Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Discover the Magic of Fun Friday!


One my biggest struggles as a teacher was getting kids to do their homework. I know you can relate. I was never a fan of loading kids up with  homework, but I did expect them to complete whatever was assigned. Most of my homework was finishing classwork, returning a signed paper, or reading for 20 to 30 minutes. Yet precious minutes of class time were wasted every day while kids looked for missing assignments or worse, wasted my time trying to explain why they didn’t have it.

Then I discovered the magic of Fun Friday! I can’t take credit for the idea, but I can tell you that it works! It was definitely the most effective system I've ever used for dealing with the homework problems.

Let me explain how it works. Fun Friday is a weekly event that three or four teachers organize and implement together. On Friday afternoon, each teacher hosts one activity in his or her classroom for 30 minutes. One person usually takes a group of students out to play. Another teacher hosts a free time in the classroom where students play board games, draw on the Smartboard, use computers or iPads or play with a class pet. The third teacher supervises a “study hall.” Students who have not completed all homework for the week attend the Study Hall and use that time to make up missing work. If there are four teachers working together, two can supervise recess or one might offer a special arts and crafts activity. Each week the teachers rotate activities so that everyone shares the responsibilities equally.

My students loved Fun Friday and looked forward to the chance to get together with friends in other classrooms. It was one of the few rewards that actually motivated them to complete every single assignment all week. I kept a homework chart where I checked off those who completed all assignments for the week, and I was pretty strict with my requirements for Fun Friday. If a student even had one missing or late assignment during the week, they went to Study Hall. Yet after a few weeks of implementing Fun Friday, most kids would earn it every week. I was amazed at the difference this program made and how much time it saved me from dealing with late and missing assignments.

One thing that helped make Fun Friday easy to implement was a sign up chart. Right after lunch on Friday, I allowed those who had completed all assignments to sign up for their preference of activities. I’ve created several variations for you to try that you can download for free from my TeachersPayTeachers store.

Over the years I did have a few principals who needed to be convinced that the 30 minutes we devoted to Fun Friday were not wasted. My rationale was that we easily made up this time by not having to deal with missing and late assignments all week. Also, everyone, teachers and students alike, are downright brain-dead by the time Friday afternoon rolls around! Have you ever seriously tried to teach a lesson on a Friday afternoon? Trust me, it’s a wasted effort. You’ll just have to reteach it on Monday!

Do you implement Fun Friday in your classroom? If so, is your program like mine? Have you found it to be effective? If you haven't tried it, I hope you'll test it out in your classroom. I believe you'll discover the magic of Fun Friday, too!



Thursday, January 24, 2013

February Freebies Galore!

February is such a fun month in elementary school, even in the upper elementary grades. You can do all sorts of activities with the holidays in February as well as create fun winter lessons. Learning doesn't have to be sacrificed in the name of fun, either, as you'll soon discover! Over the last few years, I've created loads of free resources for February that I'd like to share with you now. I've also invited other bloggers to link up their free February items, too.

February Activities Mini Pack
This 25-page packet offers ready-to-use lessons and activities for February that foster higher level thinking while motivating students. Activities include math word problems, a candy heart fraction lesson, a friendship poetry activity, a word challenge, and directions for writing a President or Black History biography. The February Activities Mini Pack is offered for free as a sample of my Seasonal Mini Pack Collection. Thanks to everyone who has rated it after downloading it! Your ratings keep this item near the top of the freebie list on TpT.


Chinese New Year Activities
The Chinese New Year begins on February 10th, and this packet includes two literacy activities to use when studying or celebrating this special event. Both activities were designed for cooperative learning teams, but they would work equally well with partners or in a small guided reading group. The first lesson is a sorting activity in which cards with facts about the Chinese and American New Years are placed on a Venn diagram. The second activity involves discussion cards to use with the book Sam and the Lucky Money.


Black History Character Bios
During February, many classrooms celebrate Black History month. Students often research famous Black Americans and write a report or share the information in some way. Unfortunately, many students don't know how to research, organize, and write a report and do far too much copying and pasting. The Character Trait Bio activity is a little different from the normal writing assignment because students are asked to organize their essays around character traits which makes plagiarism almost impossible. This is activity is a sample from my Character Bio Reports Mini Pack.
Believe it or not, I have several more February Freebies, too! You can find them all through the end of February on my Seasonal Activities page on Teaching Resources or in my TpT Store all year round. Be sure to follow me on TpT to be notified when I add more freebies and products. I hope your students enjoy these engaging activities and learn a little something along the way. Please visit the blogs below to find more February goodies!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Fun Way to Equalize Math Participation

Math Buddy Chat Freebie in Two Languages

Have you ever paired students with a partner to solve math word problems? While this might seem like an effective strategy at first glance, having kids work together without some sort of structure might actually be quite ineffective. I discovered the flaws in partner work a few years ago, and I created an activity called Math Buddy Chat to make partner problem solving far more effective. I shared this strategy in a webinar called Math Problem Solving: Once a Day, the Easy Way which you can watch for free on Teaching Resources. Today I want to share this activity with you and tell you a little about why it's so powerful. Also, thanks to the generosity of Canadian teacher, Caroline Houle, I'm now able to offer it in both English and French!

Problems with Partner Problem Solving
I'm a firm believer in cooperative learning, but I recognize that it can easily become group work if you're not careful. Let's look at the scenario of assigning two students to work together to solve a problem. As a teacher, you hope they will BOTH think through the problem, try different strategies, and discuss their solutions. But that seldom happens. Instead, one student quickly solves the problem and then tells the other student what to do and what to write. Sadly, the passive student may have been perfectly capable of solving the problem, but the assertive student has already done the work, so why bother? In most cases, unless you provide some sort of structure, only one student will be actively engaged.

The Math Buddy Chat Solution
When I analyzed what was going on with my partner activities, I decided that it was time for a change. The fact of the matter was that too many kids were letting their partners do all the work for them. To foster more collaboration, I developed a step-by-step problem solving method that requires both students to participate equally. With Math Buddy Chat, students alternate between working independently and working together as they solve problems. To make this activity really easy to implement, I created a PowerPoint that you can show to your students as you walk them through this 4-step problem-solving method. You can download it for free from my TeachersPayTeachers store, but I also recommend watching the problem solving webinar if you have time. You'll pick up some valuable tips for how teaching problem solving in your classroom and how to use Math Buddy Chat effectively.

Causerie Math? What's That?
I've always loved sharing my teaching resources with others, so when I first logged on to the Internet back in the 90's, I was excited beyond all else! I joined discussion groups with teachers from all over the world, and I've continued to collaborate with teachers internationally. However, I've also discovered that sometimes the ability to share is limited by language differences.

So last week when I received an offer from a teacher in Quebec to translate some of my materials into French, I was immediately interested. Caroline Houle wrote that she found my materials on TeachersPayTeachers and would love to use them with her students. Unfortunately, she can't because her students speak French. I decided that the idea was worth exploring, so we agreed to start with the freebie Math Buddy Chat. In French, that translates to Causerie Math. Click the image or this link to get the French version of Math Buddy Chat. How cool is that!

You might be wondering if I have plans to translate anything else into French. Right now I'm thinking of this as a fun experiment to see if anyone is interested in having other materials translated into French or perhaps Spanish. Please leave a comment to share your thoughts on this with me. Would you be interested in purchasing any of my products if I had them translated into another language? What language and which products? You can take a look in my TpT store to see what I have available in English, and let me know which items would be useful in another language.

Who knows where this might go? For now, I simply want to thank Caroline for her generosity in volunteering to translate Math Buddy Chat. She opened my eyes to the possibilities!


Thursday, January 17, 2013

Literary Lunch Bunches Foster Love of Reading

Common Core Aligned and Fun!

Most teachers have heard of Literature Circles, or Classroom Book Clubs, but many find it difficult to add them to an already packed schedule. However, it's worth finding time to implement Classroom Book Clubs because this program is actually aligned with the first Common Core Speaking and Listening Standard for your grade level. In the elementary grades, the first CCSS Speaking & Listening standard reads like this,
"Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade x topics and texts, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly."
One way you can give Book Clubs a try is by starting a Literary Lunch Bunch program. Literary Lunch Bunches are fun, informal Literature Circles that kids attend on a voluntary basis. You hold the meetings during lunch, in your classroom or another quiet area (such as outside at a picnic table). They don't meet every day, and it's almost like a reading club. This program is similar to  Classroom Book Clubs except that students meet during lunch rather than during the reading block or at some other time during the school day. Click to learn more about Classroom Book Clubs.

How to Start a Lunch Bunch Group
To get started with a Lunch Bunch program, select a book that you like, or you can ask the kids what they would like to read. Let the interest level and the abilities of your students determine the reading pace. I generally divide a novel into 4 parts, and we take 2 weeks to read the book. We have 2 meetings a week, for example on Tuesday and Friday. I have learned that if you take any longer to read the book, kids lose interest and drop out. If you don't want to structure it quite that tightly, you can let your students choose the pace that they prefer to read the book and they will set reading goals at the end of each meeting for the next meeting. If you use the Reading workshop approach or have independent reading time at school, students can do the reading during class. If not, they may need to complete their reading at home.

Lunch Bunch Preparation Bookmarks
The only requirement for attending the Lunch Bunch meetings is to read the assigned section and complete the Lunch Bunch Bookmark. Students use one of these bookmarks to jot down things they want to discuss in the meeting. You don't have to require any type of assignment, but the meetings are more exciting when kids have taken time to think about what they want to discuss.

You can download this set of bookmarks for free from my TeachersPayTeachers store. I created two variations, one with cute monster clipart and one with clipart more appropriate for older students.

I never assign a grade for participation in a Literary Lunch Bunch because the purpose is to foster a love of of reading. If my students haven't done the reading or filled out the slip, they can't attend that day's meeting. If they are prepared for the next meeting, they may join in again. Most kids come prepared because the love the special privilege of meeting with their friends in the classroom instead of having to eat in the cafeteria.

Your Role in Literary Lunch Bunch Meetings
You might be wondering if this means you have to give up your lunch break to meet with your students. I used to join in with the kids and eat my lunch along with them, but one day I had some things to do and I told them to meet without me. Of course I stayed in the room with them, but I was eating my own lunch and working on something else. These were 5th graders so they were very independent, and I figured they would be okay since they had their Lunch Bunch Bookmarks. Oh my! They had so much fun on their own! They were much more open with each other and were engaged in terrific discussions about the book. They stayed on topic and really enjoyed themselves. From that day on, I never met with another Literary Lunch Bunch group!

Teaching Discussion Strategies
If you have younger students and don't feel they will be able to function on their own, feel free to change the model so you are meeting with them, at least at first. You can teach them strategies like using Talking Sticks to equalize participation, and eventually they will be able to meet without you at the table. In the Talking Sticks strategy, each student receives three craft sticks and each time they want to speak, they hold up a stick and the teacher or leader chooses someone to speak. The student who is selected places a stick in the team cup. When students run out of sticks, they can't participate until everyone else has used all of his or her sticks. Kids love this activity because it ensures that everyone gets an equal chance to participate. To learn more, visit my TpT store where you'll find Talking Sticks packets for grades 1 through 5.

If you haven't figured out how to fit Literature Circles into your schedule, why not try Literary Lunch Bunches? You could adapt this program in many ways to make it work for your schedule. How about coordinating with others on your grade level to offer different books for different reading levels? Students could sign up for the book of their choice. How else could you adapt Literary Lunches Bunches? No matter how you implement them, they are sure to be a hit in your classroom!


Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Powerful Little Books - Perfect for Little Hands


A few days ago I received a special package in the mail, one that I had been eagerly anticipating. It was a collection of 11 adorable little books written by my friend and colleague Pat Calfee and illustrated by her 5-year old granddaughter Issy Gee. As I pulled those precious books out of their zippered pouch and held them in my hands, I decided that I had to share the story of the “Issy Books” with you. But instead of telling you myself, I asked Pat to share her story in her own words. I know you’ll be inspired by it! ~ Laura

The Creation of The Issy Books 
Guest blog post by Pat Calfee

As a lifelong educator, becoming a grandmother was one of the most exciting events in my entire life.  I could not wait to do all of the fun things to “stimulate” their little minds. The fun times just kept getting better and better. We spent our time together reading books, playing with play dough, singing songs, dancing, coloring and painting.   Becoming a “Gigi” was the best thing ever!

One of my granddaughters, Isybilla, displayed a unique gift for drawing from a very early age. She loved drawing and painting and would create drawings way beyond her years. Everyone was always amazed at the paintings that Issy would create with very little effort. Issy wanted to draw all the time and would always proudly present members of the family with her treasures as personal gifts. She was a born artist and we all knew it!

My daughter suggested that I use my background as a primary teacher and reading specialist to write books for Issy to illustrate. This sounded like a great idea….and this is where the adventure began!

First, Issy made a list of animal characters that she wanted to draw and even included their sassy names.  She named Flossie the Flamingo, Webster the Spider, Snappy the Crab and her own Boston Terrier, Bam Bam, plus many more! In all, I wrote and she illustrated ten stories about characters straight from her imagination!

Powerful Motivators for Reading 
As we started putting the stories and the illustrations together, we saw that we really had created something very powerful. The stories were perfect for beginning readers with controlled vocabulary and the use of sight words. The illustrations were perfect to lead young readers as they used “picture clues.” And we knew that beginning readers would love the colorful illustrations that were obviously created by someone their own age. What better way to get beginning readers motivated to practice reading!

Of course we loved the books ourselves, but it was only when others began sharing their stories with us that we realized how amazing they really are. Just a few days ago I was contacted by one of my friends, a retired elementary educator, after she received a full set of The Issy Books and shared them with her two grandchildren.  She told us how excited her kindergarten grandson was to have “just right” books to read.  He reads the books to his little sister and is so proud. My friend told me how both children loved the stories, the animal characters and most of all… the pictures!  He is so amazed that someone his age drew the illustrations. Her grandson wants to read the books over and over, and his little sister wants to hear the books read over and over! I then realized just how powerful these little books are in the small hands of beginning readers.

Where to Find the Issy Books
After Issy and I created our first book together, her mother and I began looking for a publisher for the series. We were excited when Brigantine Media agreed to publish them, and the finished books have delighted us all. They even created a website for the Issy Books (www.issybooks.com), where you can see all 11 books and download a complete copy of Snappy the Crab. Because the books are emergent readers, you’ll also find suggestions on the website for how to use them to help children learn to read. Issy also has a Facebook page that you can like to see pictures of her and where you can follow her adventures as a young illustrator.

We still can’t believe that a granddaughter and a grandmother could join forces to become an illustrator and an author.  But that’s exactly what Issy and Gigi did!  Stay tuned…there are more Issy Books being planned.

Pat Calfee is an educational consultant with 29 years experience as a teacher, curriculum coordinator, and staff developer.  Pat has a reading certification and has trained many teachers in the use of effective reading strategies.  She has a passion for helping teachers at all levels discover new and innovative ways to deliver instruction and instill a love for reading in young hearts and minds. 

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Fund-day Sunday on Facebook

Get Funding for Your Classroom Project!

If you are a fan of the Teaching Resources Facebook page, you'll know that every Sunday I host a special event called Fund-day Sunday to help teachers obtain funding for their DonorsChoose projects. If so, you might be wondering what it is and how to get involved. As a bit of background, DonorsChoose.org is a nonprofit organization that helps teachers get funding for their projects, and if you aren't familiar with it, please read the information I've gathered on this topic on Teaching Resources. There's a free video along with other resources.

Back to Fund-day Sunday ... this event is a part of my Caring Classrooms Community. The way it works is that I call for projects at 8 a.m. Sunday morning, and teachers post their links on the Caring Classrooms Facebook page. I review the projects, and from those submitted I select projects that will be added to the Caring Classrooms giving page where they are just about guaranteed to get funded, usually within a week or so. I also make a donation to the project myself. I usually choose at least 4 projects during the day on Sunday and Monday. In order to post your project link, you do have to make at lease a $1 donation to one of the projects on the giving page. You can find the complete details and guidelines for making requests on Teaching Resources.

How to Participate
If you have a project proposal online, here's how to submit it for consideration:
  1. Begin by visiting my Caring Classroom Facebook page and clicking the Like button to follow it.
  2. Check back each Sunday morning to find the Fund-day Sunday request that goes out at 8 a.m. EST. 
  3. Donate at least $1 to a project on the Caring Classrooms Giving Page on Sunday before you post your own project link. If there's a matching code available, please use it. 
  4. Post a link to one of your project proposals along with a short description of the project and why it's important to you. Please tell which project you donated to on the giving page.
  5. Check back on the Facebook page throughout the day to see if your project was selected. 
Note: Please don't post your requests directly on the Wall or they will get lost. Also, pin this blog post and share my request for proposals with your friends to encourage them to participate, too.

When I was in the classroom, I received thousands of dollars of funding from DonorsChoose, and it meant so much to receive that kind of support. Now that I'm no longer teaching, I love being able to help dedicated classroom teachers who give so much of themselves. I applaud all of you for the difference you are making in your students' lives!




Friday, January 11, 2013

Top Resources Recommended by Teachers


Last week I shared a list of my top freebies in my TeachersPayTeachers store according to numbers of downloads and ratings. Then I asked my followers to help me pick the top products by recommending their favorites. Over 125 people participated, and I sorted the results to find out the top recommendations. I loved reading everyone’s reasons for recommending them! The 6 items below were the top choices, and rather than telling you about them myself, I’ve decided to include two teacher recommendations for each title. You can also click each cover image to visit a page in my TpT store where you can download a complete preview of the item.
Graphic Organizers for Reading: Teaching Tools Aligned with the Common Core (See it on TpT)
I have this book, as well as Power Reading Workshop, and I love them both!  The organizers are so easy to choose and work with (especially love the Common Core alignment.)  I choose an organizer and do an example by myself, the next day, we do the same organizer, different prompt together (that stays in their binders) and the following day, same organizer, different prompt is homework. It's quick and easy for assessment, I can do a quick "interview" for those who have trouble writing - but I'm getting the needed info! ~ Hillary Moldovan
I LOVE using graphic organizers with my speech students. These tools give them an opportunity to tap in to their learning. Not every organizer works for every student, so I like to provide my students with many options for them to choose from. ~ Jocelyn Kupperman

Power Reading Workshop: A Step-by-Step Guide (See it on TpT)
This product has become my reading teaching bible for beginning my year.  Before I bought this item, I always struggled with starting an effective reading workshop.  But, now that I have this, I have a step-by-step guide on how to get my school year started successfully, while getting my students excited to read. ~ Jenny Washburn
This step-by-step guide is simply a fabulous way begin teaching reading using Readers' Workshop. The resources are already selected, the activities are perfectly designed around the texts, all of which allows the teacher to completely immerse students in the structures of the workshop. Having used the guide I can enthusiastically recommend it as a foolproof, fun, easy to use resource! ~ Amy Nash

Talking Sticks Discussions (See them on TpT)
I love this product because it's such a great review for reading. I've used it after read-alouds and my students all have the opportunity to share their thoughts and understanding about the book. I like the way it's laid out the questions are very thought-provoking. ~ Jessica Gunderson
This is another product I have purchased on TPT. I just bought it recently and have not been able to implement it into my curriculum yet but I am excited to be able to expose my student to this type of discussion in all content areas using the questions provided. This is a big part of the new Common Core and this resource is perfect for students to be able to explain their findings and thoughts in all areas while using the talking sticks concept which I have used for book discussions. ~ Kellie White
Daily Math Puzzlers Series (See them on TpT)
I like the multi-step problems that make my students walk through each step to prove their answer- it has challenged even my higher students and kept them on their toes!!! ~ Sarah Vasquez Kramer
I have found the program to be an excellent supplement to Math Expressions. I generally use it twice a week for morning work, and then have the students share their work on the document camera. I have also used these as a group or small group activity when introducing a new concept - in order to find out where students are in their reasoning and thinking. The structure of your program has particularly worked for one of my students with Aspergers. He started with Level A as he had difficulty with 2 step problems. He worked through some of Level A, Level B with help and then on his own, and Level C the same, help when needed, but more on his own as the year progressed. I am a firm believer in the power of your Math Puzzler Program!  ~ Cheryl Hackinen
Mastering Math Facts: Multiplication and Division (See it on TpT)
Last year was my first year in third grade. I was fortunate to find Laura's "Mastering Math Facts". My students were all able to go on to fourth grade knowing their multiplication!   And we had a ball using the ice cream theme to do it!  We celebrated at the end of the year with an ice cream party to celebrate our success!  Thank you! ~ Judi Robertson
I have used Mastering Math Facts for 2 years now.  I have found it to be a very effective and time efficient way to teach and test students to master their facts.  They love the games, and they are motivated to keep working so they can color in their ice cream sundae and enjoy an ice cream party! ~ Debbie Tice
Classroom Book Clubs: Literature Circles Made Easy (See it on TpT)
Before I bought this item, I spent a lot of time trying to find resources to help me get Book Clubs started in my classroom, and I still wasn't getting the results that I hoped for. Laura's Classroom Book Clubs has everything you need to get Book Clubs started in your classroom from rubrics to student self-reflections to journal prompts.  It was exactly what I was looking for! ~ Jenny Washburn
Learning is a social experience and using Literature Circles promotes reading, as well as, learning. I believe that any product that makes collaborative learning manageable should be in every teachers tool box. ~ Alicia Benton
Top Resource Recommendations
There you have it! Thanks to everyone who took time to fill out the form and let me know your favorite resources in my TpT store. If you missed last week's blog post with my top freebies, you can read the blog post, Laura Candler's Best Resources on TpT. If you have any favorites, I'd love to hear about them. Don't forget to follow me on TpT to find out when I add new freebies and resources!



Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Upper Elementary Seasonal Resources

Great Seasonal Teaching Resources and a Freebie!
Doing the same thing every day in the classroom is a recipe for boredom, so it’s fun to teach seasonal lessons from time to time to spice things up and engage students. Because most teachers don’t have time to waste, it’s important to select seasonal activities that are strong on content or those that provide opportunities to practice needed social skills. It can be difficult for upper elementary teachers to find seasonal activities that are fun yet meaningful, so I’d like to share a few places where you can always find them. Take a look!

Seasonal Page on Teaching Resources
If you’ve visited my Seasonal Page on Teaching Resources, you know that I update it each month with new seasonal freebies and resources for upper elementary teachers. You can can click the image on the right, or go to my Teaching Resources website and click on the File Cabinet link to find this page. Bookmark it often and check it often to find these new resources. 


Seasonal Pinterest Board
Another great source of seasonal resources is my Seasonal Teaching Resources board. It's packed with great seasonal resources pinned by over 30 teacher bloggers who post great seasonal teaching resources including lessons, games, crafts, and more. Not everything will be free, but even if an item costs money, it will be a worthwhile, time-saving resource! If you like this board, follow it!

Seasonal Activities Mini Packs
I have to admit that creating seasonal lessons is one of my favorite things to do! Over the years, I created a ton of these resources that I've enjoyed sharing other with teachers. I eventually compiled my very best activities into monthly Seasonal Mini Packs. Each packet includes a variety of lessons for upper elementary students that usually include literacy, math, science, social studies, and team building activities. 

My February Seasonal Activities Mini Pack shown here is absolutely free – all 25 pages of it - so that you can see the types of resources I create and try them out with your students. You can download it from my store on TeachersPayTeachers; please take a moment to rate it and leave a bit of feedback if you like it. Thanks! If you find these materials to be helpful, you might be interested in my other seasonal activity packs. The January Activities Mini Pack has loads of great activities for this month, and you can preview it here. You can find them all here on my Seasonal Mini Pack Page

If you're an upper elementary teacher and haven't used seasonal activities in your classroom, why not give it a try this month? When your students need a change from the regular routine, surprise them by doing something a little different. I think you'll find that taking just 30 minutes a week to do something a little different will rekindle that spark of enthusiasm in your classroom!

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Cooperative Learning - More Than Group Work


Did you know that there's a difference between cooperative learning and group work? I'll bet you thought those two terms were synonymous, but they're not. Let me show you how they are worlds apart.

Does this scenario sound familiar? The teacher assigns a group project, outlines the task, and gives a deadline for completion. Students are expected to work together and participate equally, but we all know what happens. The self-appointed leader takes over, makes all the decisions, and does most of the work. Other team members may contribute, but some do nothing or even become a distraction to the real work. When the final project is turned in, everyone gets the same grade no matter what they contributed to the project.

But what I just described is NOT cooperative learning. The scenario I described above is nothing more than unstructured group work, and there’s nothing research-based about it. No wonder it still gets a bad rap in some educational circles!

But if that's not cooperative learning, what does cooperative learning look like? I discovered the answer to this almost 20 years ago when I was first trained in the "structural" approach to cooperative learning developed by Dr. Spencer Kagan. In this model, academic tasks are structured or divided so that everyone participates equally and all students are held accountable. Dr. Kagan developed a wide variety of structures that have since been adopted by teachers all over the world, strategies that take the "group work" out of cooperative learning. I began implementing these strategies in my own classroom and found them to be extremely effective.

How to Foster Effective Team Discussions
Introducing accountability and rules of equal participation can be as easy as changing to a new team discussion format. Remember the scenario I mentioned above in which one person on the team does all the work? The same thing often happens in a team discussion when a teacher asks students to “talk it over with your team.” The assertive students dominate the discussion and the shy ones never have an opportunity to talk. To avoid this problem, try one of these strategies:
  • Place students in teams of 4 or 5 and have them number off in order around the team. After you pose a question, students take turns responding in numerical order. To provide even more structure, give each team member a certain amount of time to respond such as 30 seconds or a minute.
  • Pair students with one discussion partner and have them first discuss a topic together, and then share their ideas with the whole team.
  • Use objects such as plastic chips or craft sticks to equalize participation. Dr. Kagan suggests chips, but I use craft sticks because those chips roll everywhere! Give each student 3 sticks to hold during the discussion. When a question is presented, students who want to respond place a craft stick into a plastic cup. When students run out of sticks, they have to be quiet and listen to the rest of their teammates until all sticks are in the cup. 

Keep Discussions Focused with Question Cards
Another way to promote more effective discussions is to create question task cards to keep the discussion focused and moving along. Stack the cards face down in the middle of the team. The discussion leader flips over the top card, reads the question, and opens the topic for discussion. You can use question cards in almost any subject area. For examples of the types of questions that work well, take a look at my Talking Sticks Discussion cards shown here. I also created a set of Talking Sticks cards based on Common Core Reading Standards for each grade level, 2 through 5. You can explore those questions from this link to the Talking Sticks Common Core Combo pack.

Where to Learn More
Do you see how easy it is to make a few simple changes that will drastically increase accountability and participation? When you learn a few of the basics, you’ll be amazed at how simple it is to change group work into cooperative learning. If you are not familiar with Dr. Kagan's structural approach to cooperative learning, I highly recommend his book, Kagan Cooperative Learning, as the definitive resource on this topic. In addition to learning more about effective team discussions, you’ll discover a wealth of cooperative learning structures to bring order to what might otherwise turn into chaos in the classroom. I also recommend receiving several days of training from Kagan Professional Development to help you learn how to implement these strategies. One thing I loved about the training was the opportunity to experience the strategies and practice them during the workshop. The time just flew by and the whole experience was nothing short of transformative. I went from being burned out on teaching to fired up in the classroom! In fact, I embraced these strategies so fully that I ended up writing 5 cooperative learning books that were published by Kagan. You can see all of my books below and click here to find them all on the Kagan website.

Believe it or not, many educators are still skeptical about the benefits of cooperative learning. However, it's not cooperative learning that's the problem - it's poor implementation that turns teamwork into "group work." I used cooperative learning in my classroom for over 20 years and found it to be the very best way to actively engage students and keep them focused on instruction. As I worked with Dr. Kagan’s structural approach, I began to apply the principles of accountability and equal participation to my own instructional practices to ensure that each cooperative task was a learning opportunity for all. As I internalized these principals, I was able to create my own effective cooperative learning strategies. If you are one of those skeptics, I invite you to explore some of the resources in this blog post to discover the benefits of teamwork in the classroom. You can also explore the resources on the cooperative learning pages on my Teaching Resources website to discover strategies that are engaging as well as extremely effective.




Kagan Cooperative Learning books by Laura Candler
Click the image below to visit a page with links to all titles.

For more information on these cooperative learning titles, click on the links below.



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