Dr. Baros is a dedicated researcher, educator, and LGBTQ advocate. Her areas of expertise are proficiency-based language teaching and creating inclusive environments for LGBTQ students and people.
As I've been helping other students start on the same Kagan journey that I've taken over the last two years, I've been reflecting on where I need to grow as a teacher and how I can practice what I preach by really using Kagan the way it's meant to be used. This is one of the areas I've slacked off in the past, but is SO valuable to instruction that I can no longer ignore it:
Two essential components that maximize the effectiveness of Kagan Cooperative Learning are Teambuilding and Classbuilding. These activities are the "process by which a room full of individuals, with different backgrounds and experiences, become a caring community of active learners" (Kagan Cooperative Learning, 5.6-5.7). Teambuilding does this with members of individual teams, while Classbuilding does this for the entire class at once. These activities are critical because, as we all know, teaching and learning begins with relationships. And, where cooperative learning is concerned, we need to ensure that the students have positive relationships with one another before we can expect them to learn from one other (Have you ever been asked to collaborate with a stranger? How successful was that and why? Likely, you had to find some sort of "connection" before you were really able to make progress).
Most teachers attempt to build relationships with their students, and some even help students build relationships among one another. Those who do TPRS rely heavily on this because it not only supports the classroom environment, but also drives content as we use the students themselves as our topics of conversations. Some strategies are more effective than others, and some teachers are more effective than others, at building these relationships. Kagan gives method to this madness by ensuring class- and team-building does happen (and it happens on a regular basis), that it happens for every student, and that it's quick and efficient, so you don't lose class time. The irony here is that you are intentionally taking class-time to do something non-content related in order to teach more content. It's a pre-emptive strike works the same way as taking time to stop and teach students classroom management procedures thoroughly before getting on with the rest of the school year - if we do it regularly and we do it well, it saves us time during instruction because students are ready, willing, and able to cooperate and learn. Isn't that worth 2 minutes of your class's time? We give a little to gain a lot.
There two basic rules to remember when planning class- and team-building activities:
The number rule is easy - it just takes intentional planning and foresight to see when would be a good time to do the activity. Of course, this means you will likely need to plan a week out so you don't get to Friday and realize you haven't done any relationship-building all week. Sometimes, there's is just that "spot" that they fit in a lesson, and I can check one off for that week. However, if I plan out a week and realize I'm missing a teambuilder or a classbuilder, I scan through and see if I missed a good opportunity. If not, I throw a quick one usually right after my warm up on a particular day. Why there? First, it doesn't disrupt my bell routine and students still come in and sit quietly. I NEED that routine - as do my students. Second, it sets us up for the remainder of the day. There's not much use to a pre-emptive strike if it doesn't come before the kids have a chance to get squirrely! Third, it gives me a chance to check the "temperature" of the class - how is everyone doing today? Is there a vibe that I should be aware of? Finally, it gives students a chance to review, but that brings us to the next point.
Then, the solution occurred to me - and it was so simple! The key to Teambuilders and Classbuilders is that they need to be accessible to every student. No matter how "good" or "bad" a student is at a particular subject, they need to be on an even playing field with all of the other students and talk about things that are meaningful to them. What if the activity was structured and scaffolded in such a way that anyone could do it in Spanish? I presented this thought to our coach with the following example: In week 1, I teach my students how to ask and answer "¿Cómo te llamas?" (What is your name?), "En dónde vives?" (Where do you live?), and "¿Cómo te sientes?" (How do you feel?). For a Classbuilder, I could do Quiz-Quiz-Trade with those three questions after they'd been taught (LOTS of repetition!) and cards that look like this in order to provide support so that even a student brand new to the class could succeed (The cards get cut out and folded so that the hints are on the back, and I would put options for ¿Cómo te sientes?" on the board to select from). I reasoned that if someone who's never had a day of Spanish in their life could participate successfully, then it's accessible enough to be a Teambuilder or Classbuilder - and my Kagan coach agreed! Score! Of course, I'm talking about the most novice of the novice-low speakers here. As students acquire more language, the types of questions and prompts used in these activities can become more complex. The key is that students should be able to participate without having to try or learn anything while getting to know their peers. For language teachers, the beauty is that students are still practicing interpersonal speaking - and CI teachers will likely have a bank of past PQA questions to pull from for students to talk about (this is why my Teambuilders and Classbuilders are an opportunity for review!).
In summary, with a little adaptation and thorough understanding of the what and why to Kagan methodology, each of the barriers to using Kagan to its fullest extent in CI classrooms is slowly coming down. Of course, incorporating these relationship-building elements into our regular instruction is something that is old news to most TPRS teachers, but Kagan adds one more tool to the tool box. And, for me, it's the hammer that secures that last nail necessary to ensure that I've reached every student on a personal level. As an added benefit, students are building relationships directly with one another while still getting low-risk opportunities for the ever-important Interpersonal Speaking practice. This is another win in the methodology book for me, and I plan on working hard next school year to make sure it's regularly present in my planning.
UPDATE (October 16, 2016): Due to my experiences over the past few months, I've had a "rebirth" of sorts into the CI world. Due to this, I have taken some significant steps away from using Kagan as a main method in my classroom and instead focusing on simply storytelling and communicating compelling and comprehensible methods. However, Kagan and the underlying principals of cooperative learning do still have their appropriate places and are used often in my classroom - just not as extensively and not in the same way that I was using them before. I do still feel that cooperative learning is essential in my classroom for a few reasons - it demonstrates my faith in students to figure something out on their own, allows them to build relationship through supporting one another, adds variety to the classroom, and especially because it gives me an opportunity to hear how they verbalize their internal processing of the language - I occasionally realize that the class was "understanding" something in a different way than I intended, and this gives me a quick break from instructing to monitor and adjust instruction as we move forward. I generally use teacher-centered instruction to co-creation of stories, which forms the backbone of the language that we use in class. The cooperative activities (and therefore Kagan) come into play when students are processing input together, such as re-reading a story that we co-created. There are excellent structures beyond Kagan that utilize cooperative learning, such as the "Running Dictation" or any variation thereof. As long as students are engaging in Positive Interdependence, have Independent Accountability, have Equal Opportunities to participate, and are Simultaneously Interacting, then all of the benefits of true cooperative learning are present and valid.
UPDATE: For a summary of most useful Kagan structures for CI instruction as well as specific activity ideas, click here. For a comprehensive list of Kagan structures and ideas, click here.
I started my CI journey at the beginning of my career when I taught in a TPRS classroom. In fact, we could actually go even earlier when I observed my would-be master teacher at work during my teaching program and was amazed by what he was doing, so I requested that I be placed in his class for student teaching. I'd never heard of Comprehensible Input or TPRS, but I was hooked! I have been 100% on the CI boat from the very beginning and it shapes everything about my classroom, from the activities we do to assessment to the posters I have on my wall. When it comes to foreign language teaching CI is king. Of course, I know I'm likely preaching to the choir here, but I wanted to make it clear where I stand in terms of the importance and superiority of CI. I also want to make a comparison:
I was introduced to Kagan two years ago during a staff development activity. Since then, my school as worked to become a "Kagan" school, complete with our own certified Kagan coach on staff and complete professional development days dedicated to official Kagan training and credits. At first I was resistant to using Kagan in my classroom - I argued that I needed to be the one providing input because students can't possibly learn correct language without a proper model! I resisted for the entire first semester. Then, I had the opportunity to observe our Kagan coach at work (he teaches middle school math) - and I was hooked. Again, I was amazed by the energy and engagement levels of students at all levels and I had to have that same thing in my own classroom! Kagan, like learning about CI and TPRS, has again revolutionized my classroom and I won't go back to how things were before.
Before I go any further, I should point out that Kagan can be a LOT to process, but it's best to take it little by little. Just like CI (and especially TPRS), misunderstanding and misapplying the Kagan methodology is likely to end in frustration and abandonment, claiming "it didn't work for me." I believe it can and will work for you as long as you are careful and really know what you are doing. If you are new to CI, focus on developing your CI skills first. That is the foundation of your language instruction. Once you are ready to dip your feet in the Kagan pool, keep reading and follow the "next steps" at the end of this article.
What is Kagan?
For those of you unfamiliar with Kagan, it is a style of cooperative learning that provides structures/strategies to increase engagement and accountability. However, the full Kagan methodology is just that - a methodology. Like with CI, most teachers have to re-think their classroom paradigm and have some philosophical discussions about the what, how, and why of teaching and learning. However, those that teach and assess using CI have already made most of those same paradigm shifts. In particular, Kagan emphasizes student-centered teaching and personalization, learning through communication and interaction, building a positive and supportive classroom environment, and moving from teacher-controlled classrooms to student-driven lessons where mistakes are OK! For many teachers, these can be radical ideas - I would argue that for many CI teachers, these ideas are standard and best practice. In many ways, Kagan and Comprehensible Input are made for marriage. However, just like with any real marriage, careful considerations must be made in order to make the marriage a success:
There are four fundamental components to every Kagan structure for engagement, summarized by the acronym PIES (which every other teacher understands to be a fruit-filled pastry, while I understand to be "feet"!). If one of these is missing, the structure will not work as intended:
How do I use Kagan in a CI classroom?
To really make this process efficient, I keep a catalog of CI strategies and Kagan structures handy to flip through during steps 2 and 3. I recommend that you develop your own personal catalog of the structures you've tried (meaning that you didn't just give it a shot once, but actually did it 3-5 times and ensured you followed every step every time) and found most effective for your classroom, along with the specific activities and objectives that you've used them for. I'm working on categorizing Kagan structures by the types of CI activities that they pair well with, including whether they are suitable for input or output activities. At most, you may only ever use 5-10 different structures during a given year - this again emphasizes that you are not expected to use every Kagan structure, just the ones that work best for you and your content area!
How do I get started?
First, get familiar with what Kagan really is and how it looks in the classroom. Do a little bit of reading to understand the fundamentals and familiarize yourself with some of the most common structures (see The Essential 5). If possible, attend a conference (you'll want to start with the "Kagan Structures Level I" 4-day workshop). If you can't go to a training or attend a conference, then you should read the Kagan Cooperative Learning book. However, DO NOT read this book front to back - that would be far too overwhelming! Start with the essentials - I recommend reading about the Seven Keys for Success (Chapter 5) and previewing the Structures (Chapter 6). That should be enough to get started - look over the other chapter headings and read/apply as it suits you. There is a LOT more to true cooperative learning that just what is in those two chapters, but it's enough to get the very basics down.
Next, group and label your students appropriately. If you've read about teams and grouping in the book above, you'll know the what and why for this. I skipped the heterogeneous groups and went straight to the structures my first time around - it was ok, but not really what it could have been because I had the blind leading the blind. I really saw the benefits of Kagan when I had my students grouped properly - my high students were processing information on a deeper level as they had to explain to their partner(s) why they know that word means "they live" instead of "he lives" (it has an n!), while my students at lower levels were getting quality input, all while building a positive relationships and value for one another. Don't make the mistake I did - if you're going to do Kagan, do it right the first time and carefully assign those groups (I recommend purchasing the Team Tools software to make this a breeze!). Then, make sure students know their letters and numbers (Kagan style - see the book!) - these help with the facilitation, management, and efficiency of Kagan activities. For those without desks (I'm hoping to join your ranks next year!), you can label your chairs with the group names, numbers, and letters and then teach your students who their "group mates" are so they can quickly move their chairs to be with their groups.
Finally, use the lesson planning steps above to carefully select the structures that will support and enhance your instruction. Start small with simple structures (your first few structures will likely come from The Essential 5), and only try one or two Kagan structures at a time. It will take 3+ tries to really make a structure work, so don't give up! Double check and make sure you are following all of the instructions and steps. If you realize you missed something or students are confused, don't be afraid to pause the class and clarify. I usually teach structures like this:
Follow the steps above, and you should be well on your way to an effective CI/Kagan classroom. Please leave any questions below and let me know if I can be of any assistance - I would be happy to be your "virtual Kagan tutor"! I will update this post once I have the "catalog" of Kagan structures matched to CI strategies that I referenced above. Happy teaching!
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