In this challenging year, it’s important to celebrate the small successes or “wins.” When someone shares a strategy they describe as a “smashing success,” I want to shine a light on that in the hopes that it can help other teachers. I invited Rabbi Elchanan Poupko, a middle school teacher, to write a guest blog and share a strategy for pairing and grouping students for after school work.

Growing up, once we left school at the end of the day, it was over. We did not connect with our teachers or school friends unless we chose to. For better or worse, if you weren’t popular in school, the scene was over once you were home. If you needed help with homework, you had to ask a parent or depend on the charitable grace of the kid in class who was good at the subject. With virtual learning, this has changed, and as teachers, we cannot allow for this change to take place in a vacuum. 

Last week it dawned on me that I can assign homework to be completed in pairs and groups virtually. The results? A smashing success! Not only did students complete the assignments, but they were excited about it. It provided a meaningful pretext to socialize together after school. 

The benefits of this approach are multifold. First, as Dr. Catlin Tucker has pointed out, this is the year we discovered the extent to which learning is social. If kids learn in a social way, they will learn better, and the learning will be more engaging and meaningful. Second, students who are weak at a subject or do not have sufficient help at home can access peer support online. Third, it helps kids who are feeling disconnected and socially isolated because of the pandemic. Too many children and young adults are negatively affected by loneliness and isolation. Human connection is critical to our mental and emotional health. While we are all familiar with how devastating in-class isolation can be, this can be exponentially harder in the digital age. 

So how does this work?

First, I paired or grouped kids with those I thought they might be excited to be with, and they were very excited to work together! As teachers, when we see a kid sitting alone in the schoolyard, we know it is our responsibility to help them socialize. I feel we need to extend that to the online environment while students are attending school online and learning virtually. 

Second, I communicated directly with parents. I explained why I was using this new strategy to support after-school learning. I articulated the value of helping students to connect socially while also connecting them to peer support online. That helped create clarity about why students were pairing or grouping up for homework. It also got parents on board, so they could help their students coordinate a time to work with their partner or group online. 

Third, I would assign partners or groups during our synchronous sessions or post them in Google Classroom. Then students decide on the platform they want to use to connect for their work together. 

Here are some ideas for using assigned virtual partnerings and groupings with your students. 

Reading Partners: Assign pairs of students to read to one another after school. Students can rotate back and forth, taking turns reading. You can also provide discussion prompts to encourage students to discuss what they are reading. You can ask students to record themselves and post to Google Classroom, send you a note from their parents they have done it, or ask them to write a short reflection on the experience and what they learned. 

Paired Homework: Find two students who either complement one another or fit well with each other and ask them to complete a joint homework assignment. Working together requires that they surface their thinking, engage in conversation and social negotiation, and collaborate around the parts of the assignment. 

Group Homework: Most students are far more enthusiastic about participating in a group homework assignment than an individual assignment. It is a way for them to connect and socialize. Assigning students to a group also has the benefit of a safety net if one student is unable to join the group. When assigning group homework, you can ask students for a group submission or individual products. Suppose teachers are concerned about one student doing the lion’s share of the work. In that case, they can assign students roles or ask students to complete a short reflection or self-assessment to gather data about the experience from their perspective. This group dynamic is excellent for encouraging students to brainstorm, engage in a discussion, or work together to create something original. 

Paired Independent Work: There is a Jewish learning method dating back more than 1,800 years called the Havruta method. In this method, one studies something anew with a partner. The technique has been recognized for its academic and social efficacy. I offer students the opportunity to earn extra credit by taking time over the weekend to study a topic of interest related to the subject I teach.  Students identify a topic they are interested in and learn together, free of pressure and deadlines. 

This may sound unorthodox to other teachers, but there is no test, no questions, and no check for understanding. I just check with them and their parents that the studying was done and give credit for that. The results? A love for learning and a sense of accomplishment far greater than what I could have achieved in the classroom. This approach to paired independent work allows them to socialize and pursue their passions. It has also yielded incredibly positive feedback. 

There are probably myriad other ways to facilitate after-school student learning, yet these are the ones I have found to be successful. It’s important to notes that I do not delegate the pairing or grouping to students. I believe the pairings and groupings should be intentional and teacher determined. While we favor increasing student choice on academic work, we must recognize the need to make sure that no student is left out and do our best to maximize students’ social, emotional, and academic well-being. 

This blog was written by Rabbi Elchanan Poupko, a middle school teacher in Park East Day School in New York City. He holds a bachelor’s in psychology from Touro College and a master’s in Jewish Education from Yeshiva University. 

If you have follow-up questions about this approach, you can find Rabbi Elchanan Poupko on Twitter.

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