Escape the Back-to-School Doldrums

I love the sounds and smells of a new school year. Desks are clean, supplies are fresh and the pencil sharpener actually works!  Kids may be slightly uncertain about what's to come, but are ready for a new adventure.

My back-to-school feelings of Utopia are tempered with the need to cram as much information about, well - everything into them, as soon as possible, so we can get on with the business of learning and having fun.  (Yes, learning and having fun are a perfect pairing, like ice-cream and cones.)

We all know those first few days set the tone for the entire year.  Establishing classroom procedures, delivering expectations that may or may not become rules, and instilling that all-important self-actualization that, yes, they can do this, involves a lot of talking.

Because of this information dump, I tended lose my voice at the start of every. single. year.  Breaking the habit of talking my 6th graders into a voice-induced stupor has always been difficult, and I was certain there had to be a better way.

Escapes mix fun with learning!

What if some of that information came from them? After all, this is not their first rodeo.  They know there needs to be some organization for things to run smoothly.  They mostly know they are in charge of their experience.  They kinda remember studying helps and they might have an idea or two about what works for them.

To alleviate some of these conundrums, my friend, Darlene Anne and I wrote Escape the Back-to-School Doldrums.  This fun escape is a great way to begin a new year.
Kids will love this interactive adventure!

Imagine your class walking in and discovering their most awesome teacher in the whole wide world has already lined up a field trip on a very large sailing vessel, leaving immediately. Everything moves along swimmingly, until the ship comes to a screeching halt.

And that's where the fun begins!

Using critical thinking, problem-solving, and reading comprehension, kids will complete a series of challenges on Growth Mindset, Study Skills and Classroom Expectations. There's even a fun little ditty thrown in, just to keep it interesting. Each completed challenge brings them closer to finding exactly what they need to escape.

Not only is this a great opportunity for the teacher to observe how your new class works together, it allows the kids a chance to refresh and remember what it means to be a responsible, successful student!

As for me... let's just say my vocal chords will happily survive to talk another day.  Hope you all have a tremendous school year!

"It always seems impossible until it's done." Nelson Mandela

6 Ways to Form Effective Groups in the Classroom

These are 6 ways I mix it up when forming classroom groups.We all know that the success of every group is determined by how well group members work together.  By picking groups randomly, it indicates to your students that you trust them to get the job done, no matter who is working together.   

Here are a few of tried and true methods I've used over the years. 

Name sticks or name cards 
At the beginning of each year, kids decorate the large craft sticks or blank business cards (available at office supply stores). I use them all year long to call on kids, randomly, to group them, to check attendance and lunch count, and to make it easier for guest teachers to learn their names.  They get to take them home at the end of the year, if they'd like... and they usually "like." :)  

Draw a Stick/Card
They pick 1 partner and I put partner groups together. A word of caution... it's easy to end up with those last few kids who never get picked. 

How I avoid “Last Man Standing.” I get around hurt feelings and those last few that rarely get picked by initially giving kids the choice to pair up OR move to the "Free Spirit" spot in the room.  Free Spirits are the kids who don't care who they work with and I make a big deal about how special that group is because they are the first to learn to work with all sorts of people - an important real-world skill.

All students write their names on a slip of paper (partners’ names are together on one slip).  I collect them all and randomly draw groups.  Some groups might have 3 (2 draws - a pair and a single), others might have 4 (2 draws - two pair). If my first two draws are singles, I’ll draw again. This way, everyone gets picked randomly. 

Randomly Deal Name Cards/Sticks
I will deal out name cards (or sticks) face down into groupings. No one knows how it turns out, including me! Then, one group at a time, I read off the names.  This is for the days when I’m ready to live with the consequences of my folly.  

Everyone knows teachers go out of their way to thwart some friends "working" together.  When that group gets randomly selected, the kids love it! At first, they can't believe I'll let it slide. For the most part, they are anxious to show me that they can work together.  And it really does help bond the class.

Deck of Playing Cards 

As students enter the classroom, have them draw a card. Table/desk groups are numbered, same as cards. Students move to their designated table.  If I need larger groups that day, I’ll divide by suits instead (hearts, spades, clubs, and diamonds).

An aside... If you don't have at least one deck of playing cards in your classroom, I strongly encourage you to get one.  Even partial decks are handy. I always have kids bring in their partial decks from home to add to the class collection. 
Stinky Feet Groups 
Everyone takes off one shoe and puts it in a big tub (or just pile them in the middle of the room). I pull out random shoes to make my groups. This one might require some sensitivity.  I wouldn't recommend doing it if you have some kids in class that are embarrassed because of holes in socks or ratty shoes.  It's a good idea to do a visual check, as they come into class, and then, a show of hands for permission to group by stinky feet.  

Spinners add another layer of randomness in the forming of groups.
Teacher’s Choice
Yes, sometimes, I will still put carefully-thought-out groups together. And just to show I believe in them, I might put those two kids together. 

If you have time, use a spinner to  determine which of these methods you'll do that day. I have a ready-made spinner with the different ways listed above. It's just a fun way to change things up and make them more random.

Jigsaw (Not on the Spinner)
This is probably one of my favorite ways to group and regroup kids, because it encourages everyone to be responsible for their piece of information. It’s good for breaking larger challenges into manageable chunks.  I'll choose one of the methods above to begin with.  Each group has a part of the whole- whatever that is - researching a topic, reading a chapter in their text, or a piece of a bigger puzzle, for example.  Members of the initial group will be responsible for learning and disseminating the information to the rest of the class via the jigsawed groups.

Use this handy quick reference to jigsaw groups.

To jigsaw a group, I have everyone number off 1 to 5 (or however many are in the groups). Then like numbers are jigsawed together to share information.   

Remind kids: Just like a chain, the group is only as strong (effective) as the weakest link. We discuss what that might mean and come up with some solutions to make sure everyone is able to explain the project or problem.  

Empower kids to take responsibility and ensure their group’s success by setting clear expectations in the beginning. Let them know they will evaluate their groups at the end. 

Post discussion questions or exit tickets: What did you do to help your group solve the problem.  How could you help someone who loses focus or doesn't understand? What might you do differently, next time?

What are some of the ways you've found to successfully group kids in your classroom?