Experimenting with Visible Random Groupings

In some ways I think that I am intellectually adventurous, that I am willing to try something new in my classroom. In other ways I struggle with change. I try to make myself feel better about this by reminding myself that we all struggle with this in varying degrees.

This past summer – my third lucky summer at Twitter Math Camp – I finally committed to trying visible random grouping (to be referred to as VRG for the rest of the post) for this academic year. A little background here.

When I moved up north in the fall of 2007 I made a commitment to not have my students in rows and columns. I no longer felt comfortable with most of my students looking at the back of other students’ heads. So, I rearranged the seats at my old school in ‘pods’ of three or four desks. However, I always let students pick where they wanted to sit. As most of us know, even if WE don’t assign seats, the students essentially do this themselves. I comforted myself by thinking about the camaraderie I saw, by listening in on the lively conversations that did not happen when my students sat as if they were in a matrix, and by the fact that I know that I would have preferred life this way as a student. When I moved to my new school I had two long conference style tables so I had two largish groups of students working with each other. Two years ago I ditched the conference table and went back to pods.

Over the past three summers I have heard more and more conversations about the power of rearranging the students, about shaking them out of these simpler comfort zones and encouraging everyone to be comfortable sharing ideas with everyone else in class. Alex Overwijk (@AlexOverwijk) has been an especially articulate proponent. So, this summer I learned about a pretty cool website (flippity.net) where you can build a roster for a class and anytime you want this program will randomize your class. In groups of 3 or 4 or 5, by the number of ‘teams’ that you want, etc. It creates a cool visual that you can project and the kids get rearranged instead of staying in their friendly neighborhood comfort zone. I committed to trying this for a number of reasons, the primary one being my experience the past few years in Geometry. I had been teaching mostly AP and upper level honors classes and these students mostly knew each other for awhile and they were comfortable sharing ideas and debating/challenging each other at times. Not true of my Geometry class. Even last year’s class which was outgoing, chatty, and engaged. They did a great job in their pods discussing ideas but did not do a good job projecting those ideas out to the class. They always wanted to filter ideas through me and, over the course of the year, inevitably fell into some ruts about who took command when I asked them to work together.

Now, enter VRG. The strongest proponents discuss doing thisĀ every single day to continually shake things up. I got a little scared of this because I really value the sense of camaraderie that I have seen developing over the years, so I came to what seems like a nice compromise. On the first day of each week, I shuffle the class. I am now ending the fourth week of the school year and I have some observations I want to share. I am particularly motivated to do so by a twitter chat this morning.

There is sound research in the field about VRG and its effects. This research suggests that the positive effects of this practice are most clearly seen when this happens every day. I do not want to discount this and I do not want to feel like a contrarian. What I want for my classroom is for my scholars to not only know everyone else and hear the ideas of their peers, but I want them to be in a zone that feels comfortable and safe. My prejudice is that this zone is more likely to happen if I have some time to get used to my new teammates. What I have seen in four weeks can be summarized as follows (and I will make separate remarks for my AP Calculus BC group and my Geometry group)

  1. In BC Calculus I have also been incorporating whiteboards that the pods write on together. The combination of whiteboarding (and presenting the ideas of the pod) out to the class along with VRG has been pretty spectacular. Again, these are kids that know each other well, but I have been seeing active conversation across table groups to former teammates that is lively. I can step out of the way and let them bounce ideas around as I wrote about yesterday.
  2. In Geometry we have not done as much whiteboarding, I want to improve on this. What I have seen is students talking to people they did not choose. I see them making guesses to/with their neighbor. I have seen students more willing to stand up and talk. I have heard some lively discussion between students and I know it is not just with their good buddies unless they all magically happen to love each other.
  3. I have been able, in both classes, to call on a wider variety of people because even the shy/underconfident/nervous kid has someone in their group whose ideas they can paraphrase. In the past few years I felt that there was more of a posture of looking to one person in each pod to be the spokesperson. I see less of that now.

 

When I tweeted out my happiness about weekly VRG I was promptly congratulated AND reminded that this would be even better if it was done daily. I may get there, but I kind of feel that this is my 10% moment. That place where I am making a change I know is for the better but I am limiting myself in my own discomfort a bit so that I can still feel sane and effective in other arenas.