The Quick and Dirty Guide to Making Student Work Groups

I’m not a big fan of group work, but sometimes it’s a necessary evil – labs, research projects, discussion groups and the like.  The minute you speak the work “group”, students ask if they can make their own groups, which means of course they want to get into groups with their friends, which of course means very little work will get done.  And, of course, the perfect educator (me?  Ha ha!) would hand-tailor the groups for the perfect students (my students?  Ha ha!) – a perfect blend of motivated, high-performing students who were perfectly willing to help the motivated but lower-performing students for maximum work and optimum learning.

Unfortunately, in the real world where you and I live, things are not perfect.  Students are absent, some students aren’t motivated, and high-performing and low-performing are relative concepts.  But even in the real world, I want to homogenize my groups so each group contains students at varying levels.  As much as I would like to be able to prepare group assignments ahead of time, one or two absent students on the day of the group results in a frenzy of last-minute juggling of group assignments.

Here’s how I do student groups on the fly:  my grading software (GradeQuick) allows me to sort students by rank.  I can sort by overall score or by score on an individual assignment.  (You could also do this manually if you don’t have software that lets you sort students this way.  Just list the students in order from high score to low score.)  The day before a lab, for example, I will sort the class by rank and print out a roster that is sorted from high score to low score.  The only other thing I have to do beforehand is decide how big the groups are going to be.

The next day, I take out my roster.  Draw a line through any student who is absent.  Next, divide the group size into the number of students to calculate the number of groups.  For example, if I’m going to divide 24 students into groups of 3, I will end up with 8 groups.  Starting at the top of the roster, I count out the first 8 students and draw a line, then count out the next 8 students and draw another line.  Now it’s time to assign the students.

Sort by rank, exclude absent students, then divide into groups

Sort by rank, exclude absent students, then divide into groups

Start at the top and assign the first 8 students to groups 1 – 8.  I print a roster with blank boxes, so I just write the numbers in the first box after the student’s name.  Next, I want to assign the lowest-performing students to groups with the highest-performing students, so I start at the BOTTOM of the list.  The lowest student will be assigned to group 1; the second-lowest to group 2; and so on until the bottom eight students are assigned to groups.  With the students in the middle group, I also start at the bottom  and assign groups.  If I need to fine-tune assignments (kids who don’t get along, too many friends in one group, etc.), it doesn’t take that long to rearrange the groupings.

It’s not the perfect method; it’s not the ideal method.  The good thing is, it usually works.

Tomorrow’s the big day!

Another summer break has rattled to a stop.  Tomorrow is the first day back for teachers, with four days of pre-school before the kids come back next Monday.  Lots of changes in my department – we had two teachers leave and one teacher reassigned within the school. One of the teachers that left went out-of-county.  It was easy to see the effect of losing our step increases and having no real raises for three or four years – his new position pays over $8000 more per year based on his years of experience.  The other teacher went west to become an administrator.  I think he said that even if he had taken a teaching position in his new state, he would have received a substantial pay increase.

We have three new science teachers and, more exciting to me, they’re all hired and ready to go.  This is the first year in probably three years that we will be fully staffed on the first day.  Last year was definitely the low point – we had three positions vacant at the beginning of the year.  One was filled about three weeks into the school year, but the other two were not filled until 6 weeks into the first quarter.

One of the vacant positions was for a biology teacher.  For the last 7 years, I’ve basically been the lead teacher for regular biology.  It’s not a formal mentoring relationship, and there was certainly no extra pay for doing that, but I would always share everything I had on my Flash Drive of Doom – PowerPoints, worksheets, quizzes, labs, tests . . . EVERYTHING you would need to teach regular biology and then some.

Last year was a Perfect Storm of disaster, though, because it was the first year for new textbooks.  Different textbook, different publisher, different author.  This meant that all of my presentations and worksheets were useless.  Plus we biology teachers were pretty scattered – I had 2 sections, the other two “old” guys had 2 sections.  We had a teacher just returning from a 10-year hiatus, and she had 1 section.  The open position had 3 sections of biology.  As the “lead”, I got stuck making lesson plans for the long-term substitute teacher that was covering that position.  Now I was a sub before I started teaching, so I know it’s a thankless job.  But this guy was 80+ years old, and he VERY grudgingly agreed to take the long-term sub position until a teacher could be hired.  (Side conversation contributing to the Perfect Storm:  the school district was waiting to see whether the schools would have to comply with the state class-size restrictions, so they refused to hire anyone until the ruling came in . . . in late September.  Yeah.)

Every day, I had to write out detailed lesson plans for the sub, give him a flash drive with any presentations on it, make copies of any worksheets he needed, and prep any labs.  Now I’m not a write-out-a-full-lesson-plan kind of teacher.  At best, I have a skeleton outline of every activity I’m going to do,  and a stack of folders with any handouts.  Oh, and remember that “new textbook” thing?  That meant every presentation had to be made from scratch (ish – the publisher provided PPT files, but they were only semi-usable for various reasons).  We had to figure out what supplemental materials we wanted to use, and how to use them.  Writing out the detailed lesson plans was so time consuming that I quickly fell behind on my own preparation – grading, prepping for my AP Environmental class, making copies for my own classes.

By the time the principal hired teachers to fill the vacant spots, there were quite a few burned-out teachers in the department.  (And I wasn’t even one of the ones that was teaching a 6th period.)  Luckily, the teachers the principal hired were amazing – great team players, great classroom skills, great science teachers.  I guess it worked out well in the end, but it was a little hairy getting to that point.

So I am extremely relieved to know that even though we will have three new teachers tomorrow, at least they’re already hired.

Science Anchor Charts – Non-fiction Text Structures

This year marks the first year that I have to demonstrate that I am teaching the Common Core standards for science literacy.  After reading over the standards, I’m pretty sure it’s something I’ve been doing over the last few years anyway.  Now it just has to be explicit that students are reading and analyzing at the appropriate level.

The previous principal at my school strongly encouraged all of us teachers to complete our Reading Endorsements.  I completed my endorsement a few years ago, and feel like it was worthwhile.  It gave me a lot of strategies to help students understand a sometimes-difficult science course.  I remember reading an article recently that proposed that many students read non-fiction the same way they read fiction:  they start at the beginning and read straight through.  They don’t stop to look up unfamiliar words (and, honestly, in science students encounter a lot of unfamiliar words), they don’t look at the diagrams and pictures, they don’t read the captions, and they don’t stop to ask themselves.  By reading their science textbooks in a fiction-like manner, is it any wonder that they don’t learn much from their reading?  This is especially true of my biology students.  Many of them are barely reading at grade level (10th grade), and a too-large number are still reading at middle school levels.  About 1/3 to 1/2 of my students are ESE, meaning they may have other learning issues that make it doubly hard for them to make solid meaning out of what they are reading.

Thanks to Pinterest, I learned about anchor charts over the summer.  Even though many of them are geared to an elementary school audience, I can see the value of using them when I essentially have to teach or re-teach non-fiction reading skills.  I found an example that had been pinned and repinned, which means that I have not been able to find the original poster so I can properly credit my source.

I’m the first to admit my handwriting, while neat, isn’t beautiful, so I found a font I liked and printed out my headings (150-size font, in case you’re interested).  I traced around the letters onto my posterboard, then used pencil to follow the indentations. Image


But outlining was pretty tedious, so I decided to just cut out the rest of the headings and glue them onto the anchor chart.  Then I copied samples of each of the text features from our current textbook and added them to my poster.  Finally, I wrote a description of each text feature.  When we get back to school for pre-school teacher work days, I’m going to have the poster laminated so it lasts longer.


I haven’t really started lesson planning for school yet, but the ideas are bubbling around in my brain.  This will most likely be a lesson in the first week or two of school, when we usually cover basic science skills such as scientific method, graphing, and lab safety.  The textbook publisher didn’t make a textbook scavenger hunt for this book, but I may do that to help the kids get familiar with these nonfiction text structures.

Update to Classroom Pets (part one)

At the end of the school year, I was not sure what to do with my moth eggs.  None of them had hatched yet.  I was pretty sure I didn’t want to take them home, since the idea of having stinging caterpillars crawling all over my patio sounded like a bad idea.  I thought about propping the door of the habitat open and setting it underneath one of the trees outside my classroom.  However, I figured when the mowing crew came through, that would be the end of both the habitat AND any residents.  Instead, I carefully picked all the moth eggs out of the habitat and set them at the base of a tree along the back fence at school.  If nothing else, I will be increasing the local population of Automeris io lilith.

The pillbugs came home with me.  Right now, the tank is sitting on my patio, awaiting transfer to a new habitat.  I need to transfer them because apparently the ants and cockroaches in my classroom (EWWWWWWW!) decided that they would like to share the tank with the pillbugs.  Transferring the pillbugs means I have to make a new habitat in a clean tank, then individually pick out the pillbugs and put them in the new tank.  Fun times.