I met with all three of my groups last night to help them figure out how to conclude their discussions with a shared product about citizenship in San Francisco. The group that I had put together with all the strong personalities were still battling it out, but had basically decided to have every individual do their own project about public space, and then they are going to combine together somehow. After listening to them describe what each person was working on, I pointed out how they were in dialogue with one another in some unexpected ways. They talked more and realized they could put together a small exhibit on five ways of thinking about public space, each answering questions like “Who Owns the Sidewalk?”–we are currently having a spirited debate about sit/lie legislation, and “Who decides how to use public space? “–one person is looking at the zoning procedures in place, and ‘Why do we use public space?” for the student who is interviewing folks about whether they go to public spaces and why or why not.
Another group almost worked together too well. They had such a nice energy and made each other so enthusiastic that every meeting they would brainstorm entirely new and different research and activist projects. They kept trying to come up with one project that could perfectly encapsulate a solution to the problem of income bifurcation. They went from trying to write a comprehensive housing policy to planning out the ideal after school program for public schools, to examining how to make unions advocate for housing allowances. Listening to them, I could see how in some ways they were trying to use the process to come to a singular conclusion, so I stepped in and reminded them of the yes/and, and talked about ways that diversity is actually a strength. We talked about letting the process guide them rather than trying to beat it into submission into a nice neat package at the end. They started to think about heir final project as a mosaic and that they could use their interest in all these different issues as a strength.
The last group took on new city policies towards homelessness. They efficiently divided all aspects of the policy, gave everyone discreet tasks and had a strong sense of exactly how they all complemented one another. I felt they needed little input from me, though in an odd way, they were the least interesting to talk to.
In sum, I would offer the following observations about using the IF Process to do group projects:
1. Having the groups produce a product of some sort at the end really changes the dynamics of the discussion process. But I think it does so in a good way. One of the delights is that every group did take a very different path, and each group is creating a very different kind of project. They feel that the discussions are leading to something, and this makes them more invested in it. This all worked for a class of high achieving students, and in fact I have proposed doing something similar for a capstone experience for honors students in a program that I teach in. I do not think it would work if you had a class of some really motivated students and others who just tune out, the motivated students would take over I think.
2. The thought essays I assigned every other week turned out to be the best way of checking in and finding out what was really going on in groups. Here is where I heard students wrestle with dynamics, think about the meaning of collaboration, democracy, expertise and citizenship and responsibility. The evaluation forms I was so jazzed about proved to yield no information after the first two sessions. I’d start with them again to encourage them to reflect, but then as the process goes forward, I would change the format by which they give themselves and others feedback to deepen the engagement.
3. I underestimated the amount of anxiety the whole process created for students. They were really worried about if they were “getting what they were supposed to get” for the first half of the semester. I”m hearing a lot less of this now but once again, I think knowing that they were creating a product at the end helped with this somewhat, even though it creates other kinds of anxiety too. They figured as long as they were moving towards this goal, something had to be going right. I ended up having on on one meetings with most of the students at some point during the semester to talk through the issues. Once they were assured I was actually paying attention to the group dynamics and how they as individuals were participating, they seemed to feel relieved. I guess they need to feel you have not abandoned them to their fate.