In “Grouping in Detracked Classrooms,” an article for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Diverse Students Initiative, Beth Rubin makes some great points (http://www.tolerance.org/tdsi/asset/grouping-detracked-classrooms) about approaching small group work with students of diverse social identities, academic prep, and perceived or demonstrated academic ability.
It’s worth reading, and I’ll just offer a few reflections here:
Rubin points out that social identities (race, sex, academic status: “smart” or “slow”) matter to students and that even if we don’t intentionally group students by these identities, students may still feel grouped by them. Her suggestion? Mix it up. I would add: and name what you’re doing. Tell students all the variables you use to create small groups. If you don’t feel comfortable being transparent with them, it’s a good indicator that you want to rethink the way you go about grouping. For instance, I would have a hard time telling students I’m mixing them up by “academic ability” (because that language casts students into fixed conditions of “able” or “not able”) but I could tell them I’m mixing them up by “academic strengths.” In reframing the criterion for them, I actually reframe for myself the way I think about them.
Rubin writes that in smaller small groups “interpersonal dynamics are usually less complex and… each individual has a greater opportunity to participate.” While I would agree that there’s more individual opportunity and accountability in smaller groups, I challenge the assumption that you can avoid the dynamics that stem from the preconceptions and stereotypes students carry about each other, simply by reducing the size of the group. Depending on the individual students, the diversity of the group and the occasion, the interpersonal dynamics could be even more complex and hurtful in a group of 3 than in a group of 6. I would argue that healthy group functioning hinges more on quality of contact than on size: whether you have small groups of 2, 5 or 10 students each, the kids will benefit from clear roles and responsibilities, and the opportunity to see each individual’s strengths in action, as they work toward a shared goal for which they are all accountable.
Finally, I’m struck by Rubin’s example of the two African-American girls who feel that the teacher’s small group assignments are designed “to get all the Black kids away from each other.” Each girl is the only non-white student in her group. And while Rubin describes the composition of these groups as “balanced,” I have to say that they’re not, at least from a student perspective. They may be “balanced” in the sense that African-Americans girls are distributed across groups as much as possible (for a total of 1 per group max), in which case the student is correct: the purpose is to get all the Black kids away from each other (for “balance”). However, the groups are unbalanced when you consider that a white student is very likely (if not assured) to have a white peer in her/his group, whereas a black student is pretty much denied the same experience. And because identity matters to how students see themselves and each other academically and socially, having mini-affinity with others in their small group can make or break a student’s experience and performance. This is why I structure small groups for both mini-diversity and mini-affinity when I work with both adults and children. I ask people to consider a couple relevant aspects of identity as they form small groups (tenure and race, for example, or sex and whom they usually sit with at lunch) and to intentionally include some diversity and affinity of these identities within their groups.
This always throws people (for some reason, we think of affinity or diversity, as if one voids the other), so as an example: I might form a group with someone I always sit with at lunch, as well as two people I don’t, and we’d try to make sure that however folks identify their sex, there’s someone else in the group that identifies similarly.
What mini-affinity does, especially for individuals who identify with groups that are strongly stereotyped, is reduce the burden of representation. It eases my sense of having to speak for a group and my fear of letting that group down if I don’t do well enough. This holds both for negative and positive stereotypes: I can be as stressed out about needing to live up to the stereotype that Asians are smart, as I am of fulfilling the stereotype that women aren’t good at math.
Ultimately, mini-affinity is a tool for helping all students perform at their best: if we can let go of some of our stress and worry about how our identities matter to our peers, we have more energy and attention to devote to the task at hand. And then we can really get down to business in our small groups.