Group work?

They are building a car powered by a rubber band. Although, to be clear, I’m not sure I should be using the word “they” in that sentence. A loose agglomeration of human beings of roughly age 10 are working on an assignment in the vicinity of one another. That about sums it up.

My son says that “the girls” took over and would not listen to him. His solution? Stop helping. At least one of the girls reported to her mother that “the boys” were just fooling around and didn’t do any of the work. The result? One girl and one boy are in my kitchen the night before the project is due, hot-gluing household items onto two entirely different cars neither of which reliably covers the required three metres. They plan to let the “group” vote on which one to use tomorrow. Both sides agree that the vote will likely divide along gender lines.


Every adult I’ve spoken to about this (because this group project has lasted for at least 10 painful days and other parents of other groups are equally put-upon) either rolls their eyes or laughs and says, “well, they might as well learn early what group work is really like.” And, though I wish it were otherwise, I more or less agree. I don’t have fond memories of group work from my school days. Heck, I even hate the group work I’ve had to do as an adult in my online courses. It’s hard for me to remember the synergy of a group of people, focused and contributing, creating something together that they simply couldn’t do on their own. It doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does, it’s transformative. Nevertheless, that’s not what I think of when I hear “group work.”

In the case of the rubber band car(s), I’m embarrassed to say that my first instinct was to blame the teacher: clearly the group work wasn’t well-structured, I thought. Teachers need to assign roles, break the task into parts, provide both independent and collaborative outcomes. But that’s kind of blather, isn’t it? I mean, it sort of works, but sort of doesn’t because group work is messy and complicated and often doesn’t lead to where we hoped it would go. Frankly, I assign group work only rarely, usually using the excuse that I need to “assess individual outcomes.” (Sometimes the words that come out of my mouth astonish me.) So I doubt that the group problems here really stem from the way the teacher assigned things.

But here I am. The kids are asleep, the cars are as done as they are going to be, and I’m wondering why the heck their project is bothering me. As I write, I keep trying to take the easy route, to switch gears to talking about my own classroom and jump right into “I’m going to assign more group work! I’ll research it, and I’ll do it better!” but I’m pretty sure that’s not the reflection I need.

How well do I work in groups? Do I “accept various roles”? Do I take over, listen to others or simply give up? What is a “good” group? What is the responsibility of the individual? How important is group work anyway?

I’m surprised by my ambivalence about the whole thing, but my thoughts keep returning to those two different cars limping towards the three-metre-mark, and I can’t help but wonder what that group needed to change to make one excellent car.



La la la

I said, “Write anything you want, respond to the prompts or don’t, but keep your pen or pencil moving for 10 minutes.”

I said, “Don’t worry if something doesn’t come to you right away, just keep writing.”

I said, “Sometimes I just write ‘I don’t know what to write’ over and over again for a while. That’s ok. Something will come.”

He wrote


And he did it for 10 minutes. Now that’s tenacity. I can work with that.


When it’s the best job

“Miss, how long have you been teaching?” In one motion, he picks up a stool, arcs it under his body, and plunks himself down across from me. I stop eating my lunch and look up.

“More than 20 years. I’ve kind of lost count. Why?”

“Ok. So. You know how to make kids stop talking, right?” He’s taking up a lot of space – legs spread, elbows on my desk, newly-bearded chin balanced in his hands as he glares at me intently.


I’m not sure where he’s going with this line of questioning and it makes me a little nervous. He’s not an easy kid to read. He arrived at our school early last year, and his life before that was not easy. Heck, his life after that was not easy. He’s intense and funny and thoughtful, but he can be impulsive and independent well beyond what is good for him. When I taught him during that rocky first semester, I learned quickly that his questions are almost always multi-layered and that he wants real answers.

“It’s never that easy,” I tell him, and I think of some of our stand-offs in the classroom.

Some of those memories must occur to him, too, because we look hard at each other until I finally break. “Spill,” I say. “Who do you want to stop talking?”

Three ninth grade girls in the math class he’s peer tutoring are driving him crazy. “They talk all the time! They’re so rude! They don’t know what a great opportunity they have! Mr. W’s an excellent teacher.”

He’s already tried to divide and conquer. He’s figured out who’s the leader. He’s tried being nice…

-Pause here for a second-

He is a peer tutor.
He is working with 14-year-olds in a math class.
He’s seeking advice from teachers he respects because he wants to go to the classroom teacher with ideas.

He is a peer tutor.
He is helping out in a math class.
He is seeking advice from teachers.

We had a good talk, and I made a few suggestions. And I told him that the suggestions probably won’t work – who can stop three determined 9th graders from talking? – but I doubt he’ll give up.

When he left, I might have been a little teary. He’s a peer tutor. A peer tutor. I might be a little teary again right now. Sometimes teaching is the best job ever.


Come write your own slice of life and share on Tuesday at

My evening soundtrack

You must eat real food!
If you’re not off that computer in 5 minutes…
No. More. Handstands.
Wheat Thins alone do not constitute a healthy lunch.

It’s late, and I’m tired. I lost my temper with my children earlier this evening over the myriad phrases I’ve said a thousand times. Too often, these shrill phrases feel like the soundtrack of my evenings. By the time bedtime arrives, I am so frazzled that I’m not sure I can outlast the children. Of course, I have no choice, so I continue.

Upstairs we settle into my bed, and the younger one reads out loud in French. A year ago he could barely do this; now even when he stumbles, he corrects himself and goes on. He is concentrated and sure. Next, I read aloud. The boys ask questions, move around, clip their toenails, draw, get water, but mostly they listen. Sometimes, like tonight, the book leads us to unexpected discussions about things like what is a sijo and what makes one poem better than another. (Thank you, Jason Reynolds, for putting poetry in Miles Morales: Spider Man.) No matter how frustrating the evening has been, as we read aloud, the complaints fade away and we find ourselves together in a new place. I read and I read. The boys almost always ask for one more page…

And then, I snuggle the 8-year-old into and sing to him. Three lullabies. Every night. We say goodnight and he smothers me with kisses, triumphantly exclaiming, “I win!” I have to respond, “You always win!” and am rewarded with his giggle as I turn off the light and move into his brother’s room. There, my newly-serious 10-year-old says, “Would you like to have a conversation? What would you like to talk about?” and we snuggle in for five more minutes of murmured chitchat.

Lights out and I the stairs creak as I head back to the kitchen. Brief silence followed by sudden gratitude that my evening soundtrack is richer and more varied than I originally thought.


Join us on Tuesdays at