Posted by January 24, 2013 blog No Comments

The Stuff of Life



Mott Hall Bronx High School


In “G-R-O-U-P W-O-R-K Doesn’t Spell Collaboration,” educator Timothy Quinn asserts that a teacher’s goal is to equip students with a 21st century skillset of teamwork, relationship-building, and engaging in “inequality, unfairness, interpersonal conflict, [and] bureaucratic hurdles,” what he calls “the stuff of life.” For Quinn, simply arranging students in groups with instructions to “discuss!” and “work together!” is not teaching effective methods of collaboration. Instead, teachers must guide students in overcoming the challenges of working with their peers.

I know firsthand that collaboration is a messy concoction of frustration, negotiation and, when done right, brain gurgling euphoria. As a BETA working in four classes spanning two grades, alongside three other BETAs and two different lead teachers, my day is a constant dance of interpersonal negotiation and collective problem solving. When my team sits down with our lead teachers, everything we craft, whether it is a worksheet, lesson plan, or instructional tool is a shared product and thus subject to change, modification and rejection. By encouraging BETAs and teachers to work in tandem, the Blue Engine model helps classroom teams better understand how to facilitate and instill these same interpersonal skills in the minds of our students in challenging, but engaging ways.

Before winter break, after a long discussion about how to enliven a To Kill A Mockingbird unit plagued by lost books, homework hooky, and lackluster class participation, my team came up with the idea of having our students reenact the novel’s pivotal trial scene in which Tom Robinson, a black man, is tried for rape in a racist Alabama court. As the students worked together to develop arguments for his innocence or guilt, we would play the dual role of group-work facilitators and character witnesses.

chrystineblog2While planning for this week-long lesson, we had to consider a number of questions. How do we teach fiercely independent students to work together to develop a compelling argument? How do we include students like Anna and Greg who have only read two chapters, but could benefit from an activity that might increase their investment in the class? Moreover, how do we facilitate this project in a way to help students challenge each other and wrestle with this “stuff of life?”

While we conceived the trial unit to illuminate the inherent inequality of the Alabama court system in the 1930s, our re-envisioned trial had its own elements of unfairness, inequality, and challenge. When we divided the class into a prosecution team and a defense team, the students realized that the prosecution, (who was trying to convict Tom Robinson) was at a disadvantage because author Harper Lee makes clear Robinson’s innocence. And though every student had to complete the pre-trial prep work, only two students from each side would be selected to deliver statements and cross examine witnesses during the trial. These revelations were disappointments to students who struggled to understand and engage with Lee’s language and complex themes of the novel and thus fell behind on the reading. Additionally, many students would attempt to skirt group work with complaints of “I can’t work with him!”

Although we acknowledged these challenges, we made it clear that our role as instructors was not to intervene to make the project “more fair,” but to engage students as collaborative equals by encouraging them to wrestle with the text, challenge assumptions, negotiate rules and support student leaders who would perform on the group’s behalf. By playing the dual roles of instructor and trial performer I could facilitate group instruction about debate, argument and critical thinking, and then transform into a mere “prop” that helped foment student arguments. Over the course of a class period, I could help students like Carlos, hardworking but stubbornly independent, work with his prosecution partner, Olivia, to manipulate flimsy evidence against Tom Robinson and then walk over to the defense side, slip into the character of foul-mouthed Bob Ewell, and face intense interrogation. I could support Anna, not chosen to act as an attorney, to make connections between the Tom Robinson case and the historical Scottsboro trial and help her defense team leader build an argument around “precedence.”

chrystineblog3After three days of bolstering students’ confidence and excitement, all six of us (including our Site Manager, Kevin) withdrew into our roles of Tom Robinson, Bob and Mayella Ewell, bailiff, Sheriff and judge, allowing the students to take full command of the class. The four attorneys paced back and forth, wielding arguments about racism in Maycomb and evidence hidden deep within the text – not to us, but to the jury of their peers. Shouting “objections” and “out of orders” during the trial and giving feedback for improving statement deliveries afterwards, students in the audience challenged the attorneys to act within the bounds of courtroom structures and behavioral norms. Whether as an attorney, jury or audience member, all our 10th graders were disseminating evidence, taking notes, delivering statements or questioning witnesses.  Out of a project that highlighted the realities of historical injustice—as well as the realities of systematic unfairness in life—bloomed a trial performance in which students not only collaborated with instructors, but ultimately negotiated and engaged in a lesson on their own collaborative terms.

Despite (if not because of) the mess – students talking over one another, lawyers forgetting their arguments mid-statement, props falling apart, violent eruptions of laughter – our team and our students were filled with an exuberant sense of accomplishment. Weaving in and out of group work facilitation and performance, we co-planned and co-taught a complex lesson while engaging students with questions of inequality and interpersonal communication. After the jury announced the verdict of Robinson’s innocence, Carlos of the prosecution, sidled over to me with a smile brimming on his face, exclaiming that although he was disappointed in losing, he thought the trial was one of the most exciting projects he had ever done. “It felt so real” he said.

Indeed the trial did feel real, not simply because our students were hilariously convincing jurors, attorneys, and court reporters, but because they collectively presented arguments, disputed ideas, and negotiated rules that would allow them to recognize and deal with interpersonal conflict, unfairness, and inequality – the “stuff” of real life.