While I taught in the elementary, I had students work in groups almost daily. Often, the group work amounted to something as simple as completing an assignment together. At other times, they analyzed a book using discussion questions or completed a major, multi-session project. I used groups because I had a large number of students below grade level and a mandate to teach small groups during many blocks of the day, so I could not be available to help them. Allowing students to work in groups meant the advanced students could help the lower students (Barkley, Cross, & Major, 2005). I could also group students by ability when the groups needed to work on separate skills. Most of the time, the students did not mind working in groups. They liked to get together with their friends to complete an assignment.
Unfortunately, not all kids wanted to work in a group and not all parents wanted their kids to work in a group. The most severe example of resistance came in one of my last years in the elementary. I had a biracial student in a class that was over 50% Hispanic including some English as Second Language (ESL) students who were still early in their English acquisition. They could speak English at the social level, but academic English was a struggle now and then. For the purpose of this discussion, I will call the biracial student Sue.
When I split the class into groups, four of the five groups had one of the ESL students and at least one student who was fully bilingual to serve as a translator, if needed. Sue was in a group with one of the ESL students, a translator, and two others children. The group met for the first time to overview the project and figure out who was going to handle what parts. I noticed Sue sitting off to the side with a foul look and crossed arms. She reacted like that any time she was not assigned to the same group as her best friend, so I waited for a while to see if she would join the group on her own. I made the rounds with the other groups, clarifying instructions and answering procedural questions, and arrived at her group last.
I crouched between her and the group with my back to the group and asked, “Are you working with the group or doing the entire project alone?”
She rolled her eyes and joined the group.
The next morning, I arrived at the school to find my phone message light blinking. I retrieved a message from Sue’s mother, demanding a call about the group assignment. When I returned the call, the mother wanted to know why I assigned Sue to the group I did. I explained my rationale for making as diverse a group as I could, mixing boys, girls, and skill levels (Michaelsen & Sweet, 2008).
The mother then insisted that I had better change the groups around so Sue would not have to work with the bilingual and ESL students. She wasted no opportunities to use racial slurs and insults, accusing those students of being too lazy and leaving her daughter with all the work.
I explained that the scoring rubric for the project accounted for that possibility by including a section that scored students on their participation. I monitored progress and kept track of slackers on my clipboard, but that was not good enough for the parent. She issued a few more insults and hung up. I later found out she contacted the principal, who supported my decision.
In the end, the project was completed. Although there were some slackers in the class, none of them were in Sue’s group. Sue refused to do anything in the group except the drawing and coloring parts of the project, and the group did a fine job of trying to accommodate her wishes. Ironically, her attitude ended up sticking others in the group with tasks she would have been better equipped to handle. As a result, the group did not do as well as they might have.
Barkley, E. F., Cross, K. P., & Major, C. H. (2005). Collaborative learning techniques. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Michaelsen, L. K., & Sweet, M. (2008). The essential elements of team-based learning. New Directions for Teaching & Learning, 2008(116), 7–27.