Thursday, November 10, 2016

Forging Friendships and Unity

"You know, Señora, we are all friends today because you made us work together."

At our senior dinner my students told me, "You know, Señora, we are all friends today because you made us work together". 

There have been times that I have despaired. The students assigned to my class came unwillingly, unhappily. At times they were hostile, and sometimes even violent--throwing both insults and fists. They didn't like themselves, didn't like each other, didn't like Spanish, didn't like school. I felt like a lone firefighter, rushing in different directions to extinguish one flame after another.

Each year's classes and students are unique. Each class develops a personality as it develops a routine. It's my responsibility to shape that identity, and it takes conscious effort and determination.

Students gravitate toward their friends and toward classmates with whom they have the most in common--don't we all? If I let them, the students would choose partners at the beginning of the school year and they would never change. Some students would never work with anyone, choosing to be alone while surrounded by their peers.

So, why do I force group work, and why do I force them into new (and sometimes uncomfortable) groups?

Students' first choices aren't always their BEST choices. 

They naturally gravitate to their friends, but often this leads to distractions. Conversations and minds wander, and students' work suffers. At other times, students will do less than their best work because they rely too heavily on a friend, or because they don't want to look "too smart" in front of their friends. Peer pressure is intense.

Strengths and weaknesses remain the same if unchallenged. 

When the students work with the same people time after time, their work becomes predictable as well. Jim knows that Sarah can read this paragraph, so he can let her tell him what it says. Emily doesn't have to figure out how to write that sentence; she can just copy Tim's answer, "because he's good at it". Jamie and Tony don't know and don't care; they can't and won't learn Spanish.

Students have different ways of thinking and understanding. 

When they work in different groups, all receive exposure to how their classmates process information and learn to use it. They can help each other learn, understand, apply. The students become coaches simply by sharing their learning processes.

Weaknesses can become strengths. 

Joe rushes through every assignment because it's easy. He makes careless mistakes but understands in general. Cara is cautiously slow because she is not confident. When they work together, Cara ask questions and Joe has to take his time to think and explain. He helps her to gain confidence and skill; she helps him to improve accuracy and attention to detail.

The "real world' is waiting, and my students have to be ready. 

They must be able to work with others, regardless of personality, strengths and weaknesses, attitude. My students must know how to communicate, to coach, to ask questions, to accomplish a task, and how to bring out the best in themselves and in each other.

If this is as important as I say, then I have to be deliberate and persistent; I can't stop insisting on new groupings, regardless of their protests or pleadings. Admittedly, it's easiest to say, "With a partner...". (Note to self: I've been letting this slide lately.)

At the beginning of the year I devoted significant time to establishing class norms. For our classes, "Norms" are what we need to succeed: from the teacher, from our classmates, from ourselves. The students spent considerable time drafting their ideas, sharing and comparing, and then selecting the most important items. When they finished, I gave each student a typed copy, along with a few of my own suggestions. This is one of the most important:

Friendship is not necessary to be coworkers:

you have a mutual goal.

You can view our final Class Norms with these links:

This year I printed seating charts with a notation: "Students are encouraged to move around the room and sit with different people each day." Three of my six classes have really taken this to heart, and I have seen a lot of growth:
  • The Spanish 5 students began the year creating their own class norms: a word web about "Familia" (in Spanish V we are now family). These dozen students continually ensure that all are welcomed and heard, and they have extended this care to a Spanish exchange student who regularly comes to visit. I'm so proud of them all!

  • In Spanish 4 last week, the students were in groups of 3-5 to accomplish a task. One group of close friends was not working well together and knew it. Making a difficult decision, they chose to part ways and join other groups. Their task was accomplished; their friendship remains intact. I am excited by their maturity and wisdom.
  • My lunchtime class of Spanish 3 impresses me daily. They move around the room, often with one friend, and they work together to accomplish the day's tasks. None of them tries to be the lone holdout, and we have yet to have a conflict between students. 

  • Two classes of Spanish 3 and one class of Spanish 4 have become "habituated," stationing themselves in the same places, and working with the same people. I need to shake them from this lethargy.

"It's funny. We are all so different, but here we all get along."

How do you help students to stretch out of their comfort zones?

What advantages / disadvantages do you see to continually changing seating arrangements?

What are your favorite activities to build / promote classroom unity?


  1. Barbara,
    I fluctuate between wanting to let the kids choose their own partners and assigning partners or group membership. Whenever I let them choose partners, which is rare, they end up making inappropriate choices for the learning task at hand. My students are 5th graders so self-control is much harder than for high schoolers, I think. So, I opt to assign partnerships and I tell the kids that the partnerships are for learning purposes. After a couple of months, I think they do begin to understand this better. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thank you for reading amd commenting, Elisa. You are right, it takes training and explaining for them to understand the purpose, and it takes continuous self-discipline to make the choices best for learning.



(This blog is a conversation between my good friend (and instructional coach), Mrs. Stephanie Sandrock, and myself. As is often the case, I...