Have you ever worked with someone on a project and you couldn’t get a hold of them? Or you realized, a bit too late, that they need extra reminders to get stuff done? Oh, and by the way, how did that guy get to be in charge? As adults, we can probably remember more than one situation where this has happened. Maybe it was in school, maybe it’s in your job.
Well, of course my students have these issues and more (I blame hormones). They are about to embark upon the unknown with this big project and give a presentation to grown-ups they don’t know. Oh, and there’s a number attached to this work that can affect their GPA.
So, I have my students fill out a group contract.
Yes, I’m a chemistry teacher, and I am not known for having the warmest, fuzziest personality. I am obsessed with students using every minute of the 55 minutes I have a day with them to make forward progress in their understanding of content.
So why do I have students take 30-40 minutes to draw up a group contract? Every student wants to find success. Every student has expectations. I like to think that this group contract helps students manage those expectations for both themselves and each other.
This group contract that I originally got from a PBL training and have tweaked over time contains the following:
Contact info (names, phone, email) - you may think your students know everyone… but they may not. This reduces the awkwardness.
Strengths and weaknesses - I am amazed with the honesty my students show - “I struggle to get things in on time…”, “I am a perfectionist…”
Group roles - I have discussion coach, liaison, process coach, documents/task manager. When I forget to hold students accountable for them, this is kind of a dumb thing. However, when I pull aside all the liaisons for a status report and ONLY they may give me a status report, that creates some meaning. I’m not there yet, but I’m working on it.
Extra roles and responsibilities - These are very logistical. Who’s the leader? Proof-reader? Who’s turning in documents?
Team rules - These mirror what my students and I come up with at the beginning of the year when I have them explicitly tell me what they hate about group work. While I haven’t seen these in action with a big project yet with my new group of students, the coolest one they came up with this year was “If someone isn’t doing anything, be kind and just ask "what’s up?".”
Group expectations - How will class time be used? Will you meet outside of class? Individual effort? What if someone’s absent? These are all things that groups encounter.
Steps for firing group members - This might seem controversial to you. I didn’t allow for this my first few project, as I felt like kids just needed to make it work like adults would in real life. Over time, other teachers in my school have uses this technique, and realized how powerful this ownership could be to manage expectations. Students come up with guidelines that everyone, myself included, must sign off on. Students typically employ a 1-3 strike system before firing. If a student is fired, they must complete the whole project by him- or herself (I may give new data so it’s not from the total beginning, depending on the scenario). Rule of thumb: If a strike occurs, it must be documented on the group contract. If it’s not documented, it’s like it didn’t happen. This puts the responsibility on the students to communicate and work out issues. Have I had hard conversations with students? Of course. Last school year, I had a group that was seriously struggling. It was a group of four girls, and their communication was a disaster. Basically, two sets of partners were re-doing each other’s work without telling the other set of partners. Combine this with a few absences from the strongest group member … it was bad. I had conversations with the two warring factions and they ended up choosing to split. We went back to the documentation from the group contract and basically could no longer agree to what they had written the beginning of the project. Even after that disaster of a situation, no parents were upset by the group splitting (even though it meant more work for their kids - I wasn’t reducing my expectations).
A logistical note - if your kids have computers and will do much of their work digitally, I still have them do the group contract on paper in case the internet doesn’t work on the day you need it.
Another logistical note - if kids are absent on a project work day, remind your students it’s ok to call them right then and there. The absent student is likely as stressed about missing a project work day as the student in class missing that group member.
Here is a video about group contracts from The Teaching Channel, a sample from the New Tech Network, and the latest iteration of a group contract from my files.
My question for you: What structures do you use to support students working with each other on projects they genuinely care about?
PS- If you want a bigger picture in this series about my adventures in trying PBL, consider checking out my previous writing (this is a BIG project):