Friday, February 25, 2011

A lesson learned on group work

We had a lot to accomplish in a short, two-day week.  As my lead teacher revised the lesson plan, trying to fit in an opportunity for the children to act out Goldilocks and reinforce the "big/medium/small" concepts, I suggested that I do the activity with small groups while she worked on the project.  She agreed to let me try it.

In my mind I structured the activity.  I thought I would call the students in groups of four, assigning each one to a character in the story.  As we recalled the plot together, the group would identify the "big," "medium," and "little" bowl/chair/bed from the cut outs that the teachers had created.  Because my mentor had used the phrase "act out," and because I love theater, I wanted the children to use their voices and bodies in our reconstruction of the story.  For this reason, I set up shop on the rug, rather than at the table in the corner.  I made a list of the students' names so that I could check them off after they had a turn, making sure that every child participated in the activity.  I called the first four children on my list, and as they came eagerly to meet with me, I checked their names. 

Those four checkmarks proved to be the only ones I made.  Things did not go exactly as I had envisioned...

Group work is nothing new to me.  As a student teacher in college, I introduced my mentor teacher to the idea of cooperative learning.  After I planned, implemented and assessed a unit on voting and democracy, where the students nominated, identified, campaigned for, and elected candidates, he said to me, "You're good at this cooperative learning thing.  You should keep doing it."  So I did.  I have routinely used group work at all levels of my teaching, and so it was natural for me to suggest working with small groups in the preschool classroom.  I wasn't prepared for the management issues that my activity would create.

Though I had only called four children to join me on the carpet, several of the others, who were engaged in free play near us, saw the excitement of the activity and wanted to join the group.  I allowed them to do so, and for the first telling of Goldilocks, I had 6 participants.  The numbers actually worked well, as I assigned children to deal with the bowls/chairs/beds, and I was able to assess even more clearly which individual children understood the big/medium/small concept.

After the first time through the story, the children excitedly said, "Now I want to be Goldilocks!" or "I want to do the porridge!"  It was clear that I would not be able to send my original group away to work with a new group, and the activity shifted as the children enjoyed the game.  They moved in and out of our circle at their leisure, a few of them staying for each telling until I wrapped the session.  We had lessons on taking turns and being patient as children waited to play their favorite part.  The game certainly reinforced the concepts of the day, and it allowed me to give individualized instruction to the few students who needed help.  It encouraged play and confidence as the children theatrically called "Who has been sitting in my chair?" in their appropriate character voices.  Overall, it was a great activity.  But it wasn't small group work.

I now understand why so many of the storytelling lessons I've seen at the preschool have been large group activities.  In every class where I have read a story, the children have been captivated.  They love to listen and to retell, and the acting extension of the story engaged them even further.  Though I could have, and perhaps should have, structured the activity so that every child had a turn (I think, as I allowed the children to take over the activity and simply monitored their play, two boys and one girl in the class did not choose to participate), I was so taken with their excitement that I simply abandoned my plan.  And quite frankly, I was so busy assigning roles and guiding the story that I forgot to call to other children to join us.  My list remained hidden behind me on the floor.

Next time I will think harder about how to structure the activity to meet my goals - and theirs. Perhaps in the preschool classroom, the large group would be the better tool for this task.

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