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.
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