Two essential components that maximize the effectiveness of Kagan Cooperative Learning are Teambuilding and Classbuilding. These activities are the "process by which a room full of individuals, with different backgrounds and experiences, become a caring community of active learners" (Kagan Cooperative Learning, 5.6-5.7). Teambuilding does this with members of individual teams, while Classbuilding does this for the entire class at once. These activities are critical because, as we all know, teaching and learning begins with relationships. And, where cooperative learning is concerned, we need to ensure that the students have positive relationships with one another before we can expect them to learn from one other (Have you ever been asked to collaborate with a stranger? How successful was that and why? Likely, you had to find some sort of "connection" before you were really able to make progress).
Most teachers attempt to build relationships with their students, and some even help students build relationships among one another. Those who do TPRS rely heavily on this because it not only supports the classroom environment, but also drives content as we use the students themselves as our topics of conversations. Some strategies are more effective than others, and some teachers are more effective than others, at building these relationships. Kagan gives method to this madness by ensuring class- and team-building does happen (and it happens on a regular basis), that it happens for every student, and that it's quick and efficient, so you don't lose class time. The irony here is that you are intentionally taking class-time to do something non-content related in order to teach more content. It's a pre-emptive strike works the same way as taking time to stop and teach students classroom management procedures thoroughly before getting on with the rest of the school year - if we do it regularly and we do it well, it saves us time during instruction because students are ready, willing, and able to cooperate and learn. Isn't that worth 2 minutes of your class's time? We give a little to gain a lot.
There two basic rules to remember when planning class- and team-building activities:
- Number: You should have two teambuilders and one classbuilder per week.
- Topic: Teambuilders and Classbuilders need to be content-free and student-centered.
The number rule is easy - it just takes intentional planning and foresight to see when would be a good time to do the activity. Of course, this means you will likely need to plan a week out so you don't get to Friday and realize you haven't done any relationship-building all week. Sometimes, there's is just that "spot" that they fit in a lesson, and I can check one off for that week. However, if I plan out a week and realize I'm missing a teambuilder or a classbuilder, I scan through and see if I missed a good opportunity. If not, I throw a quick one usually right after my warm up on a particular day. Why there? First, it doesn't disrupt my bell routine and students still come in and sit quietly. I NEED that routine - as do my students. Second, it sets us up for the remainder of the day. There's not much use to a pre-emptive strike if it doesn't come before the kids have a chance to get squirrely! Third, it gives me a chance to check the "temperature" of the class - how is everyone doing today? Is there a vibe that I should be aware of? Finally, it gives students a chance to review, but that brings us to the next point.
The topic rule is where I struggled. I've thought about this one long and hard. In "pure" Kagan, Classbuilding and Teambuilding should be content-free. In other words, they shouldn't have anything to do with your class (hence the argument above about giving a little to gain a lot). However, this is a sticking point for CI teachers because the language they're using to communicate with one another IS our content. Thus, a traditional Kagan coach or instructor will likely advise you to do the activity in English. If you're like me, and your door's threshold is the holy barrier where those who cross shall not speak English, that's a non-negotiable. I explained our magical Spanish bubble to a Kagan coach, who suggested that we go outside of the classroom. I supposed that would work as far as management is concerned, but that's a lot of coming-and-going and I'd lose the efficiency factor that I love so much about Kagan. Plus, wouldn't it be great if they could sit and chat, building relationships with one another, in SPANISH?? Isn't that our ultimate goal? So, I sat and thought...
In summary, with a little adaptation and thorough understanding of the what and why to Kagan methodology, each of the barriers to using Kagan to its fullest extent in CI classrooms is slowly coming down. Of course, incorporating these relationship-building elements into our regular instruction is something that is old news to most TPRS teachers, but Kagan adds one more tool to the tool box. And, for me, it's the hammer that secures that last nail necessary to ensure that I've reached every student on a personal level. As an added benefit, students are building relationships directly with one another while still getting low-risk opportunities for the ever-important Interpersonal Speaking practice. This is another win in the methodology book for me, and I plan on working hard next school year to make sure it's regularly present in my planning.