Monthly Archives: February 2014

What happens when students choose their partners?

As a principal I get to go into classrooms in different ways than as a teacher. First of all, everyone sits up straighter! Sometimes, a hush falls over the room. But, what is interesting for me to reflect upon are the practices which have been around forever because I get to see them as an observer instead of as a teacher. One of those practices is picking partners.

There are many activities we do every day where kids need a partner or a group. And, as a teacher, I often didn’t give that a lot of thought. The quickest way for me to manage was to say find partner, find a group. Of course there were always kids left over but I fixed that and my lesson went on.

As I have observed classrooms more than I have taught them over the past few years (although I still love the teaching, so do ask me in when you want a break), I have noticed things about picking partners that I thought I would share.

1. The minute the teacher says there are going to be groups or partners, kids stop paying attention and start making eyes at each other to make sure they get in the “right” group.

2. Some students, in every class I’ve been in, immediately look at their desk or the floor. Their shoulders hunch in. They look unhappy.

3. During the process of choosing the groups or partners, in every class I’ve been in, some students have multiple people coming up to them asking to be their partner. Often that person spends a lot of time deciding exactly who to take. There is often begging. There appears to be a lot of power on the part of the partner of choice.

4. During the process of choosing the groups or partners, in every class I’ve been in, a few students run about madly asking a number of people to be their partner. They seem a bit desperate. I wonder if they aren’t worried about being left out.

5. During the process of choosing the groups or partners, in every class I’ve been in, a couple of students hang back and don’t say anything. Sometimes they are approached. Sometimes they are not approached by anyone at all. They make no effort to find a partner. They are usually hanging out at the back or edge of the group.

6. At the end of the process of choosing the groups or partners, in every class I’ve been in, there are students without partners or group members. The teacher then intervenes and places these students in groups or together. In every class I’ve been in, someone has made a face or rolled their eyes, or said something negative about their group member.

So…what is a teacher to do in order to have this process go smoothly and make everyone feel included and welcome?

 – Start with having your students understand that a working relationship is not the same as a friendship. Mutual respect in the classroom means that we can all figure out how to work together. Have very direct conversations about the types of comments and behaviours that will not be tolerated when students are asked to work together.

-  Mix up your groupings frequently so that kids have the opportunity to work with many different students all the time. For some activities you want homogeneous groups but for others heterogeneous groups might work.

-  You know who the friends are, so let them be in the same group sometimes, but not always.

-  You always choose the groups whether it is random or by design. Never leave choosing groups to the students or someone will feel left out.

 – Random groupings can be chosen by handing out coloured cards, by assigning numbers, by colour of hair, by height—there are lots of ways.

 – I suggest that working groups are created by the teacher and that students work together long enough to develop trust.

-  It is often handy to create partners for the month. You could even do it by homeroom so that no matter which class students were in, the teacher could say—find your partner—and it would be done. The next month, new partners.

The easiest thing for us, as teachers, is to say “find a partner”. But, guaranteed, someone is going to feel left out and lonely. I’m sure you aren’t planning for left out and lonely in your lesson plan. It is easy to avoid.

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Involving All Students in Answering Questions

When we ask questions in class, we are hoping to develop in our students a greater understanding of the material. We, as teachers, hope to pinpoint any misconceptions. But, too frequently, the questioning period of the lesson becomes a conversation between ourselves and a few students. We need to think about how to engage all students in the conversation.

If we think about feedback as being a way of knowing if your students are getting it, then you have to make sure you are asking questions that let you find out if they are getting it. Pay attention to the types of questions you ask. If they tend to be all one word answers, all factual questions, all yes or no questions, then you may wish to think about which type of strategy is going to give you the information you need for assessment.

If we think about feedback as helping students to understand a concept, then having them think about their answer in relation to others’ answers, is a type of feedback. Any time that a student has to express his or her thinking to another person, they are receiving feedback when the listener either understands or doesn’t. Any time that a student is able to compare his or her answer to others’ answers, they are receiving feedback.

As you are teaching this week you may want to think about the following:

1. How many of my questions can be answered yes or no and how many require a more thoughtful answer?

2. If you are asking questions in a whole group setting then you are often having a conversation with just one student at a time. Believe it or not, the others may not be listening at all. Here are some strategies:

a. Use little white boards so that everyone is participating and answering.
b. Use little white boards between 2 kids so that when they agree on an answer they write it down (and make them switch who has control of the marker regularly).
c. Ask other students to respond to the answer or paraphrase the answer not you.
d. Don’t sit at the front of the class but in the middle of the students.
e. Use a ball so that after one person answers the ball goes to someone else to add on not back to you.

3. Give enough wait time so everyone can answer. You could ask a question and tell kids to think about the answer and you aren’t going to ask anyone for the answer for 10 or 15 seconds. You can ask them to jot down the answer and then ask someone to share. Or, have table groups or partners share.

4. Use a knowledge building circle. Students and you sit in a circle and you start the conversation with a question or a comment. Anyone who wants to answer puts up their hand and you choose who answers. After that person finishes, anyone who has another question or wishes to respond puts their hand up. The person who just spoke gets to choose who speaks next based on who has their hand up. Only people with hands up can be chosen to speak. As the teacher you can put your hand up but need to wait to be chosen to speak. Think about how you could use this in math to talk about how to answer a question, in music or art to think about a particular form or art piece, in science to hypothesize, in history to discuss the causes of an event, in literature to discuss a character’s motivation or the author’s theme and so on.

5. Use exit cards to determine what kids have learned in a given class.

6. Use Today’s Meet ( or Padlet ( – check it out– it is like putting sticky notes on an online board) to have discussion about a rich question.

7. Keep track of who answers. Do you ask the same kids all the time? You want to be careful not to embarrass kids who don’t know the answer but only asking the kids with their hand up doesn’t mean others don’t know the answer. You can have everyone put thumbs down and ask a question. As individual students think they know the answer, they put their thumb up. You then can ask thumbs up people. This also forces you to wait until you have most kids with thumbs up. If you don’t, they need to turn and talk until most kids have thumbs up. Pretty soon your students will figure out that non-participation isn’t an option.

8. If you do ask a question to the whole group and ask for individual answers, ask multiple students to answer the same question without any feedback from you. You could record all the possible answers. Then have students think about all the possible answers to determine a best answer.

8. Ask the question and then have students turn and talk about the answer before you take it up with the whole class. Or, don’t take it up with the whole class since now you know everyone has talked about it.

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Multiple Entry Points into Learning


Differentiation, multiple entry points, small group instruction, individualized instruction, IEP’d students—how do we incorporate all of this with a seemingly packed curriculum and many students to teach?  Some days, we long for the average student.  In fact, the notion of the average student would suggest that it would be ok to teach to the middle and then the students on either side would just cope.  They would be able to find something.  The problem is, they don’t.

We have a professional responsibility to teach to each student and we know that each student brings different skills to the task.  With the case of students on an IEP, we have specifically told parents that we would be teaching something other than the grade level curriculum.  While we have certain end goals in mind (for both IEP and non-IEP students), what we need to be thinking about is how we get there.  That is where the curriculum document does NOT constrain us.  We do have the professional freedom to design our classrooms and lessons so that multiple ways of attaining the end goal are possible:  we can change the pace, the quantity of work, the number of opportunities to practice, the delivery of the material and, many times, the choice of topic.

The more constrained we are in the design of our lesson/activity, the less likely we are able to meet the learning needs of all students.

  • A photocopied worksheet is very hard to differentiate—either you get it or you don’t.  If you really get it, it is too easy.  If you really don’t get it, it is too hard.  There is only one entry point for most worksheets.
  • Worksheets offer very little choice.  Worksheets that offer lots of choice might as well be blank pieces of paper and we save on the photocopying.
  • Assigning the same number of questions for all students to do is only good for some.  If the student is struggling, s/he is already discouraged.  If the student gets it, s/he is bored (and there is no research to say that over-practicing a concept makes you learn it better).
  • A workshop environment with the teaching in minilessons is engaging for students and lets students determine their own entry level.  Don’t forget, you are still the teacher, and can guide students up or down as required.
  • Inquiry learning allows students to ask the questions about which they are interested.  This provides a variety of entry points as students determine their own interests and questions.  Students of all levels are more likely to be engaged if they are interested in the topic.  Don’t forget you are still the teacher, and can veto questions or guide students in the direction that meets the curriculum expectations.
  • You can create learning situations/problems/provocations that have different levels of difficulty.  Rarely will students choose the inappropriate level.  Don’t forget, you are still the teacher, and can help guide students in their choices.
  • If most of our lessons are to the whole group, we are teaching to the middle.  Try rethinking how you deliver information so that you minimalize whole group times and increase small group time.  We say we don’t have time for small group instruction, and we don’t if we use it all on the whole group.  There are some students who need more of your time and some who need less.  Fair is not equal.
  • The more you, the teacher, is involved in setting all the work tasks, the more you are constraining the learning of your students.  The more open your tasks are, the more students will be able to enter into meaningful learning.

As you plan for term two, challenge yourself to try something new that you think might engage more students in learning.  You might feel a bit uncomfortable at first, but no one will die.  And, don’t forget, you are still the teacher and if it isn’t working you can always change your mind.

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Filed under Authentic Tasks, Differentiation, learning golas, small group instruction