Peer Teacher Project (Year 2)

Rewind to last year for a moment.

I wanted to try something different for the upcoming fraction unit in my honors class.  I knew half of the material would be review and the other half of the material would follow easily enough from student application of integer rules.  In a moment of inspiration, I came up with the Peer Teaching Project.

The idea was simple enough: have a group of students teach a topic to the class.  In practice, the project was a lot harder to pull off than I expected.  I needed to create rubrics, topics, lesson skeletons, suggested questions, and groups.  The lessons needed to fall in the Goldilocks zone of not too easy to teach, but not too hard to teach for the typical 11 or 12 year old.  I managed to pull of these aspects of the project with time and patience, but I encountered challenges I did not plan for during the work days I gave students for the project.  Circulating among 8 groups took a lot of time and some groups needed more direction than others.  Most of the time, the direction was not even content related and more about the group dynamics.  It seemed strange until I remembered that the students were never asked to do anything like this project in the past.  I was not only asking them to work together, but they were completely free to decide what their lesson was going to end up looking like and how they would teach the content.  Essentially, I was unlocking doors students never knew existed.

The results were interesting.  Some students rose to the challenge and created lessons that left little for me to address or follow up with more explanation and practice.  They literally taught the class for me.  In contrast, other groups required careful follow up and even a little reteaching.

Fast forward to the present.

This year is the second year I assigned Peer Teaching Project.  I decided to tighten up loose ends and loosen other strings.  I kept the rubric largely the same, but I made the groups smaller (3 or 4 students) to make the whole group involved in speaking more and I added a couple more topics to the mix for variety.  In contrast to last year’s handwritten suggestions for lessons, I gave each group lesson skeletons to help them organize their projects and get ideas about what to include.  The skeletons also allowed groups to learn/review theirs topics without me hopping between groups on work days.  There’s still a lot of room for originality in the skeletons, but I wanted students be set at ease a little more instead of feeling like they had no idea where to start in crafting their lesson.

This project is interesting because of what you learn about your students between the beginning and final products.  The work days reveal who is generally self-motivated and organized.  I also allowed students to pick groups, which creates a whole another level of learning how students work together.  I circulated among groups, asked students about presentations, clarified ideas, and offered suggestions to strengthen lessons.  By and large, the workdays are probably just as much of a learning experience for everyone in the room as the final lessons.

The last group taught their lesson early last week, but I’m finally getting a chance to think through the success of this year.  In the success category, the group size was definitely a better fit than last year’s giant groups of 5 or 6 students.  Once a group reaches that size, the work for each student ends up being minimal other than practicing what they say.  In contrast, groups of 3 and 4 required students to make significant contributions to presentation materials and the teaching of a lesson.  Another success of this year’s lessons were the use of strategies by students.  Multiple groups asked a lot of questions, but I was really impressed by the groups who thought to use signals for problem completion, invited students to the board to share work, and circulated around the room to check how students were doing with independent practice.  I briefly mentioned these aspects of good teaching near the start of project, but i was genuinely surprised at the groups who included these actions.  Finally, the most valuable experience of the project was seeing students being placed in the role of a teacher for the first time.  All too often, I like to think I’m having students teach each other topics when I give them a practice activity and expect them to help each other.  While these activities have value, most of the time the learning that occurs between students in this case is related to procedural skills and the language is informal.  In contrast, this project truly placed students in a role where they were expected to use clear and correct speech, address questions, and be ready to answer questions from students (or me).  Essentially, I love how this project flips the typical classroom on its head.

Of course, there’s always room for improvement.  This year, I noticed some groups taking the lesson skeleton as a literal step-by-step guide for their project.  Consequently, these groups tended to post questions on the board (rather than ask them) and explain their higher-order question.  Next year, I will open up the skeletons a bit and preface that suggested questions are meant to be asked and higher-order questions need to include response from the class before an explanation is given.  Another challenge from this year was some students underestimated the project.  It happened last year, but the inconsistency in projects does create challenges for planning.  In the future, I will assign students to groups to create a more productive focus to the project.  Finally, I wished I could have recorded snippets of the lessons for students to analyze.  As much as students learned from the experience, I know more students would have been aware of their speaking skills and vocabulary if given the chance to view their teaching.  Granted, it’s not like I’d expect some reflection like the National Board Certification process (they’re 12), but I know it would be helpful for students to see their teaching.

Feel free to steel the rubric and ideas from this project.  It’s easily adaptable to other concepts, units, and subject areas.  I might even use it for a geometry unit in the spring.

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