Archive for January, 2010

The Art of Teaching Writing in Application: Writing Workshop in Writing Instruction

I went to Malang for TEFLIN 2009. It was my first experience to be UNNES representative for an international conference. Though I didn’t get full financial support from the faculty, I could go there and present after all. My presentation, workshop to be exact, was attended by four participants: one from Indonesia, two from Brunai, and one from Malaysia. It’s really an international conference 🙂 Unfortunately, I was the only Indonesian running a workshop at that slot, Wednesday 9, 2009, at around 4pm. The other workshoppers were all Americans. Actually, I expected that there would be some Americans attending my workshop, as I learned about Writing Workshop from an American writer and lecturer. I got a grant from TEFLIN Board because of my paper; it was categorized as one of the best papers, will be promoted to be published in national-internationally aspirated journal. I am thankful for the reward/grant I got. It’s an appreciation for my effort to keep on learning. The following is the paper:

The Art of Teaching Writing in Application:  Writing Workshop in Writing Instruction

Puji Astuti, S.Pd., M.Pd.

English Education Program

English Department

Faculty of Languages and Arts

Semarang State University

puji_astuti@staff.unnes.ac.id

Writing is perceived as the most difficult skill to teach by teachers (Alwasilah, 2003). It implies that most teachers are short of informed knowledge about writing and appropriate ways of teaching it. Alwasilah and Alwasilah (2006) argue that it is one of the mistakes of Indonesian education system. This paper intends to describe and discuss a method of teaching writing namely writing workshop and its advantages for both student writers and writing teacher. Lucy McCormick Calkins (1994) in her book, The Art of Teaching Writing, sets down components of writing workshop that include:  mini lesson, work time (writing and conferring), peer conferring and/or response groups, share sessions, and publication celebration. A needs analysis of student writers that I conducted from 2005 to 2006 indicated that there are four features that the student writers consider essential in a writing instruction, they are: 1) sample writing, 2) collaborative writing, 3) group/class discussion, and 4) feedback. If writing teachers apply writing workshop in their writing class, it is high time that those four features are present in their instruction.

In mini lesson, teacher offers something to the class that is meant to inspire and instruct or introduce a writing strategy, done at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of the workshop. Work time is an indispensable part of writing workshop. During work time, students start their new piece of writing or go on to the next stage of their writing. Teacher moves among individuals, conferring with them. These conferences are at the heart of teaching writing.

Peer conferences or response groups provide a forum for students to talk about works in progress. Response group begins with the “status of the group” reports in which each member of the group says, in a single sentence, what he or she needs that day. Out of these requests, a student who is acting as the facilitator of the response group sets up an agenda.

One format for a share session is that each of three or four students take a turn sitting in the author’s chair at the front of the circle reading notebook entries or a draft aloud and soliciting responses from listeners. Another format is that the group shares their process of writing, perhaps talking about t an upcoming deadline or brainstorming together on what individual writers can do when they are stuck.

At regular intervals throughout the semester, student writers come together to publish and celebrate their finished work. The publication could be in the form of portfolio, anthology of students’ work, blog, or others.

It is suggested that writing teacher arrange the components in a variety of different ways, depending on the needs of the class. If the components become regular activities in a writing class, the students can anticipate and plan for it since they know what to expect. On the part of the teachers, applying writing workshop allows them to listen and respond to individual students. Such conduct is an evidence of professionalism in writing instruction.

Key words: writing instruction, writing workshop, components of writing workshop

Background

The following student writer’s testimony describes his past experience in learning writing which he considered bitter and how his new writing teacher really appreciates his work, resulting in growth of confidence as a writer:

I can honestly say that I was never taught to write. I got more red-pen comments that any other students. Circles, cross-outs, underlines, and the worst one ever:  the question mark. This didn’t help my writing, it only bruised my ego. Not one teacher ever said to me:  “This is what I want to see.” They never showed me any example of good writing that I could learn from. I knew I couldn’t write and I knew it, too. But nobody ever tried to change that. There was no such a thing as a first or second draft, only the final. I would just turn something in and hope for the best.

Now I work for a new teacher and he points out all the positives and helps me to improve the negatives. He shows me what I am already doing well and helps me learn how to fix my problems. I actually have a writing process, not just a piece of paper with million different ideas scattered everywhere.

It feels good when you can turn something in and know people will respond well to it. I was capable of being a good writer, I just needed to be shown the basics—things like sentence fluency, organization, voice, or even word choice. Writing has, in one way or another, helped my whole outlook on school and own future as well—two things I never really thought about. Things are going great… This year, writing has come more easily to me. Actually, I love it. I’m now able to write a piece of work that I’m really proud of… My life is completely on a different path that it was a year ago. Actually, it’s going in the opposite direction. I love it, too (Peha, 2003).

What do we learn from the above testimony? There are two types of writing teachers that the student writer described. Which type of writing teacher you are more into? Is it the one in the past or the new teacher? Or, you are in between the two conducts? Well, it is obvious in the testimony that student writer needs sample writing, writing processes, feedback, words of encouragement, and audience. This article intends to discuss and describe a teaching method namely writer’s workshop or writing workshop and its advantages for both student writers and writing teachers.

Process Approach in Writing Instruction

Writing workshop method is under the umbrella of process approach to writing instruction. Adewumi Oluwadiya in Krall (1995:122) lists down principal features of this approach:

  • a view of writing as a recursive process that can be taught;
  • an emphasis on writing as a way of learning as well as communicating;
  • a willingness to draw on other disciplines, notably cognitive, psychology and linguistics;
  • the incorporation of a rhetorical context, a view that writing assignments include a sense of audience, purpose, and occasion;
  • a procedure for feedback that encourages the instructor to intervene during the process (formative evaluation), and so aid the student to improve his first or initial drafts;
  • a method of  evaluation that determines how well a written product adapts the goals of the writer to the needs of the reader as audience; and
  • the principle that writing teachers should be people who write.

The features listed above, to a certain degree, are found in writing workshop in writing instruction. There are some indispensable parts of writing workshop that have the features of process approach to writing instruction, they are: individual writing processes, individual conferences, sharing and feedback session, mini lesson, and publication.

Related Research that Supports Writing Workshop

As an effort to evaluate a writing curriculum implemented in an undergraduate English education program of Semarang State University, I conducted an analysis of the needs of student writers in the program. The study was conducted from 2005-2006. It focused on four aspects of the curriculum: 1) the goals/objectives of the writing courses, 2) the approaches/methodology, 3) the classroom management, and 4) the class/program resources.

In terms of classroom management, the study indicated that the number of writing assignments during a semester should not be too many; four would be an ideal number during a semester. With that number, students could go through writing processes with necessary feedback both from peers and lecturer. Assignment should allow student writers learn writing through the act of writing or reading. Another aspect in the scope of classroom management that the study revealed is words of encouragement. The student writers in the study asserted that they need words of encouragement given by their writing lecturer on a regular basis during the course since writing is not an easy task for them.

In terms of approaches/methodology, it was revealed that the approach and method of teaching and learning employed in the writing courses were not contextual and did not meet the students’ needs because of some reasons: 1) teaching method mainly applied in the four courses was lecturing, this teaching method made the students bored with their writing course, 2) the needs of most of the students to do collaborative writing in their writing class was not accommodated, 3) the four courses employed product approach to teaching writing while process approach to teaching writing was more suitable to the students’ needs, 4) necessary feedbacks on the students’ writing assignments were not given, and 5) the four courses hardly connected reading and writing as the agenda of class session or as part of assignments during the course. Student respondents in the study see four aspects they considered essential in a writing course, namely: group/class discussion, sample writing, collaborative writing, and feedback.

The research suggests the program to employ a method of teaching writing namely writing workshop since the four features do exist in the components of writing workshop: mini lesson, work time (writing and conferring), peer conferring/response group, share session, and publication celebration (paragraphs that follow describes each of the component). Group/class discussion is done in mini-lesson, peer conferring/ response group, and/or share session. Sample writing is presented or discussed in mini lesson, collaborative writing in peer conferring/response group or share session, and feedback is provided in mini lesson, work time, peer conferring/response group, and share session. Even in publication celebration, student writers might get either written or oral feedback from the readers of their work, be it from their neighboring classes, teachers in the school, parents, or form a wider context of audience.

Writing Workshop

Writing workshop is a style of individualized writing instruction that enables students to learn at their own pace. The key to writing workshop is highly individualized instruction as well as a communal effort that encourages sharing. Every student learns at his or her own pace, and writing workshop can accommodate for each student on an individual basis, which allows students to learn at a developmentally appropriate rate (Waganan, 2008). Calkins (1994) suggests five components of writing workshop which, according to her friend Pat Wilk, are like modular furniture that can be arranged in a variety of different ways. The components are described by Calkins as follows:

  • Mini-Lessons

Some teachers begin (or end) every workshop with the ritual of a mini lesson. Students usually gather in a close circle, often sitting on a carpet. The teacher (or eventually, a student) offers something to the group that is meant to inspire and instruct. The teacher may begin by saying: “I want to read something that I found that is lovely. In the silence after I read, let’s all go back to our desks—absolutely quietly—and begin to write.” Or the teacher may begin, “Last night, I was looking through your writing and realized that many of you are struggling with something that is difficult for me as well…” When the mini-lesson is about something every writer needs to do often, such as rereading one’s work or keeping an image of one’s topic in mind, the mini-lesson end with the teacher suggesting that each writer spend more time that day (or even right then and there) doing a particular thing. Often, the teacher introduces a strategy that may go onto a class chart or into student notebooks for future reference, but that is only timely for a handful of students. Those writers may work together after the mini-lesson while the rest of the class disperses.

  • Work Time (Writing and Conferring)

Work time is the only indispensable part of the writing workshop. During work time, students go to their desks, tables, or patches of floor space as artists in a studio go to their stations, and they work on their ongoing projects. Unless the class is doing a genre study (such as reading and writing poetry), students will probably be writing very different things, while one student writing an essay, another a poem. At the beginning of the year, students may move along somewhat in unison, while teachers suggest that everyone might try this strategy or that one. Later in the year, it’s much more likely that a handful of students will be gathering entries toward finding a topic, while others are editing finished work. Once they year is underway, students tend to take different lengths in time on their pieces, with one spending a week on a piece, another, two weeks. Generally, the rule is that during the workshop, everyone writes. When you finish one piece, you move on to another. Some teachers write alongside students for a few minutes of silent work time, then, generally, the teacher moves among individuals, conferring with them. These conferences are at the heart of our teaching.

  • Peer Conferring and/or Response Groups

Response groups meet almost daily for at least twenty minutes. Frequently, the response group begins with the “status of the group” reports in which each member of the group says, in a single sentence, what he or she needs that day. Out of these summaries and requests, the child who is acting as the facilitator of the response group sets up an agenda. “We’ll help Ben with this ending and then help Jerome with getting an idea and then help Sarah with her “Is it done?” question,” the facilitator may say. When it is a student’s turn for help, he or she talks about the writing, read relevant sections aloud, answers the groups’ questions, and thinks aloud about the writing. Most of the talk about a piece is done by the writer. The group acts mostly as a sounding board. Often response groups end with each member saying in one sentence what he or she will do before the group meets again. As writers, we need to be able to see what is almost there in a draft; we need to be able to see possibilities. We need to be able to imagine a draft written differently. People learn this special kind of reading by reading work in progress and talking about it. Peer conferences and response groups provide a forum for this. Peer conferences are usually student-initiated, five-minute-long talks about works in progress. Response groups are usually formed by students at the teacher’s suggestion, and there are usually four or five members in a response group.

  • Share Sessions

Share sessions generally begin after the entire class has gathered on a corner carpet or in a circle of chairs. The overt purpose of these sessions is to share and support work in progress, but there is also another purpose. Share sessions function as public, teacher-supported conferences. One format for a share session is that each of three or four children take turn sitting in the author’s chair at the front of the circle reading notebook entries or a draft aloud and soliciting responses from listeners.  Another format is that the group shares their process writing, perhaps talking about how they feel about silent writing time or about an upcoming deadline, or brainstorming together on what individual writers can do when they are stuck. These formats provide models for what students can do in their response groups and peer conferences.

  • Publication Celebrations

At regular intervals throughout the year writers come together to publish and celebrate their finished work. Some teachers set up a schedule so that four students publish every Friday, and before their day these students work on final revisions and hold editing conferences. Other teachers use celebrations as a way to punctuate the year for the entire class. These teachers may think of the year as divided into six-or-eight week units, with a celebration climaxing each unit. For example, a class of sixth graders may publish writing in a genre of their choice in mid-October. They may then all work on a poetry course of study, which ends with a second celebration, this one focused on poetry. Most teachers do different things in different celebrations. They may invite parents and grandparents into the classroom for one celebration, another time help each writer make an audiotape of his or her best work, and another time publish and toast a literary anthology.

There are some points regarding writing workshop and its components that need our attention, as follows:

  • Work time or individual writing should be given the biggest amount of time and it is an indispensable part of writing workshop.
  • Individual conference is the heart of writing workshop. I believe it is when the art of teaching writing flourishes in the classroom.
  • The outline of the writers workshop is more or less this way:
  1. Mini-lesson (5-10 minutes)
  2. Work time, writing and conferencing (20-40 minutes)
  3. Peer conferring and/or response group (2-5 minutes)
  4. Share session (10 minutes)
  • Teacher needs to be creative when it comes to publication celebration. It does not only mean posting students’ works in school wall magazine or publishing them in school magazine. Think of a more creative way to publish students’ work, for example, posting them in a blog. The point is students’ works are read by a wider context of audience.
  • It is a good thing that reading-writing connection attends in writing workshop. It is conducted in mini lesson. For example, we can read aloud from a wonderful literature to learn from the author’s way of coming to a resolution.
  • Writing workshop is definitely possible to be applied in any context of writing instruction. However, I believe, it is more advantageous in a class of not more than 30 students.

The Art of Teaching Writing in Application

Writing teachers or instructors, first of all, need to have a broad knowledge on writing. Secondly, they must have broad knowledge on principles and methodologies of teaching writing. Thirdly, they must have continuous passion both in learning about writing and about how to teach it. If those requirements are not met, it is high time that writing instruction is not on a professional track, resulting in students’ very slow progress of writing proficiency. Alwasilah (2003) argues that writing teachers or instructors must be writer themselves because a writer instructor does not only know how to teach but also has first-hand experience in writing. No-writer instructors, Alwasilah claims, tend to emphasize theories of writing because of their lack of empirical experience.

Applying writing workshop method means experiencing the art of teaching writing. It is because there is mutual interaction in writing workshop, Alwasilah (2003) states that mutual interaction is where students are treated as human beings that need rewards, encouragement, and motivation. During the workshop, they get comments, corrections, and advice for improvement, be it from their peers or from their teacher. It is an indication of professional writing instruction. Moreover, applying writing workshop in writing instruction means applying student-centered teaching; there is always negotiation between students and teachers, students are empowered, and their voices are heard. It is an art. Both parties, students and teachers, can express their feelings in writing workshop.

Bibliography

Alwasilah, A. Chaedar. 2003. Language, Culture, and Education: A Portrait of      Contemporary Indonesia. Bandung: Andira.

Alwasilah, A. Chaedar and Alwasilah, Senny Suzanna. 2005. Pokoknya Menulis: Cara Baru

Menulis Dengan Metoda Kolaborasi. Bandung: PT Kiblat Buku Utama.

Astuti, Puji. 2007.  Analyzing the Needs of Undergraduate Student Writers of the Department of English Education of Semarang State University as a Means of Evaluating its Writing Curriculum. Unpublished thesis.

Calkins, Lucy McCormick. 1994. The Art of Teaching Writing. Ontario: Irwin           Publishing.

Peha, Steve. 2003. Writing across Curriculum. Teaching that Makes Sense. http://www.ttms.org

Waganan, Jennifer. 2008. Teaching Writing with Writers Workshop: An Individualized Method to Teaching Students How to write. http://newteachersupport.suite101.com/article.cfm/teaching_writing_with_writers_workshop

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Cooperative Learning

I was introduced to this teaching method when I was in my graduate school. It was a guest lecturer who taught us the method. He was in charge of teaching some subjects: Academic Writing, EYL, SLA, and EFL Methodologies. It was a wonderful learning experience! The impact of his teaching is that I am now a better teacher. Cooperative learning  (CL) is a teaching method that I believe is a powerful method that is suitable for every setting of education. The following is an article from Dr. Spencer Kagan, a well-known figure in CL,  about CL (its pros, cons, and tips):

Cooperative Learning: Seventeen Pros and

Seventeen Cons plus Ten Tips for Success
Dr. Spencer Kagan
(Kagan Online Magazine, Winter 1999)

I am just a bit biased in favor of cooperative learning. So you might want to get a second opinion about the cons of cooperative learning. But, let’s start with the seventeen pros. (By the way, research backing up these claims is summarized and referenced in my basic book, Cooperative Learning.)

Seventeen Pros

1. Academic Achievement. Over 500 research studies back the conclusion that cooperative learning produces gains across all content areas, all grade levels, and among all types of students including special needs, high achieving, gifted, urban, rural, and all ethnic and racial groups. In terms of consistency of positive outcomes cooperative learning remains the strongest researched educational innovation ever with regard to producing achievement gains.

2. Ethnic/Race Relations. Not as many studies here, but the effect sizes are even greater and more consistent than with academic achievement. Heterogeneous cooperative teams are the single most effective tool we as educators and we as a nation have to transform race relations in positive ways. In classrooms without cooperative learning, there is increasing polarization along race lines over time; in classrooms with cooperative learning, there is increasing cross-race friendships and mutual understanding.

3. Self-Esteem. Students in cooperative learning teams increase in feelings social and academic esteem. These increases in self-esteem are realistic as the students in fact do better academically and are accepted more by their peers.

4. Empathy. Students in cooperative learning teams gain in ability to take the role of the other and to understand and empathize with the point of view and feelings of others.

5. Social Skills. Cooperative learning increases a long list of social skills, including listening, taking turns, conflict resolution skills, leadership skills, and teamwork skills. Students coming from cooperative learning classrooms are more polite and considerate of others.

6. Social Relations. Students in classrooms in which there is cooperative learning feel accepted, liked, and cared for. Again, these feelings are realistic as in fact cooperative learning results in more mutual acceptance and caring among students. They have more friends.

7. Class Climate. Cooperative learning leads to increased liking for school, class, academic content, and the teacher.

8. Responsibility. Cooperative learning is associated with enhanced internal sense of control; students feel more like origins than pawns. They take more initiative and feel more responsible for the outcomes they receive. They feel more effective. Their increased sense of efficacy is realistic because in cooperative learning they make more choices and have more input into what and how to study. What they do makes a difference.

9. Diversity skills. As a result of working in heterogeneous cooperative teams, students learn to understand and work with others who differ from themselves. These skills are essential for the 21st century as we are becoming more and more diverse.

10. Higher Level Thinking Skills. One of the main roads to higher level thinking is interaction with points of view different from one’s own. Each of us carries his or her own set of information and way of interpreting that information. We tend to persist in our own way of thinking until we are challenged by interacting with someone with different information and/or a different way of interpreting the information. At that point we are pushed to higher level thinkingĂ‘a higher level synthesis. Interaction in heterogeneous teams, therefore, creates higher level thinking.

11. Individual Accountability. In a traditional classroom a student can dream, knowing they will not be held accountable if only they don’t raise their hand to be called on. In a cooperative learning team there is not the luxury to slip through the cracks. As we do a RoundRobin, for example, each student in turn is held accountable to make a contribution.

12. Equal Participation. Volunteer participation leads to some always raising their hands, and others volunteering seldom or never. In cooperative learning structures, there is not the luxury to slip through the cracks, making participation more equal. For example, in a Timed Pair Share each student has equal time to share.

13. Increased Participation. If we call on students one at a time, even if we said nothing, and transitions were done in no time, in a class of 30 it would take 30 minutes to give each student one minute to share his or her point of view. In pairs the same amount of participation can be accomplished in two minutes! Overall, therefore students in cooperative learning are engaged a far higher percent of the time.

14. Social Orientation. In the traditional classroom students see each other as an obstacle. They know there are a limited number of top grades, and the success of another decreases their own probability of success. In cooperative learning students know the success of a teammate (mastering the material, for example) will increase the probability of their own success. They begin to see others as someone to work with rather someone to beat.

15. Learning Orientation. Too often students in traditional classrooms do their assignments for a grade. In cooperative learning they more often do their work for the joy of working with others, accomplishing a challenging goal, and being of worth to their teammates and classmates.

16. Self-Knowledge and Self-Realization. Students in interaction with others learn about themselves. If I am dominant, shy, rude, or overly-helpful, I do not discover that until I interact with and get feedback from others. This self-knowledge leads to change and growth so I am more likely to realize my potential. Alone, in an important sense, we are stuck; in interaction we grow.

17. Workplace Skills. Students learn how to work in teams, preparing them for the interdependent team-based workplace of the 21st Century in which increased technology and complexity demands increasing use of interdependent teams.

Seventeen Cons

It seems only fair that we come up with seventeen downsides to cooperative learning, if nothing else, to respect the need for symmetry. It turns out cooperative learning can go wrong in many ways. None of the following downsides have to happen. I and others have spent a good part of our lives designing methods to ensure they do not. For example, the largest chapter of my basic book on cooperative learning is on social skills. It deals with issues like what to do with difficult clients, the student who refuses to work with others, the rejected student, the hostile student, the shy student, and so on. The reason I devote so much attention to the social skills in my book is that students today have not been socialized like those of prior generations. Many do not come to school with basic politeness, caring about the needs and feelings of others, or the ability to control impulses. So, when we put students in groups, there is potential for all sorts of social interaction problems. Cooperative learning does not create the lack of social skills, it unmasks it. There are six keys to successful cooperative learning:

1. How to form teams (Teams)
2. How to create the will among students to work together (Will)
3. How to manage the cooperative classroom (Manage)
4. How to foster social skills (Social Skills)
5. How to make sure there is Positive Interdependence, Individual Accountability, Equal Participation, and Simultaneous Interaction (PIES), and
6. How to structure the social interaction within groups to maximize different types of positive outcomes (Structures).

We say, “Teams Will Manage Social Skills and PIES through Structures.” A teacher needs all six keys to avoid the cons of cooperative learning. Only the prepared teacher will be able to avoid the major pitfalls. All of the following pitfalls can be avoided, but when they are not, they constitute the cons of cooperative learning.

1. Lack of Social Skills. Students who do not know how to work together. Without instruction and structuring students will put each other down, boss each other around, and fail to resolve basic task conflicts (the topic for the team project) and social conflicts (I hate Johnny and won’t work with him).

2. Group Grades. Team projects which have a group grade create resentments and are unfair. One student does most or all the work, the rest receive the grade.

3. Lack of Diversity Skills. Once heterogeneous teams are formed the high achiever looks across the table at the lowest achiever in the class and says, loud enough for everyone to hear, “I don’t want that dummy on my team.” The lower achiever retaliates with “Nerds suck!”

4. Avoidance of Failure. A student is afraid to appear dumb in front of his peers and masks the fear of failure by not participating, saying, “This [task] is stupid,” or “Cooperative learning is dumb!”

5. Between Team Competition. Only the best teams receive recognition or rewards. After not winning several times, some teams stop trying, finding it face-saving to say “We don’t care.” They don’t admit they really want to win and cannot.

6. Within Class Tracking. Tournaments are set up so the highest achievers go to the highest tournament table, and the lowest achievers go to the lowest tournament table. After a few times, those at the lowest tournament table realize they are the “dummy table” and drop in self-esteem.

7. Complex Co-op Lessons. Complex cooperative learning lessons are planned. They take so much time and effort that cooperative learning occurs only occasionally, and the benefits of cooperative learning are not reaped.

8. Special Materials. Cooperative learning methods are adopted which require special methods and materials. After the curriculum is adapted to the special methods, and materials are laboriously created, the teacher changes grade level or the curriculum focus is shifted, making the materials useless, so cooperative learning is dropped.

9. No Parent Prep. The teacher uses the “Guess the Fib” strategy without first explaining it to parents. When Susie comes home from school, her mother asks her what she did in class today. She responds, “Our teacher taught us how to lie!” Her mother is outraged.

10. Stepping on Sensitive Toes. A teacher uses a Line-Up on the pros and cons of abortion in an attempt to have students take a stance on a social issue and articulate their own point of view. A student goes home and reports he had to paraphrase the ideas of a pro abortion classmate. The anti-abortion parent is outraged, accusing the school of brainwashing his child.

11. Dependency. Students work almost exclusively in teams. They become dependent on their teammates and do not want to work alone.

12. No Principal Prep. A teacher is using the Same/Different strategy in her class. An uninformed principal peeks into the room and walks out saying, “I came to observe you teaching. I see you have the students playing games. I will come back later when you are teaching.”

13. Lack of Management Strategies. A teacher fails to put a quiet signal in place and becomes exhausted attempting to control the attention of the students.

14. Off Task Behavior. Students are working on a math project in teams. One mentions a bit of hot gossip. The students get completely off task.

15. No preparation with neighboring teacher. The students are doing a Team Chant. They become very loud. The teacher next door peeks in and looks aghast, asking, “Have you completely lost control of your classroom?”

16. No preparation with Community. A radio broadcaster who has never seen real cooperative learning in action and who has not reviewed the research, loudly proclaims cooperative learning is the misguided attempt to have students who know very little about a topic teach others who know even less.

17. Feeling Used; Being Used. A parent of a high achieving student complains his son or daughter is being used, spending time teaching the dummies in the class, rather than learning critical curriculum.

Clearly cooperative learning is not for the timid. There is potential for any number of problems. To avoid those problems it is tempting to have the students sit in rows, not talk or interact with each other, and quietly take notes from a wise teacher. We can do that. We can choose to mask the fact that students do not have social skills. But then, when or how will they acquire the social interaction skills which will most predict their life success and enjoyment? If we are too afraid of the potential pitfalls of cooperative learning, we fail to reap the potential benefits.

Laurie’s favorite T-shirt says “The Greatest Risk in Education is Not Taking One.” Thankfully there is a strong community of researchers, theorists, and teachers who have worked hard for the last quarter of a century to minimize the risks.

There now exists a great deal of methodology which allows us to reap the benefits while avoiding the pitfalls. Can we obtain the pros without also the cons? Yes! Following some simple principles goes a long way toward allowing a relatively painless transition into the wonderful world of cooperative learning. Some of my favorites:

Ten Tips for Success with Cooperative Learning

1. Never use group grades.
2. Inform and establish buy-in with parents, your principal, PTA, and community members before transforming your classroom.
3. Do not assume social skills from students; carefully structure for their acquistion.
4. Do not allow interaction which exceeds your management methodology.
5. Create the will to work together (via teambuilding and classbuilding) before moving to academic tasks.
6. Begin with highly structured and brief cooperative tasks, move slowly to unstructured and longer projects.
7. When you are ready for academic tasks, begin with tasks which are well within the capacity of even the lowest achiever.
8. Do not allow unstructured interaction until students have acquired both the will and the skills to work together.
9. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel: begin with proven, structured student interaction strategies.
10. Take it slow. Make it easy on yourself and your students. Learn one new strategy well before attempting the next new strategy.

Best of luck. And remember—we are here to help. If you have questions, post them on the Q&A board on this web site and I or one of the Kagan staff will respond.

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Learning through Performing

I visited my previous workplace yesterday. I went there with an intention: to encourage the teachers there to start writing, especially academic writing. I started by reminding them the importance of professional development, why it is necessary for teachers to do academic writing, then I moved on to introduction to academic writing. Well, the audiences were attentive and enthusiastic. One thing that I should always remember is: by presenting (sometimes I prefer to call it performing), I realize that there is much more to learn so I could perform better next time. Implication: asking students to present their understanding, views, what they read, is a fruitful medium of learning. Plus, teacher’s guidance!

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Academic Discussion

Having academic discussion with colleagues on regular basis is part of professional development. However, it should be done with trustable colleagues. I argue, for professional development to take place, those colleagues should:

  • listen without judging
  • responding without feeling superior
  • giving feedback without asking something in return
  • not telling the world over public address system about what we are working on
  • not requiring us to always ‘report’ to him or her

Let’s find our trustable colleagues!

Happy finding!

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Do not handicap your children by making their lives easy. Robert Heinlein

I think this quote suits my present situation. I gave one student E, and three students D for their grade this semester. Part of my heart says pity for them to get E because the number of their attendance meets the requirement. The other part of my heart says the otherwise. The score, I guarantee, reflect their competence in the subject.

I google characters of favorite lecturer the other day and read some students from other universities’ comments about it. I tried to get facts than opinion. Many of the students stated that their lecturers did not require full attendance in their course. Even two students stated that they may not come as long as they have their quizzes, mid, and final test.

It is not shocking me because I’ve heard such information long before I attended my undergraduate program. It is an illegal conduct in my university!

Again about score, should I upgrade their score? The answer is a big NO. C’mon, people have to see the other students’ work.

I am handicapping my students if I give them score which does not reflect their knowledge and competence.

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