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First Two Weeks and Student Groups

Last night was our second meeting (and only the second week of classes) of “The Good Society,” the topic of the course.  Since we only meet once per week (for three hours), I’ve not yet moved very far into organizing groups.  In addition to some course content, which I won’t bore you with, we spent most of last night and some of the first meeting discussing “pluses” and “minuses” of group work.  During the first meeting, I broke the class into two groups, one led by me and one by my TA.  Each group was asked to discuss good and bad experiences that they had had working in groups.  We did this for the last hour of class.  I recorded my group’s ideas on a marking board (and a student in the class entered on his computer what was on the board and e-mailed the list to me); the other group used a note-taker.  We’ll be using note-takers as well as the marking-boards and IF-style flip charts during the semester, so they might as well start getting used to this.

I took the list from the other group and over the weekend combined the two lists.  I then e-mailed the combined lists of pluses and minuses to the students.

Using the combined list last night, we generated some “best practices” for a) working in groups, b) assessing individual and group work, and c) assessing facilitators.  I told the students that the IF model of facilitation would be the one that we’d be using during the semester.  The students don’t really know anything about that model, other than a general outline that I provided during the first meeting, but I wanted to see what they thought made for a good facilitator.

You would not find surprising what they came up with on all fronts: pretty straightforward and commonsensical.  Much of it will be useful, and I’ll share some of that with you later.  But what was interesting was what they came up with that doesn’t really apply to this course.  Their principal concern was scheduling; that is, coordinating everyone’s schedules so that groups can meet.  I told them the first night, which obviously now had to be repeated, that all of their group meetings would be held in the class during our regularly scheduled meetings.  The only exception to this is when each group writes its own IF-style report on the topic that they themselves shall generate in a few weeks.  But there is no class that week so that they can focus on writing the report.  Thus every student must be available for at least three hours that week on Wednesday nights when we regularly meet.  Should not be a scheduling problem, no?

Another concern was group size, and this gets directly to one of Jeff’s prompts.  I have 23 students right now.  There will be three groups–two  of eight members and one of seven.  In this way I can observe two groups, and my TA can observe one.  The groups will be self-selecting.  They will be placed in a group based on their prioritizing three of the course topics that the students themselves will generate.  Thus, I cannot really compose the groups by paying attention to their personalities or character or quirks.  They’ll compose themselves based on their interests.  We’ll see how this works out.

When the groups begin, again in a few weeks, they will use their group topic to generate, as I said, an IF-style report.  Each week one student will facilitate while his/her “partner” takes notes.  After an hour, they switch roles.  When the group discussion is over, the pair then goes over their notes and prepares a summary that they will send to their group members in preparation for discussion the following week.  A new pair of facilitators/note-takers will then prepare a broad,, and brief, agenda for that new week, which they will send to me by Tuesday night, 24 hours before the class meets.  This way, I can provide some feedback and head off any troubles.

At the end of each discussion session, every student in the group does a group assessment, part of which is a self-assessment, and a facilitator assessment.  Those who facilitated during that session will do a group assessment and a self-assessment.  I do a facilitator assessment of the four facilitators for that session, as well as a group assessment of the two groups that I observed.  Is this making sense?  Pity my students.

Much of the assessment rubrics that we’ll be using is made up of what we generated in class last night as “best practices.”  In addition, during the Summer Institute our small group came up with some ideas for student and group assessment that Laura organized and sent out to us.  That, too, will be really helpful.  But the major source of assessment categories will come from the IF report on student discussion in the classroom (Sorry, but I can’t recall the precise name, and I don’t have the report with me.).  Regardless, I’ll have plenty of data on participation and facilitation.  Now if I can only figure out some easy way to grade all of this.

You may be reeling having simply read this blog.  I know my students are.  I often see the “what-the…” in their eyes.  Soon it will come pouring out of their mouths.  But I am totally excited about what is going on.  They don’t yet know fully why we’re doing what we’re doing or where we are headed.  It’s part of the adventure and the fun.  I know they’re having that, because this class is so different for them (and me).  I see that, too, in their eyes, when the panic recedes.  I’m hoping for more “Yeehaw” from them and less the sense that they are Slim Pickens riding the nuclear missile to oblivion.