by Heather M. F. Lyke
— first published in October 2016 by RPS Secondary Curriculum & Instruction | updated in February 2022 —
As we help students develop skills that will suit them well in the world beyond our classrooms, many of us find ourselves moving to more and more partner work, group tasks, and full class discussions and debates. This is especially true as we return to in-person learning now that we're finishing the second year of the pandemic: more and more we set aside the technology we depended on in recent years--embracing opportunities to have students discuss face to face.
Discussion opportunities help our students develop collaboration skills and illustrate teamwork, develop communication skills and think critically—all skills which today’s students need to thrive in the 21st century workforce that awaits them in their not-to-distant futures.
The struggle, however, is in ensuring that all students still walk away with deep levels of understanding. Far too often in partnerships, in small groups, and in full-class activities only a few students are actively engaged--some students choose passivity. When this happens, does it mean only those few students who participate walk away with the learning? It can, so it becomes our jobs as teachers to ensure all students engage in the learning we offer them.
As we return to more collaborative and in-person learning environments, here are some strategies to help ensure all learners are still learning at high levels
For Groups of 2-3
1. Partners A & B
What to do:
Why this Works:
This ensures that there are equal voices, encouraging shy students to speak up while preventing naturally talkative students from taking over. It also teaches students balance, which is not a skill that many students develop naturally.
What to Do:
Why this Works:
Just like with Partners A & B, Triads ensures balanced voices and balanced participation within a small group; the addition of a third student, however, allows for more versatility and creativity within the structure of the activity. Additionally, the ‘additive’ element in almost all variations of Triads forces students to see and to work with how other students think. Often, there are multiple routes to the same answer, or various correct answers, and should ‘student 1’ opt to take a route different than what ‘2’/‘3’ were expecting, then the thinking of ‘student 1’ must broaden and thereby deeper learning will occur.
For Groups of 4-6
3. Numbered Heads
What to Do:
Why this Works:
When students are assigned to work in groups, particularity groups larger than four or more, it’s common to assign roles. Where roles certainly have their merit, they can also backfire. When one student is assigned to be “recorder” others in that group might hear, I guess I don’t have to write any of this down, and thereby may disengage. Likewise, when one student is assigned to be a “reporter” others may hear, I guess I don’t need to really know this if I won’t have to share out later—again, potentially encouraging some disengagement. However, when students know you use Numbered Heads to determine whose work is turned in and/or who shares out, then all must stay engaged for the entire activity.
For Whole Class Discussions
4. Random Selection
What to Do:
Why this Works:
When facilitating a whole group discussion, students who blurt answers aloud or constantly raise their hands tend to take over, giving other students perceived permission to tune out and disengage. However, establishing that all students will be called on at some point encourages students to stay engaged throughout. This strategy ensures that both shy students and students who prefer to be passive learners stay more active in their learning.
5. Chip Toss
What to Do:
Why it Works:
Again, as was noted with Random Selection, large group discussions tend to foster environments where some students naturally dominate, either pushing quieter students aside or giving students who wish to disengage permission to do so. However, a strategy like this helps combat that by making students aware of the discussion's balance—helping those likely to over-contribute keep themselves in check while simultaneously motivating those likely to under-contribute to add their voices into the conversation.
If you are looking for more ideas on increasing student voice and engagement, or would like to dig deeper into the value of such strategies, consider starting with these four resources:
Finding the Collaboration Balance
by Nick Truxal
The move to teaching online, even if it may be over for you, dear reader, does seem to have pushed some new practices into place that prove dangerous for teachers and students in the long-term. In particular, I’d like to focus on the new modes of communication and collaboration that have been implemented in the wake of Zooming to class.
Being more accessible to our colleagues, students, and parents certainly has its advantages. We can instantly help a student with a question, quickly let a parent know the status of the classroom, or have a great professional learning community with colleagues across the district, city, state, or nation. Of course, that student may want an answer at 11:00 pm, that parent may be trying to send an instant message during class and wonder why they don’t hear back, and “just one quick ten-minute meeting with administration over Zoom” may happen twice an hour.
Rob Cross, Adam Grant, and Reb Rebele wrote a fascinating piece on “Collaboration Overload” in 2016 (which Rob Cross continued into the book Beyond Collaboration Overload). In the article, they cite some interesting (pre-pandemic) trends. Trends such as:
Of course, in a school, the most in-demand employees are teachers, administrators, counselors, psychologists…all of whom are finding that the world of instant communication has opened up certain flood-gates.
Interestingly, Adam Grant offered a solution to this issue three years before he helped to identify it. He spoke of a certain Fortune 500 company that implemented “Quiet time.” Three mornings a week, employees would not be exposed to superfluous e-mails (or any e-mails), “Just one quick thing” situations, “stand-up meetings,” nor anything else. The interesting part of this: when the company successfully implemented these quiet times, productivity increased an enormous 65%. However, even having employees self-impose (to the extent they were able) a similar policy, resulted in a 47% increase in productivity.
To me, this led to an interesting tension.
In my own practice, and in my own data, I can tell you that communication is important (I am sure you’re shocked). I have long been in the habit of sending FERPA safe emails to every parent with updates every Friday via a mail-merge setup. When communication was personalized and consistent, I found a 20% positive change in the grades and skill attainment that my students had in my classes. Just from communicating with their parents. I did a similar experiment in sending e-mails to my students, and found similar results.
So, communication is vital—and detrimental—to the surprise of no-one.
The Break Down of Implications...
Hold some time as sacred.
Giving students uninterrupted time to work: increase productivity.
I am sure there are many implications to these studies that I haven’t had time to parse, yet. If you have further insights, please feel free to share them with us.
Ideas by Ian Levy (transcribed by our writing team)
Cyphers as Restorative Circles
Ian, you make our minds jump to places we weren’t anticipating. In this particular moment, we jump to a fabulous teacher in a nearby district, Sweta Patel, who has been doing work with restorative circles. She has found fabulous success—said this year in particular has been amazing, which seems to be in large part because of the ability to have individual conversations with students through new uses in technology. It seems like another example of a different way to involve students, make sure they are heard, and have hard conversations. My assumption is that, if we do that, hip hop will emerge as a key vehicle.
I think about it in a couple ways. One way is - yeah, you can do restorative work, and if it is done authentically and there are hip hop voices within that space, that will naturally come to the surface. I also think that, when you talk about chapter six, which talks in depth about interacting in cypers--Isn’t a cypher itself a restorative circle? I think they are.
This idea of creating circles in school environments so youth can process conflict with each other, come to some sort of resolution, reach restitution—the cypher has always been that. Much like the circle has been as well. There are connections to Paulo Freire and all the work that has been done circularly in Brazil. That’s where all the critical consciousness ideas come from—all situated in circles. I am thinking of African drum circles. Circles themselves have cross-cultural meaning as communicative spaces. If I’m not incorrect, circles are pulled from a lot of inuit populations and culture. Again, hip hop is a version of the restorative circle in so many ways, and that is a beautiful thing.
Having the Bigger Conversations
The examples in your book, such as students making a mix tape around police brutality, with them you mention resolving conflict. We have the internal things we may be dealing with, then we have the large external things that may be happening. Was the choice of the police brutality example in your book about speaking to a larger audience, or is there something about grappling with those large world issues that makes students feel like they are trusted to have bigger conversations?
Youth decided on that topic, that concept, and all the songs on that album—very much because that was what was happening around them at that time. Effective group counseling work is able to grapple with the impacts of the larger context and the worlds in which youth live in and how that impacts them and can pivot to those when it needs to.
I can come into a group and say, “We’re only going to talk about your self doubt in your math class.” I could make a group narrow, and there is some evidence that can still be effective even if you’re very prescriptive with the direction. But, at the high school level, in particular, I love facilitating groups where youth decide on the direction of the group. That is very process oriented. That is what happened here.
There were a ton of shootings. A lot of death of a lot of youth—black and brown boys and girls. It was all over the media. This was at a time that the media was hyper focused on it. It was everywhere. Youth were saying, “We need to talk about this,” “We need to talk about this: did you see this case happen?” so naturally. As we talked about each and created songs around each and their feelings around each, this project came together.
I think it is hard to separate that out from what youth are experiencing in school. Unfortunately, that’s often what happens—that we say: this student didn’t do their homework, they were struggling at home to finish it, and they must not feel competent at math. But what if it is just that when the student is at home and they go to pull out the book, they are thinking about the world around them? And then they are bringing that to school and they walk through a metal detector and see police officers at school. If you live in this hyper vigilant kind of world and you feel like you are being watched and seen as threatening, how can you focus on anything else?
Naturally, this stuff came to the surface. I don’t think you can parse out one’s reaction to a specific situation in school, whether that be relationally or with regards to academic content, and not think about the larger context. Youth took it there because that is where it needed to go. That is the value of this kind of work.
We loved the story about going to a school and students coming in wearing sneakers being forced to change into the school uniform. Are you familiar with the poem, “In a Station of the Metro” by Ezra Pound?
The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Pound said he was trying to capture a moment that something external became something internal. In grappling with the larger issues, well, you aren’t isolated from them. You are showing that they interweave.
They aren’t binary, right? We can’t just deal with one and then deal with the other, they don’t work that way.
In terms of those externals and internals are “zones of control.” Something internal, I can control to a certain extent: something local to me, I hope I can control to a certain extent. The wider mindset of the world, it would be great if I can influence it, but probably less influence than with something local. Is there power in these activities because of the feelings of helplessness around certain topics?
Yeah, in a myriad of ways. If I express something that I am expressing as external, and a bunch of people around me are like, “Hey, I felt that also,” that is universality. That, in and of itself, helpful in realizing, okay, this isn’t a “me thing.”
By the way, when you are fifteen, everything’s a me thing. News flash—when you are thirty-two, it still feels that way. That’s life. Everything feels like it’s us. To disconnect oneself from that—to say, I’m not alone in feeling this—is great in terms of control. In terms of realizing that I don’t need to bear the burden of this myself. This is something that the world is feeling, that my peers are also feeling.
There’s another—expressing it out into the world to potentially impact or effect change—is that advocacy work that is also very helpful. Letting youth know that there are ways they can advocate from a place of deep personal knowledge and experience affect positive change on the world. That is one way of taking control. Even if it's not changing the whole thing, but being able to produce this mixtape and share it and let other people hear how you feel: it depersonalizes it because you’ve had this experience and you’ve talked about it with your peers, and you realize that it isn’t only you, but then you’re owning it to the world as this thing outside of me. You're telling the world, “Hey, this is something that’s going on.”
That is the ultimate way of realizing that it's not you. Trying to hold the world accountable. What’s beautiful about hip hop is that the entire process is ideal counseling: ideal counseling is realizing universality, transferring what you’ve learned inside a session to outside a session. Mixtapes as a cultural medium offers the ability to discuss, to create a cohesive product with your peers, and a distribution plan so the world hears what you need to share. Hip hop offers this pathway for realization. Regaining control by saying, “this is you all, it isn’t me.”
I’m going to read one more comment from our poet in residence, Jean Prokott. (A plug for Jean--go buy The Birthday Effect and The Second Longest Day of the Year.) Prokott noted: “Just to comment on how amazing this professional development would be. Since I am in English, I always wonder how STEM teachers would address this. Notes on using hip hop as statistics, counting beats to per minute, etc., are so wonderfully applicable, something other books on pedagogy fail to do. This isn’t theory, it’s practice.”
I love it. That is really nice to hear. I think a hard task with books is to be practical. That’s something mentors of mine have modeled so well for me: how to keep one foot in schools and one foot in the academy, in such a way that you’re able to bridge theory and practice. To reimagine how we think about the work and applying it. That is an incredibly important modeling that I am trying to uphold in my career because I don’t want to become the classic stuffy old guy in an ivory tower. That balance has been on my mind a lot lately.
We love drawing lines in the sand in this world. Like counseling is here but education is here. As a school counselor, I’m like, then where do I go?
Well, Ian. You can be with us.
A Hip Hop Education
with Ian Levy | 5.25.21
Ian Levy discusses authentic empowerment of students through hip hop—a truly fantastic conversation.
Ideas by Shannon Helgeson, Suzette Rowen, Tami Rhea, & Natalia Benjamin (consolidated and framed by Heather M. F. Lyke)
In Adam Grant’s recent Taken for Granted episode, “Jane Goodall on Leadership Lessons from Primates” (released March 1, 2021), Goodall shares that “at some point in our evolution we developed this way of speaking with words so that we can teach children about things that aren't present. We can gather together and discuss something--people from different views--and that is what I believe led to this explosive development of our intellect.” Likewise, Sir Jony Ive of Apple is often quoted for noting that “the best ideas start as conversations.”
After each session spent recording a new podcast episode, Mike Carolan, Nick Truxal, and I gather together in one of our offices or via a video call, and these follow-ups often begin with a version of the phrase “I learned so much.”
There is a creative energy and a passion for new ideas that often comes from the collaboration and conversation between individuals. For our podcast team, that is what makes the time devoted to our efforts more than worth every minute spent. This is also the root of why our team walked away with so many new ideas and revitalized energy after our discussion with four of Minnesota’s 2021 Teacher of the Year nominees.
Snapshot of a Collegial Conversation
In our conversation with our four Minnesota Teacher of the Year nominees, three threads of focus soon emerged, despite being braided together. We sorted them here:
Cultural Exploration and Understanding:
One clear thread that came up during our conversations was a desire to expand one’s personal understanding of bias, racism, and cultures other than one’s own. Some of the resources shared were:
Two professionals in the field come up often, including in this conversation, when talking about teacher leadership—specifically in the area of instructional coaching. A portion of our conversation kept circling back to the works of Jim Knight and Elena Aguilar.
Inspiration from Outside Education:
It may be hard to believe, but educators do take breaks from time to time—spread our wings outside our field. That said, we never fly too far from the tree of education that roots us to the profession, often discovering ideas and tools that lead us back to the field we love. Such as was found with:
Bringing Conversations into Classrooms
These types of collaborations may happen more organically in our collegial world, seeing as adults have often developed the skills needed to listen, to build off of others, and to see the future potential of a conversational thread. That said, we all learned these skills somewhere.
Rich conversations need to happen in classrooms too. As Goodall noted, it is in conversations where the “explosive development of our intellect” comes into play. There is a thirst for learning that happens naturally and sporadically when we bounce ideas off of each other: in podcast conversations and in classrooms.
If you’re looking for ideas for increasing student growth, learning, and passion through conversation collaboration, consider digging into these resources:
Knowing that “the best ideas start as conversations,” we encourage educators to model conversational learning by participating in these opportunities often, as well as creating a space for such learning in our own schools and classrooms.
Teachers of the Year
with Shannon Helgeson, Suzette Rowen, Tami Rhea, & Natalia Benjamin | 4.26.2021
We have the pleasure of digging into innovation, inspiration, and influances with four of Minnesota's Teacher of the Year Nominees.
Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Doors
Concepts and ideas by Wiley Blevins; compilation and added resources by Nick Truxal
Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop's excellent piece on books serves as mirrors to reflect on our own experiences; windows to peer into other’s experiences; and sliding doors that can distort, allow access, or serve as a barrier frames many wider issues in literacy. One that we as educators can struggle with is finding the material that will have the content we need, the skills we need to teach, and the diversity to serve as windows and mirrors.
So, this article shall be that. Where do we find quality resources, and where do we find quality resources that help us find quality resources. It is a babushka doll of an article. Plus, if you’d like to read more about mirrors and windows, we’ve got you covered there, too.
Suggestions from the Rochester Public Library
Third Eye Education has been lucky enough to partner with Rochester Public Libraries (RPL). The resource we can most heartily recommend is one they created just for us; yet, we share here with you because we believe it’s important to spread good resources wide and far.
This list recommends books (mostly at the elementary level), along with how they can be taught across content areas, what controversies they may spark, what grade levels they best fit, and most importantly—how it may act as a mirror and window. (If you check the link, make sure to try the category tabs at the bottom.)
Suggestions from Wiley Blevins
Wiley Blevins, in his podcast episode with Third Eye (released April 13th, 2021), covers these topics and in it he shares a plethora of other resources. Blevins, a world-renowned expert in early reading and the Associate Publisher for Reycraft Books suggests the following:
Ideas for your own Reading
Finally, pick up a book yourself. Read it with a friend, or even a stranger!
Dessa: Deeply Human
by Nick Truxal
article 3 of 4
“Social Emotional Learning,” “Trauma Informed Schools,” and “Mental Health Initiatives” are phrases we’ve heard a lot this year. Not surprising, considering the pandemic, the politics, and the persistence of this year have made these focus areas more important than ever.
Whenever I ask an expert on where to begin, the answer is always the same—authentic care and respect:
Pre-pandemic, I had the pleasure to attend a concert at my local arts center where Dessa was headlining. I have been to, and performed in, hundreds upon hundred of concerts. I have seen acts that lean into the fun, the disinterest, the mystery, the volume, the skill, the passion, and a great deal more. Yet, I had never seen a performer who leaned into being human—at least not in the ways that matter for social and emotional growth, mental health, or trauma informed education.
Dessa, however, did.
To be perfectly honest, long before Dessa even appeared on stage, it was clear that the community she has built thrives on mutual support, respect, and a genuine love for each other and for Dessa herself. However, once she took the stage, Dessa was acutely aware of her audience in a way that I had never seen before. Aware in the way that as a teacher, I strive to be—aware in the way that as a musician, I’ve avoided. Why adopt in one environment and reject in another? I honestly have no idea, and I’ve sought to change.
She came to the front of the audience at one point, speaking to a young man who was both crying and singing along: Dessa gave him a long and knowing embrace. She saw a young girl who was unable to fully engage due to her abbreviated height: Dessa motioned to the audience to part, walked through the center of their Red Sea, and pulled the young girl closer to the stage for a better view.
Humanity should be in all our lives—in everything we do. We should be seeing the needs of the youth in our classrooms and adjusting practices to make sure they have a clear view. We should be, if not hugging, extending empathy and compassion. Of course, as Dessa radiates this goodness, and as she has built a community that does as well, her work is particularly apt for bridging conversations and content that benefit our students.
Classroom Application Suggestions
Third Eye Education posts weekly articles focusing on education and innovation.