Working with Groups – Chuck Sandy

Chuck Sandy

Make Space For Introverts  –  Chuck Sandy

Although group work has become an almost de rigueur part of modern communicative language teaching, it’s well worth remembering that not all learners feel entirely comfortable about this. I know this because I’m one of those learners. I’m an introvert, and according to Susan Cain, I am not alone.  In fact, in her recent book Quiet: The Power of Introverts In a World That Can’t Stop Talking and in her Ted talk, Cain estimates that in a classroom or workplace, between one third and a half of all people self-identify as introverts.

Yet, introverts like me are not shy. They are just quieter and more introspective than extroverts. While the truly shy withdraw because they fear social judgment, introverts, according to Cain and my own experience, are not withdrawn at all. They’re simply people who work best and learn most in quieter low-key environments — as in alone. While extroverts thrive on outside stimulation and interaction, introverts most often just find a way to put up with it all unless they’re given some options.

I was in graduate school when I first learned how introverted I am and how much I disliked group work. Every assignment we had in my first semester was some group project leading to some group presentation. This was so painful for me, I even thought about getting out of education and going back to literature. Fortunately, in my second semester, I took a class in Educational Psychology with Dr. Linda McCain who did group work so differently that it not only helped get me through grad school, but also wound up informing how I’ve arranged my own classes throughout my entire teaching career.

Here’s some of what I learned about group work from Dr. McCain:

Create Space for introverts by organizing desks or chairs in fairly circular arrangements of three or five whenever possible.  This allows for anyone who does not wish to get close and personal to sit him or herself back a bit from the group, while also forcing the group to work harder at being cohesive. I know this sound contradictory, but believe me: it works. My experience is that five works better than three, and that seven is too big, but experiment with this yourself and see what’s best. When pair work is called for, one group member simply turns and works with someone from a neighboring group on that activity.

Allow groups to self-organize and organically change membership over the course. Learners are better aware of who they work best with than their teachers are, so unless a problem develops, let learners organize themselves. Of course, be ready to step in and gently suggest changes when problems arise, but try to frame your suggestion in a positive way. You might say something like, “I’ve noticed that you enjoy X. Most of the people in Group Y do, too. How about joining them?” instead of “If you don’t be quiet, I’m going to move you to another group.”

Do some group building activities early onto help group members find their strengths and weaknesses. One that I’ve enjoyed doing is The Marshmellow Challenge in which groups get a marshmallow, several pieces of uncooked spaghetti noodles,  some tape, and a string with which they have to build a tower. As groups work, they invariably discover who has leadership skills, who has organizational skills, and who quietly watches before later popping in with an idea. Of course the teacher sees this, too, but doing a post activity reflection helps bring the point home for everyone.

Have group members organically choose a group role that’s comfortable for them. For example, in groups of five, you might need a group leader who makes sure everyone is included, a secretary who takes notes, a task-master who keeps everyone on task, a language master who makes notes about new vocabulary and grammar encountered or needed, and a reporter whose job is to report back to the class. In those varied roles there is something for both extroverts and introverts.

Allow time for quiet individual deskwork even while sitting in groups. Not everything has to be done collectively. If group assignments are introduced by and followed up with individually done reflective writing or vocabulary/ grammar revision, this creates more space for the introverts to do what they do best.

Create alternative ways to do assignments and projects. Better yet, allow students to come up with their own suggestions for how they’d like to do a project. When learners are offered several possible ways into and through an activity or project, everyone is likely to find a way that works for them along with some new ways they can then tell others about and be proud of having discovered.

Be sensitive to and aware of the ever-changing moods and energy levels of your learners, and allow an out for those who do not feel like sharing much. Even extroverts have quiet introspective low-energy days on which they’d rather not share their feelings and opinions about whatever topic the group is focusing on. In fact, almost everyone has a day when they’d rather sit back and read a book or even take a break and go out for a walk. Why not let them do just that? Encourage a class atmosphere which is open enough that anyone, introvert or extrovert, can opt out when needed. Sometimes, just knowing that’s a possibility is a way forward.

And thank you Dr. McCain. After all these years I’m still using what you taught me — happily learning and teaching in my own introverted way. ~ Chuck Sandy

About Chuck: Chuck Sandy is a teacher, teacher trainer, author & educational activist with more than 30 years of experience. His many publications include the Passages and Connect series from Cambridge University Press,  the Active Skills For Communication series from Cengage Learning, and English For Teachers from iTDi. He is a frequent presenter at conferences and workshops around the world. Chuck believes that positive change in education happens one student, one classroom, and one school at a time, and that it arises most readily out of dialogue and in collaboration with other educators. He is a cofounder and director of iTDi.

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Working with Groups – Josette Leblanc

Josette Leblanc

Gallery Walk: Collaborative, Creative, & Versatile – Josette LeBlanc

You walk into an art gallery where mesmerizing and perplexing pieces of art await your viewing. As you walk to each piece, your curiosity is ignited. You stop at one. If you are with a friend, you discuss the artist’s possible intention, as well as the meaning behind the creation. Then you move on to the next work of art, and follow the same process.

Your classroom is also a gallery

You can also turn your classroom into a gallery by taking your learners on a “gallery walk”. A gallery walk is a versatile collaborative and cooperative class activity, which can be done in small groups or as a whole class. The basic premise is that learners put up their “art” (short stories they have written, posters they have created, questions they are posing…) at “stations” (desks, walls…), and everyone else has a task to accomplish while viewing the work.

When we think of asking students to work in groups we often think of groups of four or five working together at a desk, or maybe we think of group competitions. Gallery walks ask learners to step away from their desks to share information (language) in collaborative and cooperative ways.

Let’s visit a few of these galleries. Please remember that in these galleries, you are encouraged to touch the art.

Gallery walks for ice-breakers

This is one of my favorite ways to use a gallery walk. You may know the popular activity, Two Truths, One Lie where learners need to share two truthful facts about themselves and one lie. It’s everyone else’s job to find out which one is the lie. On the first day of class, I like to ask my learners to write their truths and lies on a colorful piece of paper. They then paste their Truth/Lie posters on the wall. Next, I turn on some background music, and with pens in hand, learners move from poster to poster putting check marks next to the sentence they think is a lie. Groups or pairs often end up meeting at a poster where they naturally begin discussing what the lie might be. When they’ve put all their check marks, it’s finally time for the artists to reveal their lies. Everyone is eager to find out if they guessed correctly.

Gallery walks for working with texts

This next example is a small twist on the traditional cooperative reading strategy called, jigsaw. Each group is assigned a different part (ie: part 1, part 2, part 3…) of the same article or story (ie: Story A), and they are responsible for creating a poster that represents that part. They have creative freedom over how they want to represent the text (ie: charts, drawings, words, no words…). Before making the poster, learners need time to individually read their assigned text (ie: part 1), and then discuss it with their group. Once they have a solid understanding, they start designing the poster. When each group has finished their posters, it’s time for a gallery walk. They put up the posters, and each group walks around trying to understand the details of what came before and after their part of the text. Groups then explain their posters, just as an artist would explain their work of art. By doing this, everyone gets the full picture. (See this post I wrote a few weeks ago about doing this activity with my class.)

The same can be done with everyone reading the same text. Each group will have a very different artistic perspective on the text from which other groups will learn. Ask students to find similarities and differences between the ways they chose to represent the text.

Gallery walks for discussions

As a pre-reading task, I like to put up different quotes that relate to the topic. In groups of three, learners discuss what the quotes mean and if they agree with it. For example, a few weeks ago we read a text about heroes. This is one of the quotes I put on the wall:

A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is braver five minutes longer.– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Of course this could be done at any point in the lesson for any type of language focus. Instead of quotes, you could put pictures or words. Teachers can put up questions or learners can ask their own. The possibilities for discussions and sharing in a gallery walk are endless.

Make gallery walks your own

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to gallery walks. You can do anything you want with them. Just remember the basics: learners work together to create and contemplate a “piece of art”, and artists move from one work of art to the other in order to accomplish a task. With this in mind, you can make your own creatively collaborative classroom.  ~ Josette LeBlanc

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Working in Groups – Rose Bard

Rose Bard

On Working with Groups  –  Rose Bard

As a mom I can’t help but wonder why my daughter, a brilliant and happy child had to go through so much struggle in school. She was, until I applied some of the principles from Mediated-learning, always labeled as a lazy student. Now that she’s regained her confidence, and has been able to raise her test score especially in Math, she is quite a different student. Before that, she used to describe herself as dumb, because that was how others saw her. And she accepted the label.

Every group, no matter the size, is formed of people, not just students. And everyone is different and a unique being. But above all, all of them can learn and will learn at their own pace. But in order for that to happen, I had taken into consideration in my own practice the fact that I needed to learn to listen to them myself, ask questions instead of assuming things and be ready to be a role model for them of the very thing I wanted them to develop as well as mediate the process of learning.


More and more during the last few years, I am moving away from the view of a teacher whose ideal classroom¹ is a place where teachers teach and students simply learn. I have learned that learning as well as teaching is a continuous and joyful process if the people in the room become more and more aware of what is going on with themselves and others.


Learn to live together

    “One of education’s task according to Unesco is both to teach about human diversity and to instill in them an awareness of the similarities and interdependence of all people.” Unesco¹

Every person that steps in our room brings with them their own stories, their own beliefs and their own dreams both about English and life itself. I feel though that for quite a while in my teaching career, although I had always managed to build rapport with most of my students easily, with some of them it took a lot more. And before I became aware myself of the importance of diversity and what really equality meant, I failed many times to build a learning community. With some groups, though, it happened almost immediately or naturally and despite of me — and that used to puzzle me.

My daughter’s struggle at school made me ponder, and although it was suggested quite a few times that she could have some sort of learning disability and that I should had taken her to specialists, most of that was due to the fact that she never felt part of the process. She could not ask questions without being questioned herself.


Living together: How I have been pursuing this goal

Because of my daughter, I became more aware of what I was doing in class myself. And questions started to rise. Questions like:

Was I actually giving my students the space to ask questions?

Were they able to listen to each other and to themselves?

Did they have the opportunity to make sense of the things they were hearing, seeing and reading and think through what I was trying to teach them?

Did they have goals themselves? Were my teaching goals matching theirs?

The questions never seem to have an end. But I am much more confident that working with the whole group without losing the focus on the individual is becoming more and more part of the learning process.

Some of the changes I did with my 9th graders:

  • I’m using authentic materials that are easily adapted to work with all levels and create tasks that are doable and connect them to the content of the authentic material as well as making them reflect about themselves and others. In A day in the life of Amar, I created or adapted others’ ideas around the theme of daily routines by inviting students to express their feelings and opinions.
  • Use notebooks or digital tools to record their thoughts and share with a bigger audience. In A day in the life of Amar I used Linoit. My learners keep a small notebook to use in class, but whenever possible I added digital tools with the aim to help them connect with other learners.
  • I discovered that using notebooks, allowing learners plenty of time to write and offering support by personalizing the learning process was one of my best tools. I work on the board at times, but most of the time I use learners’ notebooks as the board itself and explain to each one individually the language points they need as they need it.
  • I have also found it to be useful to talk through error correction with them. I use four ways to indicate that they need to rethink again. Circling the word means there might be a grammar/vocabulary error. Underlining means there is a spelling mistake. An x means a word is missing. Words that are not necessary or placed in the wrong place, they are crossed out. This has been really helpful. I also ask questions instead of assuming I know what they don’t know. If the error is in their level of English, they are able most of the time to self-correct themselves. For lower levels, I welcome peer correction. ~ Rose Bard

¹ If you interested in reading more about baking education in which I am striving as many of us are to become free of, read Paulo Freire here: ¹

For more on how Rose is working with groups please see her recent blog post here on her very own Teaching Journal blog.Connect with Rose and other  iTDi Associates, Mentors, and Faculty by joining the  iTDi Community. Sign Up For A Free iTDi Account to create your profile and get immediate access to our social forums and trial lessons from our English For Teachers and Teacher Development courses.

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Working in Groups

Working in groups can be both the most challenging and the most rewarding classroom interaction for learners and teachers. In this issue, our bloggers explore ways to make groupwork a worthwhile experience for all. The posts look at how sometimes group collaboration creates a rich language learning environment, and how at other times the same richness comes from creating a space for silence and individual work. We’ll also examine practical ways to move away from teaching to groups and instead move towards facilitating the group process.
– Josette LeBlanc / Guest Editor

Chuck Sandy
Chuck Sandy
Josette Leblanc
Josette Leblanc
Rose Bard
Rose Bard

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