Switchers and Stayers

I often read suggestions about competitions and other games to get students working “to speed”. But direct competition doesn’t work unless you’ve got truly homogenous abilities–the same students always win and the rest won’t try. Likewise, games like trashketball suffer from the problems this blogger describes: either the high ability students dominate or the low ability students just sit there and let them do all the work.

But I’ve been noticing that any time I give my students a lot of problems to practice automaticity, a lot of students will just do a few, slowly–the same way they work new material. And that’s not the point. So, thanks to a comment by an observer, I’ve spent quite some time mulling how to do some form of high-octane activity. This one was successful enough I’m going to try it again.

I put the desks all about the room in pairs, instead of the usual quartets. As the algebra II students came in the room, I told them to get out a notebook and pencil and put their backpacks on the counter, out of the way (something I really should do more often), and then stand at the back of the room. I told them that I’d seen they hadn’t been productive the day before, and I wanted more focused work, that this activity would ensure they completed a number of problems. I took from half the class and put them one to a pair of seats. They were the Stayers. The rest of the class, at the back of the room, were the Switchers.

The activity: Each Switcher sits next to a Stayer. I put up a problem, each pair works it–separately or together, but both of them must have the correct answer in the allotted time in order for them each to get a chip. Then the Switchers move to a different Stayer, and it starts again. The more chips, the better the classwork grade. I made them practice Switching, which they thought insane (and said so) and made sure the Stayers knew they were to stay put. Switchers must switch–no sticking to the same person. I also made sure that certain students were both Stayers or both Switchers, so they’d never be together. Such a clever teacher am I.

Do not imagine that I gave these instructions to a happily compliant group of productive teenagers, eagerly awaiting a new activity from a beloved teacher. Surly, sarcastic, grousing, rude, and close to rebellious, the students made the opening very difficult, and their constant interruptions added a good five minutes onto my instructions–in each class! Sixth period, as always, was the best.

But then, my god. They worked like dogs to get those chips. They set up their own internal competitions to see who could finish first and the team that finished first started asking if they could pick the color of chip they got. I gave them five minutes for the first problem in each category, then four, then three. If I noticed a student struggling with a concept, I’d ensure he or she was paired with a high ability student in the next round and signal that I’d like the second one to give a thorough explanation–and they always complied. The students worked 9-10 problems through the period, with very little downtime. Very few students missed any problems, although I made sure a few didn’t get chips the first time round just to show it could happen.

In short, it worked beautifully after the Great Battle of the Beginning.

But it’s very unsettling, their instant hostility when I do something different. Third and fourth period Algebra II act like I’ve whipped them daily and just stopped yesterday; hackles ready to rise if I raise a hand again. Sixth period is much more relaxed. And then other classes are completely on my side. My geometry kids, particularly second period, would walk off a cliff if I asked them. It was the same thing last year. Second period algebra seemed to hate my guts, while my intervention and sixth period algebra students were likewise ready to try anything on my word. You just never know.

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