I often have my students work together when doing practice problems (i.e., worksheets) in class, but it's a fairly informal arrangement. They choose a partner to work with, they compare answers and ask and answer questions, and I roam around making sure they're on task. It goes okay, but I've been aware that it could go better and I've been wanting to see how some other teachers do it.
The other day I got the chance to observe another teacher in my school, Ms. H, and at one point during her class she had her students doing an activity in stations. The basic idea was pretty straightforward. Her desks are arranged so that students are sitting in pairs. When it came time for the stations activity (basically ten practice problems on compound inequalities), she first gave everyone a blank Stations Sheet already divided into ten numbered sections. Then she assigned each student to their first station so that each station had two students. While the students swapped seats to go to their first station, she distributed ten index-card size inequalities problems to the stations (one problem per station), and when everyone was set, she put a timer up on the screen in front of the class, set it for 2 minutes and said, "Go."
She was available to answer questions but mostly the kids didn't need much help, and when they did they got it from their partner. (She'd already reminded them that both people had to complete the problem at each station.) When the timer beeped, everyone moved to the next station, she reset the timer, and they started on the next problem.
I'm sure lots of teachers have used some variation of this approach many times, but for me this was really eye-opening. I learned several things:
It's nice to have flexible seating arrangements - The desks I have in my classroom look like the picture on the left. They're fine, but you can't set them up in side-by-side pairs because one person wouldn't be able to get in and out. I'm working on swapping my desks out for some that look like the picture on the right.
A little advance preparation goes a long way - Ms. H's stations activity may have looked simple, and in many ways it was, but there was a lot of prep that went into it. Before she did the activity she had created a Stations Sheet, paired up all her students like she wanted them, put her ten practice problems on index cards, and created Station Number tent cards to label the stations with. Plus, she had clearly done stations with her class before, since all of the kids already knew what to do.
Using a timer can prompt the kids to get more done - Ms. H said she often uses stations on Test Review day (i.e., the day before a test), and I immediately saw how it would be valuable. When we're doing test review in my classes, many of my kids will work on their problems but they're clearly not working as fast as they could, and Ms. H said she sees the same thing with her students. Having a timer adds a bit of urgency to each problem.
I'm looking forward to trying this in my classes.
Image by Stuck in Customs via Flickr.