think Leo (Stargirl, Archie, etc.) is brave? (yes/no/maybe)
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.

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 way:

  1. The teams are assigned two to four chapters from a novel (different chapters for different teams).
  2. The teams go back into the literature and determine which scene they will "freeze."
  3. The teams may bring one or two props to use.
  4. 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.
  5. 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 portraying.

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."

References

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: Penguin Books.


Angela Thomas teaches middle childhood language arts at Seneca East Jr. High. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, a Ph.D. student at Ohio State, and a member of the NCATE Board of Examiners. She has presented to hundreds of teachers at state, national, and international conferences on topics relating to quality teaching. You can contact her at AThomas@SenecaEast.net.

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