The groupwork dilemma: facilitating team challenges in the middle years during remote learning

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"Over this period of remote learning in Term 2, 2020, a teaching and learning experience that none of us will ever forget, we have been asked to undergo education and all that we know in reverse, and from the end of a virtual platform." English Teachers Mrs Rhiannon Ward and Mrs Miranda Gazis write in Idiom.

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In the Media: IDIOM Magazine V56 . Miranda Gazis and Rhiannon Ward, Strathcona Girls Grammar


Those of us with a vested interest in middle years education often consider ourselves to be quite the creatives. Over our years of teaching practice, upskilling and honing our craft, we have developed a myriad of activities characterised by the ability to engage, question, challenge and stimulate the minds of the middle school students we teach each year. We know how to get the kids moving, both physically and mentally, through a stimulating lesson. 

We utilise pedagogy and practice to encourage tactile learning. We use Thinking Routines, we set timers and set challenges, we inquire, we inspire, we group work like the best of them. But never before in the history of our own learning and teaching experience had we been asked to perform like masters of this educational domain, from our own living rooms. Never before had we been asked to facilitate an energetic and visionary middle school classroom of approximately twenty 13-year-old students via a virtual platform. Never before had we even contemplated the possibility of this model of education. 

As dedicated middle school teachers, we must admit that one of our first concerns in shifting from face-to-face teaching to remote learning was the potential for the lost personal connection. In general, we know that most children learn best when together: they use incidental moments to question for clarification from peers, they become enriched through spirited classroom discussions, and they feel galvanised by those out-of-the-chair experiences designed to rock our students from their comfort zones, and move them into the realm of transformational ideas and possibilities. As educators, we know that energy and excitement build in a great lesson, and this energy is reciprocal; the students take ideas from the classroom, but they also give them back. This cycle is a living and growing organism, and in principle, this cycle is fundamentally broken when a computer screen is implemented as a blocker of the organic flow between and among teacher and students. Educational experts, including Hattie and Wilkinson et al. (2002), acknowledged this on an intrinsic level; when children learn in harmony and together, their influence and impact on each other is great. However, when we remove the classroom and indeed, the school boundaries, these ‘peer effects look smaller the further we move away from the instructional coalface because they are mediated by intervening layers’ (Wilkinson, et al, 2002). These layers include family influence, inability to read body language and, therefore, achieve personal connections, the passing of time and the simple fact of distractions. When Hattie and Wilkinson et al. (2002) were collaborating on this work all those years ago, they were highly aware of one simple fact: people need people to grow and thrive. Over this period of remote learning in Term 2, 2020, a teaching and learning experience that none of us will ever forget, we have been asked to undergo education and all that we know in reverse, and from the end of a virtual platform. 

Andrew Fuller, a clinical psychologist and educational researcher, explains this unprecedented experience as asking all students, educators, and indeed citizens living in our community, to undergo great and remarkable change. He has labelled this period as one of, ‘trial, turbulence, transition and transformation’ (Fuller, 2020), whereby we journeyed through the disbelief, the anger and frustration of home isolation, and have rather powerfully transitioned, transformed and even thrived through the encounter. But underneath it all remains the fundamental question: have we been able to maximise student connection through the strength of group work, via the virtual classroom? Has remote learning maintained these important human connections? Have we been able to protect this aspect of student development and learning? Well, we believe that we certainly have, and in fact, we believe that this experience has given us the time to reflect and reconsider some of our pedagogy and practice, and to even further sharpen our knowledge and tool kit. In this paper, we will guide you through some units of work that we taught during Term 2 via the Microsoft Teams platform. We hope to share some of our strengths and successes in our experience of teaching and learning in this brave new world of education.

Year 7 – Text study
The Watertower
(Crew and Woolman)
In order to teach text and the structures of an analytical response to our students, we have been using Crew and Woolman’s (1994) graphic novel, The Watertower, as an entry point to this element of the discourse. The students engage with the eerie and supernatural mood of the novel, while also gaining great insight into how to analyse the graphics and ‘crack the code’ of the symbolism and motifs that we critique over the course of the unit. Whereas in ‘real life’ we would spend several weeks of class time building knowledge and understanding through whole class discussion and inquiry, we had to adapt our thinking and lesson planning to the virtual world. Below are some strategies that we implemented to explore meaning in this text, and give the students competency and, indeed, mastery at analysis.

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Shared and ‘live’ documents
Over the course of teaching text analysis via Microsoft Teams, we utilised the
‘share’ functionality to essentially access a ‘live’ document. In this way, we were able to explicitly teach skills and strategies, which also invited student input. Students were able to add to the live document, receive immediate feedback and spark class discussion and rigour, just as we would experience with face-to-face teaching and learning. This process gave students the ability to feel ownership over their own knowledge, while also benefiting from teacher guidance and other students’ insights. Group work felt fundamentally upheld and successful, in this ‘live’ learning environment. 

Accessing the online whiteboard for structure and modelling
By embedding a section of text onto the virtual whiteboard, we were able to highlight and manipulate sections of the graphic novel in order to annotate key features or text. As such, we could strategically shape students’ understanding and ‘reading’ of the novel in order to build their knowledge and capacity. This led toa better identification of key quotes and sections of text that could then be used as the basis for written analysis. Again, this process helped to facilitate class discussion through empowering students to provide input, while still remaining under the teacher’s careful watch and scaffolding. Again, the collaborative approach to learning seemed real, vivid and most certainly intact, during these remote learning lessons.

Explicit group tasks in ‘channels’
Across all year levels (7-12) at Strathcona, we celebrated the functionality of being able to include ‘channels’ within our class Microsoft Teams groups. This allowed students
to break into groups, with each group assigned a channel. Here, the students can see each other, as a Microsoft Teams classroom only allows for nine faces on screen at any one time, and so a general classroom limits the students we see. In addition, channel groups also gave the students time to have those incidental in-class conversations, just as they may do in a face-to-face lesson. Here, the teacher can drop in and out of each channel to check on students and clarify as necessary. If students are struggling, they can ask their peers for help immediately, or then ‘ring’ the teacher back into their channel for more specific suggestions. It was in these channels that the students were able to brainstorm and analyse each page or image contained within the novel, discuss their hypotheses for what might have happened to Bubba inside the water tower, or guess at the reason for the townspeople’s facial expressions. This structure breaks down the virtual barrier of the laptop screen to some degree, as conversations flow quite organically, with only four or five students involved in any one channel. On the whole, this procedure was a highly successful model across all our Years 7-12 English classrooms.

At the beginning of Term 2’s remote learning journey, we were faced 
with the problem of how to deliver oral presentations to a virtual audience. 
This seemed like an impossible task to both teachers and students. 
Would students still use palm cards or read from their screens? Would they stand up or sit down to deliver?
Using Thinking Routines and Flipgrid as a means of review 
Harvard’s Graduate School of Education introduced Visible Thinking routines as a vehicle to bolster student engagement and learning. At Strathcona, the staff invested time, enthusiasm and skill building into gaining proficiency in many of these classroom practices. As a result, we found that our students were thriving under this new teaching pedagogy. On the surface, it seemed that many of these routines were better suited to face-to-face contact, but after a few weeks of tweaking and trialling, a few lessons of experimentation and sometimes what felt like bravery, we were in fact able to implement some of these ‘Thinking’ strategies in the remote classroom. One such activity at Year 7 was the ‘See, Think, Wonder’ routine
(Ritchhard and Perkins, 2008), where our students first had to consider and explore in their small group channels. In follow-up, we then asked them to respond and share their learning by recording a Flipgrid video, and uploading it to a communal classroom website. This platform is free and accessible to any educator who desires to inspire through creativity and ingenuity. The technology allows teachers to shape their questioning, and the students then have up to two minutes of filming capability to record their responses and upload to the stream. Our activity is outlined below, and this provided students with the scope to both reflect on their learning of past lessons via the ‘See, Think, Wonder’ methodology, and then amalgamate their understanding in an engaging and intuitive way, onto the Flipgrid virtual stage.
• Students were asked to reflect:
– What do you already see or know about the story?
– What do you think is going on?What are your hypotheses about the mystery?
– What do you wonder about? Are there any symbols or images that are confusing, and you would like to do some further thinking around? What do you still need to find out?
• Following this reflection, students then created their Flipgrid and posted it to our class stream. As a resource, Flipgrid is very powerful as it taps into the modern zeitgeist of social media and self-promotion, in the safe and controlled environment
of your online classroom. Students can then view each other’s Flipgrids and provide comments or pose their own questions for inquiry. Flipgrid can be accessed via this website:
n short, the life of a Year 7 English student at Strathcona Girls Grammar may have seemed like it was set to be a vastly different learning experience at the beginning of Term 2, when we all embarked on the remote learning journey together. However, through developing our craft, extending our skill set, and breaking through the limits of our own teaching capacity, we believe that we planned and implemented dynamic, exciting and altogether engaging units of work for our girls. We celebrated the ethos of group challenges, embraced the functionality of technology, and provided our Year 7 English classes with a collaborative, collegial, and entirely connected learning environment.

Year 8 – Oral presentations
At the beginning of Term 2’s remote learning journey, we were faced with the problem of how to deliver oral presentations to a virtual audience. This seemed like an impossible task
to both teachers and students. Would students still use palm cards or read from their screens? Would they stand up or sit down to deliver? Would
they wear their school uniform? Their pyjamas? How would direct eye contact work? Can you still engage a virtual audience and convince them of your stance? There were many angles to be considered. However, to embrace this world of remote learning meant that we needed to break down traditional thinking and find new ways to test skills of persuasion, fluency, and coherent oral language, whilst still engaging and positioning the audience.
OneNote notebooks made remote preparation achievable. It allowed us to provide students the accessibility to YouTube clips of influential speeches, to upload structural templates for scaffolding, and tables of persuasive strategies that were all within sight of one another. However, perhaps most beneficial of all was the shared access to students’ planning notes, research and drafts. The ability to comment on student work as it was developing was highly valuable. A ‘channel’ in Microsoft Teams named ‘Help and Assistance’ was also set up and here one-on-one teacher assistance was made available as students worked through the construction of their speeches. 

However, perhaps most beneficial of all was the shared access to students’ planning notes, research and drafts. The ability to comment on student work as it was developing was highly valuable.

These came together seamlessly even though the tradition classroom walls had been removed.
Having overcome the hurdles surrounding preparation, we now turned our attention to delivery. It did not seem feasible to have one student deliver a speech online in front of
25 virtual audience members. As a department, we tackled this dilemma by putting students in small groups of four to five and assigned them each a channel in Microsoft Teams in which to work. An activity program was designed so that each group had to rotate through four activities. Each activity was set so that whilst the teacher listened to and assessed the oral presentations of one group, instead of sitting idle for lessons on end, the rest of the class was able to engage in other meaningful learning activities. By getting this balance right, students were able to deliver their speeches in front of a more intimate audience, watch peers in their group deliver their speeches, hear teacher feedback for each group member, and provide their own feedback for each peer in the channel’s ‘meeting chat’ space. It was mandatory for each member of the group to leave some peer feedback for each speaker. This could occur during the speech or upon conclusion of the speeches. Students were directed to leave a compliment, a question, something that they thought was interesting or something that they learned from each of the presentations given. This way, students had to actively listen and respectfully critique each peer’s work, making sure that they used @ and the student’s name so that the student would receive a notification of the comment. Some examples of  effective peer feedback included:

@student’s name I liked your use of emotive language, your speech made me feel a lot of different feelings.
@student’s name I liked your use of statistics as it helped with backing up your arguments, it was convincing.
@student’s name Your use of rhetorical questions and inclusive language connected you with your audience.
@student’s name I loved the passion you had when delivering your speech, I can tell this is a topic you feel very strongly about.
@student’s name I loved how you used language which made us all feel engaged and laugh.
@student’s name I really liked your ending, it was very effective in the way it linked back to the anecdote you opened with.

This type of peer feedback was immediate, and the students openly confessed that whilst it was challenging to write, it was very gratifying to receive. This added a dimension not usually available to us in the classroom and thus was a valuable ingredient to their learning and understanding of oral language.

Returning to the activity program, while one of the scenarios was to deliver their oral presentation to the peers in their group and their teacher, the other activities focused on building skills in grammar through assigned Education Perfect lessons, engaging in the class text that would be studied next through introductory comprehension activities, and encouraging reading by working through some activities based on a novel of their own choice. This work was uploaded on students’ OneNote notebooks and therefore their progress was monitored and teacher feedback provided. Overall, this meant that students were able to access a wider range of activities and tasks where they would normally be listening quietly and passively to 25 speeches. 

Year 8 – Text study
The Giver (Lois Lowry)
The Giver is a dystopian novel for young adults. Readers enter a world that appears perfect; it is a world without physical or emotional pain, where routine and rituals rule and where everyone has embraced ‘Sameness’. However, readers eventually discover that to eradicate pain, this orderly community also sacrificed colour, climate, individuality, memories, and emotional depth. It is a hollow community lacking any meaningful connection, where only an illusion of free will and happiness exists. Protagonist Jonas acts as an agent for change. The community Elders assign him the role of The Receiver of Memory whereby he shoulders the burden that his community keeps from its people – the knowledge of history and the wisdom that comes from the past and from the experience that pain, loss, death and suffering brings. Jonas learns that one cannot experience pleasure without pain, nor pain without pleasure and that it is ‘not fair’ to keep things like love from their people. He decides the community must eradicate ‘Sameness’ and confront a life with a full range of emotions.

Initially, The Giver was set as a comparative text study to be considered alongside the film The Truman Show, directed by Peter Weir. As time progressed and with the challenges of remote learning, the curriculum was reviewed, and in order to simplify this complex study it was decided that The Giver would be taught as a stand-alone text analysis. Microsoft Teams was the hero once again, as students were put into groups of four and a ‘channel’ was created where each group could meet and students were asked to select a role from the following:

Facilitator: asks questions of the group, prompts and contributes to the group’s discussion, makes sure discussion stays on track and that each area of the template is addressed.
Presenter: contributes to the group’s discussion and shares the work of the group back to the rest of the class.
Ideas person: thinks critically and analytically about the text, and contributes to the group’s discussion.
Scribe: writes down the group’s ideas and will post the finished version in the channel your group is working in so that the work can be shared with the rest of the class.
The group’s task:

1. Read assigned chapters. Students could do this as a group (take turns in reading aloud) or individually (read quietly to themselves).
2. Complete the mind map of Who, What, When, Where, Why and How as they are reading in order
to outline what takes place in their assigned chapters.
3. Identify any important quotes within the chapters.
4. Write a brief summary of the
main events in each chapter
using a maximum of 3-4 sentences.
5. Consider what the main theme presented in each chapter is
(the main idea that reoccurs).
6. Are there any problems or resolutions? If so, students are
to outline these.
7. Answer set questions relating to assigned chapters. An extension question is also provided to offer
a challenge.
8. Students are then to present their findings to the class in the ‘general’ channel where the whole class meets.
9. Finally, students are asked to submit a summary sheet (based on the template provided) of their findings.

Once the task was outlined, students were proactive in their approach and eager to take ownership of their own learning. They selected roles, read their chapters and began robust and detailed discussions prompted by the headings provided on the template they were
to complete.
As students completed their group work, the teacher was able to spend time with each group facilitating discussions and directing students to think more deeply about their chapters. Meanwhile, other groups could use their meeting chat rooms to pose questions to the teacher, ask for assistance or list their agenda for the lesson.
Every lesson allowed time for
group-centered work as well as teacher led discussion. Each lesson was concluded with an ‘exit slip’ that had to be answered by each student before they could ‘hang up’ from the meeting. This question was always posed in the ‘General channel’ and students could see each other’s responses. At times, a poll created in the Teams function was used to narrow their responses; other times it was a question about a theme or character, or perhaps something broader about what their ideal world might include.
Three lessons were assigned to complete the task and two lessons
to the sharing of ideas. Each group was able to share their group’s prepared documents with the rest of the class, so that this was on screen, visible to all, acting as a prompt for their presentation ideas. These documents were also uploaded to each group’s channel, so that other class members were able to save them, thus creating a thorough exploration of the chapters. This task allowed students to direct their own learning, share ideas and gather information from their peers
to deepen their knowledge and understanding of the text, in preparation for writing a text response.
In short, the Term 2 that we have all recently experienced was at times frustrating and exhausting, but also joyful and revolutionary. While most teachers will likely admit to sometimes feeling frustrated and disappointed when part of a lesson didn’t quite go to plan via the virtual platform, most will also tell you of the moments of clarity, of triumph, and of paramount success they experienced over this unique period of time in our teaching history. We arrived, we achieved, we thrived. We reviewed our teaching practice, updated our pedagogy, and braved the challenges of remote learning with enthusiasm, strength, and vision.
We believe that through it all, we upheld the robust and fundamental essence of group work and team challenges through these online lessons. We believe that we provided our students with a rich, dynamic, and exciting virtual platform, and we believe that we have learnt a great deal from the experiences. The future of modern education may never be the same, but that may be a good thing. Globally, schools and indeed workplaces are re-thinking their approach to their staff, re-aligning their beliefs on micro-management, and are potentially shifting the goalposts when it comes to the future of the modern classroom. Throughout this journey, we at Strathcona fundamentally held our students, their learning outcomes, and their connectedness, at the pinnacle of all that we did. 

Crew, G., and Woolman, S., The Watertower (1994), originally published in Australia by Era Publications.
Flipgrid, online learning platform: https://info.
Fuller, A., (2020) Seven things for a smooth transition back to school based learning, The Parents Website – Independent Schools Victoria.
Hattie, J., and Wilkinson, I., Fung, I. Parr, J., Townsend, M., (2002) Modelling and Maximising Peer Effects in School, International Journal of Educational Research, Volume 37, Issue 5, pages 521-535.
Lowry, L., The Giver (1993) published by Houghton Griffin.
Ritchhard, R., and Perkins, D., (2008) Making Thinking Visible, Educational Leadership, Volume 65, pages 57-61.