HarrisLast month I discussed a method of classroom management that worked for me in helping to prevent idle students in the classroom. 

It might be helpful for you to review that article “Preventing Idle Students” as background before going on to this article.

I have often heard questions from teachers regarding the inevitable inequities that exist when students work in groups.  Of course, it’s easier to give everyone in a group the same grade but is it remotely fair to any of the students?  Of course, eventually every teacher hears from one or more students with comments like, “Bill is not doing anything and the rest of us have to do his work yet he’ll get the same grade as we do!” or “John is too bossy!” or “I can’t work with Mary, we don’t get along since she stole my boyfriend.”  And the list goes on and on.  In truth, I think most teachers remember when they were in school having the same abhorrence of having to work in groups in which the teacher assigns students to be in particular groups.

I realize the attempt in assigning students to groups is an effort to be fair to all students but, truth be told, doing so is rarely fair to any students.  I’d like to offer a different way of developing the crew for student productions.

I am a proponent of operating a classroom in high school as a model of the real world as much as possible.  To do otherwise, in my opinion, is to prepare students to enter a world which only exists in the controlled classroom.  In the real world slackers are fired or never hired in the first place.  In the real world production teams are created by producers and directors choosing the best people available to be on their crew.  They choose people based on their previous experiences with that person or personal recommendations or a resume or some combination of all three.  This promotes harmony on the team and excellence in the product.  None of us would hire someone to work in our company whom we knew to be counter-productive to our mission.

From the very first day of school, I told the students frequently that every day they were in my class they were auditioning for all the other students in the classroom as well as for me.  I explained that I would NEVER require that a particular student to work with another particular student.  To do so would nearly guarantee anything from mediocrity to complete disaster because someone on the group would not want to be there and would therefore perform minimally or not at all and that was not fair to the workers in the group.  Therefore, every day in the classroom every student in the classroom should watch and listen to every other student in the room and constantly make decisions along the lines of:  He’s a hard worker, I can tell she really knows this stuff by the questions and answers she gives in class, he seems to be absent a lot, she hardly ever turns in her homework, I like the way and speed he is able to edit, she’s a good friend but she’d never take an order from me if I was directing, he’s really funny as the class clown but he doesn’t take any of this seriously and I want to do this as a career, etc.

Since the first part of the year in my class was more text/lecture/demo oriented, students got to know each other in this academic setting pretty well before moving on to production.  Most students had a pretty definite list of people in the class that they wanted on their production teams when they were directing as well as the people in the class whom they respected and wanted to be on that person’s team.  (Real World Experience.)  Students knew that productions which were never completed did not receive any credit for anyone who worked on them so they were very motivated to want to work with personnel which were most likely to take programs to completion.

Frankly, when I started taking this approach with my classroom, amazing things began to happen.  Student involvement in the class increased dramatically.  We all know if the majority of the class is excited and interested (or acting that way) that the passion on the part of everyone increases.  Remember the movie line “if you build it, they will come” from Field of Dreams?  Well, they came!  Who would have believed it!  I raised my expectations above the regular level found in the academic world of and the students became more responsive.  The experts who advocate raising the bar were right.  The only tweak was I raised it to real world levels rather than simply making my class harder – not necessarily the same thing.

So, here we have Mary who needs to staff her production.  What does she do?  She goes to her list of people that she wants to work with and begins to ask people to work on her production.  (Real World Experience.)  The first person she asks is John to be her audio person.  She is certain he knows more about audio than anyone else in the class and she’s seen his work.  In case he says “no,” she’s got a Plan B with two or three other students.

John must now make a decision.  The first thing he thinks about is whether or not Mary is on his list of people he wants to work with.  (Real World Experience.)  After all, if she’s proven herself to him as irresponsible, unreliable, rarely participates, etc, why would he want to hitch his wagon to her horse?  If she’s on his list positively, then he needs to know when and where will he be needed and for how long.  He has to look at his calendar.  (Real World Experience.)  He needs to make sure he’s not already committed to another student and he needs to keep in mind the production requirements for his own required programs.  (Real World Experience.)  If he wants to work with Mary and is available when she needs him, this might be a good time to ask her to work with him on his own production.  (Real World Experience.)
Mary now repeats this scenario with the other students she wants to have on her crew.  Everyone she asks has the ability to say “no.” (Real World Experience.)   If Mary can’t find the personnel she needs then she will need to rethink her project in order to do it with a smaller crew or to do it in a different time frame.  (Real World Experience.)  She may have to scrap the entire project and start over.  (Real World Experience.)  What will not change is the deadline by which the project must be completed.

It is mindboggling how rapidly students rise to meet the admiration and respect of their peers.  By starting the year out with pushing the concept of auditioning every single day for everyone else in the room, even the lazier students, who have come to count on being passed in group work without having to work, suddenly realize that no one will work with them if they don’t step up their game, and if no one works with you, production will be extremely difficult if you have to work by yourself. 

I realize that on first read, this method might sound harsh, but should we wait until students are out in the real world unprepared for its harshness?  How does that help them?  Finally, nothing in this system indicates that the teacher should not step in and have private conversations with the students who are not being chosen and advising them on things they can do to indicate to other students their desire to work with them.  The emphasis here is not on forcing good working students to work with those falling by the wayside.  The emphasis for the teacher is to help bring those students who are falling by the wayside up to the standards of the working students (Real World Experience) while not handicapping the working students at the same time.