Monday, December 28, 2009

Small Group Research--Stuff sociologists never tell us

Probably my last blog of this year but who knows. I've been thinking of one of my favorite students and as usual the story gets confused. Do you remember Alister?....the kid that turned in a messy order form which I threw out because I couldn't read it. Alister did have a lousy turn of the pen and pencil. His penmanship was the worst I even encountered. But that wasn't all with Alister--his dress was always messed up, shirt half out or miss-buttoned. Shoes untied and socks that fell around his ankles. And hair every which way before that style became popular. He was a walking disaster. And no, his mother didn't send him off to school that way because I drove past his house going to school. There would be Alister and his younger sister waiting for the bus. Hair combed, socks pulled up, shoes tied, jacket on and he would be looking very presentable. But what ever walked off the bus was a total disaster.

Now a diversion for the moment. Yes, grade school teachers do notice how the kids dress for school. Some children come to school with hand-me-downs and some not dressed warm enough for the season. More then once I've taken a child down to the Principals office back storeroom and picked out some clothing from last year's heap of clothes that the kids leave behind. Sort of restock some of the poorer kids from our grab bag of clothing.

Another problem I faced was what the girls wore to class. My first year as a fifth grade teacher I was upset that moms were letting their daughters come to school with fairly short skirts. I finally mentioned this to a couple of mothers of girls that were in my class and they looked at each other and sighed. A bit exasperated but with me! "Oh just tell the girls to unroll their skirts." Male teachers do have their problems with the girls in their classrooms. Apparently many of the girls were rolling their skirts up until they were short AFTER they got on the bus. From then on I would tell some of the girls to unroll their skirts and with a sigh and a grimace, they would comply. I don't think the boys ever noticed--it was something that girls of that age just did.

Don't forget Alister, however, I want to talk about sociological research for the moment. At the time I had Alister in class, my wife was working on an advanced degree and was teaching a course about "Small Groups." Apparently the research showed that if people were put into small groups and given a task to do, they would do it "better' then if they had to do that task by themselves. To make her point in the class Lynn had divided the class into pairs and told them they had to present their material together. I found this interesting and read much of what she brought home for her lectures. Small group research is interesting stuff. I pondered, "could I do this in a fifth grade class?" The research showed college age students learning more and quicker in a group then by themselves. Would it work as well with grade school kids.

Finally we come to my main point for today. It was between Christmas and New Years and I went up to my classroom and moved the kid's desks all around. I normally did this to their desks to break up little cliques, to give the room a new flavor, to let some kids in the back get closer to the front, a lot of different reasons for changing the desks in a room. But this time I did it a bit differently. I took my grade book which had all the children's names in it and then I took my statistics book with a table of random numbers and I started through it. Every time I got a number in the range of my class I moved a desk. After four numbers I placed the desks in a square with the kids facing each other. I kept doing this until I had the room in groups of four or five students. Probably about eight groups of desks. It was different. And then when I looked at the names of the kids at each group of desks I almost lost my resolve. At one group I had four of my liveliest boys--all loud talkers. Another group was composed of two girls and two boys both of which despised the other sex. There were other combinations I don't think I would have done had I made the choices. One group was comprised of three girls and Alister. Interesting. So the scene was set. Monday when the kids came back to school I would try a new learning style--that of each group having to agree on the assignment and turning one assignment in for the whole group at that group of desks. The students would have to decide who would write it down and they would ALL have to sign it. I could hear some parents already picking up the phone.

To be truthful it did what the research said it would do even at the fifth grade. I'd give some sort of a reading assignment and they would read it and argue at their desks what some words meant. The learning of my kids IMPROVED. And we COVERED MORE MATERIAL in less time. But it was harder work for me. I had to be on my toes to move around the room a lot seeing what was going on. My four lively boys--much less talk. They seemed to neutralize each other. They worked well together. The whole girl groups also did excellent work. Years later I read an excellent book on how women learn and in groups was a preferred style.

But I need to tell you about Alister and his three girls. Or was it the three girls and Alister. He would do some work on paper and they would make him do it over until it was halfway neat. I think each day they had him clean his desk. And they straighten him up every chance they got. "Tuck in your shirt." "Tie your left shoe lace." "Fix your belt loop." I give Alister much credit--he never came to me and asked to be switched to another group. He was smart as a whip, just messy and the girls made him toe the line. I felt sorry for him but his mother told me a bit later that she thought it was good for him--he was working on improving. We just didn't know what he was improving on. I still have an image of Alister and his desk turned over to dump out all his books and things with the three girls making him put things back "properly." Poor Alister.

But back to the groupings. Yes, I would do it again and earlier on in the school year. What I saw was many instances where one child would help another. "Here, let me show you how to diagram that sentence." OR, "read the picture--does it say anything about what we're reading?" Many of what I saw were things I might have done in a normal single desk setting as I went around the room but in this instance a desk mate did it for me.....and without the wait time for me to get around to each child. Learning did speed up. And I only had to grade eight or nine papers but I had to work harder at the evaluation. I had to know what each child did in that group--that was my responsibility. But as the groups continued their work got better and I believe my slower kids learned the most. Some of them learned how the smarter kids studied and they emulated them.

Another surprise was that after a month or two into this grouping arrangement the kids themselves said they really enjoy this way of learning. They could see themselves learning more then under the more traditional single desk system. They would "nag" each other so they could turn in the work on time. I was surprised when my wife's class at the university said they really didn't like being in pairs. It limited their independence when they HAD to study with another person. So the college students learned more like my kids and both groups really got better grades but the college students didn't like the constraints while the grade school kids thought the process was "cool."

And Alister? He endured and the girls were on him for neatness the entire time. I don't remember if he improved in that department--I don't think neatness was in his genes. But I still remember him--one of my favorite kids.

Did a teacher ever make you do a paper over for neatness? Better say a silent prayer of thanks for teaching you some culture.... Hhmmmmm, I wonder if any of those three girls ever became teachers.

No comments:

Post a Comment