The basic supporting structure for my classroom environment is paired seating. Seating students in pairs carries a bit of risk in that students could embolden each other to collaborate in mutiny, but I rarely see even a hint of negative push-back because we collectively work toward keeping the overall atmosphere energetically positive. Students resist the temptation to socialize because they know if they do not function well together, they will find themselves with different seatmates. As a result of the paired seating, students always have a ready ear to run things by before volunteering in front of the class. The desks are numbered so it is easy to pause during an explanation and say, “Odds, tell evens what you think I just said.” If one has a question, it is assumed both have the same question; so raising a hand is not a risk of being the only one who didn’t get it. There should be no reason to feel all alone in a math class.
Inevitably, however, I have pairs that do extremely well together and pairs that are not reaching toward their full potential. It would not be fair to split up pairs who are enjoying each other and growing together. It would not be helpful to regroup pairs who are not thriving. Last year I tried a new approach that worked out fabulously. I call the approach power grouping. Power groups are formed by putting the two pairs as diagonals in a group of four, all still facing the front of the room. To communicate directly with the former seatmate, the student in front turns slightly toward the back.
To form a power group, I first I approach the pair that is excelling. I point out they have been amazing together and would never want to split them up but think they could grow even faster by forming a power group. I explain that a power group is designed to put students together with complementary strengths and weaknesses. In every case to my recollection, the two seemed excited about the new opportunity. After I am sure of an appropriate match, I explain my idea to the pair that seems to need a little inspiration. The wording is positive in that everyone in the class has something to offer and sometimes those offerings can be maximized with different arrangements.
I have consistently noticed that power groups do not diminish the communication between the original pairs. Rather, the communication is more lively and calculated. The stronger pair figures out they are having an important impact on the pair that was less inspired as every communication brings involvement of all four. In each case, I have noticed a new level of energy in all four students as they interact and experience the giftedness each one has.
As teacher who has 150 students, I am always receptive to new ideas for motivating them to grow. I invite you to add your favorite strategies in the comments.