When the world comes to you

A few weeks ago my principal asked if I would host some visitors in my class. This is a frequent occurrence, because our school is part of several networks of schools and visiting one another is normal. We also have relationships with sister schools in Germany, South Korea, China, and Japan.


SACIV visitors

Friday, eleven people came to my 7th period. One was a former student who now works for the San Antonio Council for International Visitors, a nonprofit that aims to “build international friendships, facilitate the exchange of ideas, foster cultural understanding, and promote San Antonio as an international city.” One was an interpreter from the U.S. State Department, and another was a facilitator of this particular exchange. The other eight were important people from other countries hoping to learn about cybersecurity and digital communications in the United States. They were coming to our school to see how we teach young people to communicate digitally, so Digital Media class was a good fit.

Due to the time frame of their visit, they were only going to spend time with my 7th period, but I wanted to get the other classes involved. So in periods 1-6, I passed out the one-page biographies of each visitor and asked groups of 3 or 4 students to write questions for that person on an index card. I was curious to see what they would ask of an Ethical Hacker from Slovakia, the Chief Analyst for fighting human trafficking in Macedonia, or the person who headed up the cyber crime division in Hungary’s version of the FBI.

Fortunately, I have two periods off (lunch and conference) right before 7th period, so I had time to rearrange the furniture into larger groups. I made placards for the official guests, and seated two at each table, along with 6 to 8 of my freshmen. The students had just designed business cards in a graphic design unit, and Friday was the day I printed them out. I placed the business cards in certain seats, with certain items. The person sitting to the right of a guest was given that person’s bio, and the task of introducing them to the group by reading the three most interesting things (in their opinion) on the piece of paper. The student in the middle had a computer, and was tasked with showing their digital portfolio to the group. The others received the index cards with the questions from the other class periods, and chose which ones to ask.

At first, the students were intimidated, but very quickly they felt at ease. Every student got to interact with each visitor, because the adults rotated from group to group after ten minutes. The structure, which was necessary at first, was less needed after the second rotation, so I gave them permission to just talk. That’s when the walls really came down.

One of my favorite moments was when the lawyer from Tajikistan gave her business card to one of the students, and I encouraged the student to give her business card in return. She was so excited! Several students got in a spirited discussion with their experts on the Area 51 Raid, which was happening that day. The guests encouraged the students to look up images of their countries and they were impressed by the beauty of a place like Macedonia.

For the last 5 minutes of class, I invited people to share something they learned or appreciated about the experience. Several students hopped to their feet to say what they enjoyed. When class ended, the local tour guide told me the visitors asked if they could just keep visiting high schools for the rest of their itinerary.


Five Steps for Facilitating Collaboration

Recently, my high school freshmen completed a month-long collaborative project in groups of about 5 people. The goal of the project was to develop and perform a play for first graders, based on a traditional folktale from another culture. Having done this project for multiple years, I have developed a series of effective strategies for successful collaboration.

  1. Teach that conflict is a necessary part of collaboration. I begin with a simulation that intentionally creates controversy, and watch how they handle it. Then we watch a TED Talk, Dare to Disagree, which makes the point that people disagree when they care, and listening to different viewpoints leads to learning. Then I explain four decision-making models they can use to reach a decision after conflict.
  2. Invest in group design. For short-term projects, this is not necessary, but for long-term projects, it is. My process is to put the tables in groups and let students choose their seats one day, then I put all those people into different groups later. Because this is a creative project, and it falls at the beginning of the year when I do not yet know the students well, I give students a very brief creativity test. After sorting groups randomly (away from their chosen groups on the previous day), I make sure to evenly distribute students who had high creativity scores, have demonstrated leadership, and have earned low grades in my class. Making the groups intentionally diverse leads to a greater opportunity to learn from one another. I’m fortunate to teach in a school with teaming, so I always show my initial group designs to my team to get four more sets of eyes on the groupings. With their feedback, I often tweak my plans.
  3. Set groups up for success. On the day I announce the groups, I make a big production. First, I give the speech about how to react (never negatively, but also not too positively because that can make others feel left out). I hand every student a numbered envelope with a card inside. The cards contain pictures of farm animals.animals To find their group, they have to make the sound of the animal. This ridiculous exercise makes them relieved to find their fellow quackers, mooers, and cluckers, so they have instantly bonded. A classic ice-breaker, Two Truths and a Lie, helps them get acquainted. Then a group puzzle activity challenges them to work together, with deep metaphorical debrief conversations.
  4. Use contracts. On the second day of group work, students negotiate contracts. It takes a full class period the first time, but later in the year they can do this in 10 minutes. Inspired by the contract system at Manor New Tech High School, my contract system has been refined over a year and used successfully with dozens of groups. I define the student roles for the project, group-contractsand assign prestigious-sounding names, specific tasks, and exact due dates. Students do have the ability to give warnings to their members for violating agreements, and after three warnings, the offending student is removed from the group and must complete the project on their own. Never has a student been removed, but several times they have been warned. Giving the students this authority means they rarely run to the teacher to complain about each other’s behavior or efforts.
  5. Allow for a feedback system. At the conclusion of the project, each student fills out a survey about their group members (including themselves). I aggregate the data and show them the average scores on each question. Then they have time to analyze the results through graphing their own scores in each category and answering reflection questions. It’s important for students to know that being a good group member doesn’t just mean doing the work:  if they are rude to others, don’t express ideas, and don’t ask questions, they are not good collaborators. Last month, my students, as a whole, scored each other highly on listening, while the biggest area for growth was encouraging others. Another excellent tool for feedback is the Buck Institute’s Collaboration Rubric, which I have also used during group projects.

When teachers assign group projects, it’s tempting to assess the final product, rather than the process. But it is the process that is the most important part of the work. In order to produce global citizens with strong collaboration skills, we need to provide structures and systems to facilitate their growth.