Getting Started with Structures

The backbone of cooperative learning is the structure that is in place. Just saying, “discuss with your group…” doesn’t work effectively until those structures are in place. But first, it is important to look at the physical space and the initiation of the structure.

Brosseau - Seating Ticket
I like to group my students in fours. 4 people is nice because you can have a range of skills, a difference in abilities, strengths, weaknesses, genders, heights, etc. I choose heterogeneous groups. And yes, I choose them. I certainly take into account some personal preference and offer the students a little form to fill out. I wouldn’t want exes sitting together with the high school drama that goes on. I meet my needs first for heterogeneous groups before I consider their preferences. Once the semester is well established I use a ranked class list to help the groups have a wider range of abilities.

Brosseau - Classroom1In terms of physical arrangement. I have tables and raised counters (lab bench) seating in my classroom. Most of the tables are set-up in a way that the students face each other, but the seam of the two tables is directed at the front of the room where I start the class and where the projector screen is. This works for the majority of my students.

Due to the configuration of my classroom, I have two rows at the front each with two tables. This works great for students who tend to get distracted and for students with poor eye-sight as it is at the front of the class.

The lab benches are used for seating if I have a large class or if groups need a new environment. They have stools on either side. Stools make it easier for students to move around the classroom.
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Initiating Cooperative Learning
There are so many ways that you can order the students to help initiate the structure so there is no, “you go first.” “No, you go first!”
Numbering the students is easy, but you can have them number themselves. That takes only a few seconds. I always like to ask, “Where are my Ones? Where are my Twos? My Threes?” and then add “let’s start with Fours!” so they don’t think it necessarily is the order that we will go in.
Smallest to Tallest, or “closest to the ground” is a nice one because it is quick to see. However, if you want to avoid physical identifiers, how about getting the students to know one another better:
-Who has the most pets is number 1
-The youngest is number 1
-Whoever had the longest trip to school this morning is number 1
Those are just a few ideas, but if you can spare a minute or two you can build some relationships in those moments that students get to share a little bit about themselves.

Keep a timer in your room to keep track of how long interaction is going on. You want to offer each student a fair amount of time and not have anyone feel as if you cut them off too soon. Use the clock, or an online timer like this one:

Stay tuned to Cross Curricular Corner for some Cooperative Learning structures you can use in your next class!

Mrs. Brosseau's Binder Michelle is a secondary Science and Physics teacher from Ontario, Canada.  She blogs at Mrs. Brosseau’s Binder and shares her materials through her Teachers Pay Teachers Store.
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Feature Friday: Academic Conversation Bundle

Academic Conversation Cover Bundle“Are your students off-topic in class? Get your students talking on-topic with the Academic Conversation bundle. Check it out!

There are so many benefits to having your students spend time in discussion: increased engagement, higher retention, developing multiple points of view, empathy, and forging new relationships. This only works if your students are on-task.

These prompts and response starters are great to keep a conversation going and to make it go deeper. Students will challenge one another, build on ideas, paraphrase, elaborate, support ideas with examples and synthesize conversation. When used with cooperative learning structures, students will share in the conversation in a respectful manner that tames the chatty students while allowing the shy students an opportunity to share in a safe, small group environment.

The bundle includes posters and placements in both 8.5 x 11″” formats, as well as the super-versatile Academic Conversations flipbook that students can hold in their hands or paste in their notebooks.

You’ll use this again and again, every year because it helps students develop socially as well as intellectually. My administration believed in this so much that the principal had these posters professionally printed for every classroom in my 1500 student school! It has really paid off for us and I’m sure it will be a great addition in your classroom as well.”

Mrs. Brosseau's Binder Michelle is a secondary Science and Physics teacher from Ontario, Canada.  She blogs at Mrs. Brosseau’s Binder and shares her materials through her Teachers Pay Teachers Store.
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Sunday Panel: Keeping Students Focused

Sunday Panel StickyHow do you keep your students focused during cooperative learning?

LanguageArtsClassroomLauralee,The Language Arts Classroom: Before students start cooperative learning, I ask them to brainstorm what it should look like. Chances are that they know the answer and have reviewed these rules before. It is a good chance to remind students and to correct misconceptions.

For classes that frequently work together, a reminder chart (perhaps laminated) of “”what cooperating work is”” and “”what cooperating work isn’t”” helps too.

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 Ellen Weber:
I encourage MI tasks in teams that use and develop student strengths as a way to increase their interest and focus. For instance, verbal IQ develops by communicating more. So I might ask: What if you draft and submit a letter to the editor?

For visually stronger students, I might ask – What if you sketch, photograph your best idea? Visual IQ develops focus by designing images.

We also know that Kinesthetic IQ grows focus by moving & building, so I ask: .What if you build a model of an improved plan?

Those who love the social interaction focus better in teams when I ask questions such as: What if you invite a peer to a lunch discussion?  Interpersonal IQ increases focus by growing relationships that offer meaningful takeaways.

OC_BEACH_TEACHER_revised_finalKimberly, OC Beach Teacher:
One way I keep them focused is by making them all accountable. I used to have them respond in writing on one paper during two of my favorite cooperative learning activities, “numbered heads” and “trashketball.” Now, I ask each student to submit his/her own answers in writing although the group can work together as a team to develop their answers. It helps to involve the students who used to just sit there and let the better students do all of the work.

Feature Friday: Teach Thanks

November’s a perfect month to teach that thanks is more a state of mind in all teams than a state of benefits received. Teams find it cool that thankfulness can recharge brains beyond challenges they face. It’s always fun to teach brain facts related to thankfulness — such as the fact that a thankful action literally reconfigures team brains for more fun and productivity.


My students use thankfulness as a tool that adds an adventure for all to enjoy in their teams. It’s a November go to that revs up brain power in ways that delight their groups.

Get these Brain Based Task Cards!


EllenBrain7 (1)Ellen Weber is a whole brain curriculum specialist at secondary and higher education. She works in secondary and college learning renewal where she has won awards internationally for her practical brain based Mita model to engage both sides of students’ brains.
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Group work is wishful thinking – 8 benefits of Cooperative Learning

Brosseau - Benefits“Group work is wishful thinking.”
That’s the line that really stood out at me the first time I attended the Great Lakes Association for Cooperation in Education (GLACIE) conference in Toronto. Dr. Spencer Kagan was there himself. This conference was so good I went back for seconds the following year.

What are the benefits of cooperative learning?
You may already be sold on the idea of using cooperative learning structures in your classroom, but you may not have been aware of some of the benefits for both you and your learners:

1. All learners are engaged. In group work, with a group of 4 you’ve got 25% engagement. Install some cooperative learning structures into your class and now you’ve got 100% engagement.

2. More time for you to engage individuals. If you need to conference with a student or a small group of students, the accountability piece in these structures allows you to know that your learners are on-task so you can focus on listening and conferencing.

3. Less behavior issues. If students are actively engaged then boredom doesn’t cause them to do irresponsible things.

4. Frequent processing. With the structures being used seamlessly in your class the amount of transition time lessens and you can use structures frequently in class to review new ideas and check who is gaining an understanding. Think of the 10-2 rule: teach 10 minutes and take 2 minutes to review.

5. A greater sense of community. With different structures you can build new relationships and trust in your classroom. Hopefully, this allows you to say bye-bye to classroom cliques.

6. Greater retention. Structures that allow students to move create a biological response that improves retention of ideas.

7. A more fun class. Increasing the novelty factor but sewing in structures will make your class more interesting.

8. More engagement for those shy students. Students want to feel safe, especially those timid students who do not want to be called upon. If you give them the opportunity to perform in front of a partner or small group of peers then they can build up confidence to share with the whole class. I’ve seen it happen!

Hopefully we’ve got you hooked on the benefits of cooperative learning. Stay tuned to Cross Curricular Corner for more Cooperative Learning ideas.

Mrs. Brosseau's Binder Michelle is a secondary Science and Physics teacher from Ontario, Canada.  She blogs at Mrs. Brosseau’s Binder and shares her materials through her Teachers Pay Teachers Store.
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Mastering Literature Circles: Help Students Take Ownership of Their Learning

For many years I was hesitant to use literature circles in my class. When I was a student teacher, I observed a class that was supposed to be doing literature circles, and students just socialized. I was uncertain about literature circles for many reasons: How would I group students? How could I ensure that they would read and have good discussions? How would I assess them? However, my belief in giving my students choices and my hope that they would take ownership for their learning prompted me to try them despite my uncertainty.

In traditional literature circles, students are grouped by their book selections, but I plan my groups carefully beforehand. At the beginning of the school year, I give a reading diagnostic which gives me a grade level equivalency for my students’ reading abilities. By putting students in groups with similar reading abilities, I am able to differentiate and provide appropriate book choices to each group. I also take group dynamics, work ethic, and learning styles into consideration. It takes time, but if the unit is prepared well, the teacher will be able to act as a facilitator.
literature circles
Additionally, I make single-gender groups whenever possible. It provides some of the advantages of single-gender education in a coed classroom. And truly, I’m amazed at how well this has worked! Furthermore, this also helps me to plan book choices for the groups. Although it may seem stereotypical, many of my girls prefer books with female protagonists, romance, and drama. For instance, I often include the following books choices for my girls: The Joy Luck Club, Water for Elephants, A Thousand Splendid Suns, The Bell Jar, The Color Purple, The Help, or The Lovely Bones. In contrast, I provide the following titles for my boys: Into Thin Air, The Things They Carried, Lone Survivor, Catcher in the Rye, The Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and The Red Badge of Courage. Clearly, I have a range of novels- classics, contemporary fiction, and nonfiction- to help engage a variety of readers.

I also plan the outline for a schedule; however, when they choose their books, they identify the pages and chapters they will read for each meeting. They also select roles for their meetings, which require them to be prepared and accountable. These jobs include the leader (who writes discussion questions to start each meeting), vocabulary master, researcher, literary element educator, and highlighter. Each group provides a copy of this information to me, so I know their schedules and roles.

On the day before the first meeting, I give several students a ‘script’ so they can role-play a literature circle group meeting with a book they read in 10th grade. They present in a “fishbowl,” and I model note-taking for the class because this is one way that I assess their discussions. At first I peruse their notes carefully, providing feedback for future meetings, but soon I don’t have to grade the notes as carefully. I also use peer and self-evaluations, which are averaged at the end of the unit. The students often provide meaningful feedback to one another. For instance, a student may praise his group’s leader for reminding them to look in the text and keeping them on task. Then again, students have been known to mark a classmate with a low score and comment with a reason such as the group member came unprepared or was frequently absent.

Literature circles are one of my favorite units to teach, and I have students apply their learning to other readings in class after they finish. It’s reward to watch the students respond to their books in meaningful ways and take control of their learning. They appreciate the autonomy, and I know they will definitely be better prepared for college.

How do you use literature circles in your classroom?

OC_BEACH_TEACHER_revised_finalKim, the OCBeach Teacher,  is a National Board Certified English teacher who is currently teaching American Literature and AP English Literature and Composition.  She shares classroom ideas and tips on her OCBeachTeacher Facebook Page.
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Sunday Panel: The Logistics of Cooperative Learning

Sunday Panel StickyHow do you handle the major logistics of using cooperative learning (i.e. absences, noise, grouping students, etc.)

profile pic2Tara, Science in the City:I often have attendance issues in my class, so, although I use cooperative learning frequently, I rarely do activities that span more than one day. I have a much more successful time keeping students engaged if the groups are constant and made up of the students who are present on that day, and they can start and finish the activity with that group. I use a variety of groupings, depending upon the activity. Sometimes I let students choose their own groups, other times I group randomly (often using Popsicle sticks or a deck of cards, and other times I create groups based on certain characteristics of students that I want. I think because students know they will get to choose at least a good amount of the time, they are more willing to go along with my groupings on the other occasions.

OC_BEACH_TEACHER_revised_finalKimberly, OC Beach Teacher:When students are absent for group work, it can be a real challenge. For instance, when my students are doing literature circles, each group member has a job. If one of them isn’t at the ‘meeting,’ the other students in the group have to do the work of the absent student. Since this frustrates the other group members, I’ve encouraged the students to do their work ahead of time if they know they will be absent, especially athletes who know they have games. Now, with a little positive peer pressure from the group, these students will often complete their work ahead of time to help out their classmates!


AlgebraSimplifiedIconDawn, Algebra Simplified:While a huge fan of cooperative learning, I abhor chaos and firmly believe productivity and learning levels drop in its midst. Over-the-top cooperative noise, the main chaos-creating weed, sometimes stems from innocent roots.

Root 1:Students are working with people they love.

Weed-spray: Remove the novelty. Students sit in groups in my class, everyday. No need for long-lost reunions when they’re always together.

Root 2: Students cannot hear themselves over everyone else talking in the room, so they become louder just to communicate.

Weed-spray: Play background music at moderate volume. Seemingly counter intuitive, adding noise to reduce noise, the music acts as a volume plumb line. “If you (or I) can’t hear my music, you are too loud. Bring it down a notch.” Moreover, the music smooths over appropriate communication and settles my nerves.

CDickson Profile PicClair, High School English on a Shoestring Budget: Flexibility is required to deal with the logistitics of cooperative learning.  Projects generally include both group effort and individual efforts.  I often include a group grading sheet– though my students are often reluctant to “narc” out a non-contributing group mate.  Since my students do projects in class, I can also keep an eye on who’s working on the project and who is not– and I’ll go up and ask the little dears, “What are you working on?”  I tend to let students pick their group mates, and remind them of this if they get “stuck” with a non-contributing member– and I’ve allowed regroupings, such as leaving a non-productive group to work alone or dropping a constantly absent group member.  Ultimately, I’m not a fan of group work– I’m not convinced that the slackers get much out of it, even under penalty of failing if caught (hard as that is to prove, too) and I’m not convinced that those who carry the group are learning anything other than negative lessons about collaboration– at least not outside the ideal classroom where students are generally all there to learn and succeed.

TPT ProfileSara, Ms. Fuller’s Teaching Adventures:Absences, that are not excused negatively impact students’ grades for the assignment. I actually choose to assign groups and do so by putting the most dedicated students together and the least dedicated together. This doesn’t take ability level into account, but does account for work ethic. The four students who rarely come to class can work together. I try very hard to keep groups from having one or two people bring them down.

With regards to noise I recognize it’s unavoidable. If it gets too loud I will stop everyone- refocus their attention, and let them start working together again. A group or two being allowed to work in the hallway is also helpful.