A high school teacher approaches group work in his classroom with the intention of helping students acknowledge, respect, and appreciate the differences they bring to their collective. By turning to the work of an expert teacher, Kevin is inspired to establish a learning community of respect and connection from day one.
In his sixth year of teaching high school English in an inner city setting, Kevin Higgins shares that one of his greatest, yet favorite challenges each year is working to develop an inclusive learning community in his classroom where students are able to connect across differences. As a white male teacher among mostly students of color, Kevin finds that it has been particularly helpful to name this difference and be transparent with students about his background and what experiences he brings into the classroom. With culturally inclusive literature “on his side” as part of the curriculum he teaches, Kevin insists that the content helps drive important conversations about differences in the world and provides opportunities for his diverse students to feel affirmed. Yet despite feeling at ease with the literature, Kevin admits that he has often struggled to get his students to naturally mix outside of the social cliques (often divided by race/culture/gender) that they bring into the classroom.
Aware of the research that suggests “cooperative groups promote greater contact, trust, acceptance and support among students of different races, social classes, achievement levels and sexes,” Kevin has worked hard over the years to develop strategies and assignments that help facilitate effective group work for writing, discussion, and projects. While he has found understanding among different students increases when they are working closely together, it has not been without bumps and challenges. He often feels like he needs to “mastermind” how to get students into more heterogeneous groups, and there are always some students who are resistant. Kevin admits that it takes “work” to make the groups run smoothly, and it sometimes feels easier to just let students pick their own groups. While Kevin does feel it is important to let students choose sometimes (and for kids who share the same background to have opportunities to work together), he is searching for ways to establish a classroom dynamic in which students will ultimately understand the value of working among difference, and ultimately even learn to seek it out.
In search of guidance and inspiration, Kevin explores the formidable teaching practices of veteran Yvonne Divans Hutchinson on a “Going Public With Teaching” link. He learns from a colleague of Ms. Hutchinson’s commitment and success at getting her African-American and Latino students to get along and appreciate/celebrate their similarities and differences. In particular, Kevin pays attention to the “Engaging in Small Group Discussion” video clip in which Ms. Hutchinson directs her students to “find someone who is different from you in some aspect – race, gender, ethnicity – who is not, dare I say this . . . your friend, not part of your clique outside of class.” Kevin is impressed by how willingly the students form groups and engage with one another. It is evident that differences are talked about openly, including Ms. Hutchinson’s experience as an African-American girl growing up in a segregated public school system in Hot Springs, Arkansas. In a student reflection video clip, the students speak enthusiastically about Ms. Hutchinson and how she is always getting them to match up with different kids so that they don’t end up in groups with kids with the same views. Another student articulates what Kevin aspires to have his students say about him: “It seems like she is preparing us for the real world, because the real world isn’t just one kind of people, speaking one language, and doing all one thing with the same ideas.”
While Kevin acknowledges that Ms. Hutchinson’s life experience (a powerful narrative she shares under “Where I Began/Where I Begin”) as an African-American woman enables a connection and identification with her students that he cannot access, he wonders what he can learn from her expertise to improve his own ability to get his students “to think, to respect themselves, and to respect and appreciate others, especially those who may differ from them in some aspect.” Kevin studies the site and gathers notes about what he hopes to experiment with in his own classroom. Perhaps the most significant take away for Kevin, is the strategy that Ms. Hutchinson uses to establish her inclusive and respectful learning community from the moment her students enter her classroom on the first day of class. Kevin decides that he will share Ms. Hutchinson’s story with his students. It is a story of two rows of desks facing one another, of students who walk in and choose sides, divided along racial lines, of Ms. Hutchinson’s calm and open acknowledgment to her students, that it is “natural tendency to sit with someone who appears to look like you,” and of Ms. Hutchinson’s gentle insistence that her students “rectify the problem” by rearranging themselves so that the class is more integrated. Inspired by Ms. Hutchinson, Kevin decides that he too will start the year by presenting the powerful quotation from Maya Angelou’s “The Human Family”- that “we are more alike than we are unalike.”
- As part of the School Improvement Research Series, this informative article provides useful information about “Instructional Grouping in the Classroom.” In addition to sharing the different types of instructional groups that are used by teachers, the article offers bulleted points that highlight how group work teaches students to work with others, how they facilitate social interaction among diverse students, and how group work can help improve students’ attitudes toward self and school.
- This site from “Going Public With Teaching” highlights National Board certified teacher Yvonne Divans Hutchinson and the highly successful strategies that she has developed to engage all of her students in “substantive discussions of literary text and the issues these texts raise for [her students’] lives.” The site includes a helpful “Class Anatomy Timeline” that shows the progression of Hutchinson’s class through video and student/teacher reflections. Although the vignette above focuses on #3 “Engaging in Small Group Discussion” and #6 “Reflecting on the Impact of Diversity, Rigor, and Discourse” – all of the video segments are worth viewing. In addition, the “Materials and Strategies” and “Context and Reflections” sections are valuable and informative.
- This “Concept to Classroom” workshop on Cooperative and Collaborative Learning” highlights benefits of group work for its ability to celebrate diversity, acknowledge individual differences, and assist with interpersonal development. The page includes a brief elementary classroom video clip on incorporating a quieter student into group work. The page also links to other supporting materials on how to effectively support cooperative and collaborative learning in the classroom.
- Creating Culturally Responsive, Inclusive Classrooms – This article provides strategies and guides for creating culturally responsive and inclusive classrooms.