“Could you make the teams, please?!”

This blog post is dedicated to all my colleagues who are willing to sacrifice the time and endure the messiness of allowing students to solve their own problems in the classroom and beyond.
The Agenda
It never fails. On the whiteboard my 4th and 5th grade students read: speedball mini-games. They know what we’re going to play and most have a good sense of what that will look like. Then comes the challenge:
“Please get into co-ed groups of 4-5 and make sure that the teams are balanced in terms of skill levels, enthusiasm, boys/girls, etc.” They know the routine.
They get started. Friends grab friends and migrate towards a pair of the opposite gender who present the most favorable option (or least objectionable possibility). There are complaints: “They’re always together.” “They’re too good.” “We don’t have any girls.” “We don’t have any boys.” They keep trying – sending individual students to and fro: “You go to that team…” “No, we already have our team.”* I stop them and ask if they are finished.
There’s a sigh of frustration. “Are the teams co-ed?” “Are they fair?” I ask.  Hands go up and it doesn’t take long for the plea to arrive: “Will you please make the teams?”

One of my favorite teaching moments has arrived and it is gift wrapped.

“To answer your question: yes, I could make the teams, sure. But, what would you be learning?”
Aha. They sensed it. Another grown-up lesson they unwittingly walked into.

I persist: “What is it that I want you to learn and practice by making your own teams?”

They begin to respond: “To be fair.” “So that we learn how to solve our own problems.” “Teamwork?”

“Who’s going to play the game?”

“We are.”
“What kind of games do you want to have?”

“Fair games.”

”So, do you see what I’m saying here? The games are in your hands. You get to decide what kind of games you want to have. If you want fair games, then you have to make fair teams and I think you know how to do that.”
“But people want to be with their friends,” a student interjects. Several nod.

“Aha. So you may want more than one thing when you get into a group. You want to be with your friend and you want the teams to be fair. I guess you have to know which is more important to you and if you can make it work within the group. So what do you want now?”
“We want to play the games.”
“Okay, so let’s see your groups.”
There is renewed shuffling and within 40 seconds we have four groups that look a little different than before. I ask everyone to look around. “Satisfied with these teams? Do they look balanced and fair?” Nods and expressions of relief.
“Okay. Let’s play.”

*One added caveat: When students begin to order each other around while forming groups, I use this maxim: “Before you send someone else, you go yourself.” And I explain that it’s usually easier to tell someone else to do the thing that we don’t want or are afraid to do on our own. And many of us do not like being told by our peers where to go and what to do. So the responsible solution is to move yourself. This has been a very useful tool in helping students see that our actions often express more than we realize.

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