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Play: The Natural State of Collaboration in Creating a PBL Culture

“So, what you’re saying is all we have to do is play this board game?” the student asked, suspicion heavy in her voice.

“Yeah, that’s it.” I replied.

The student raised one eyebrow quizzically, unconvinced that there wasn’t some hidden catch. “O.k, but how much homework will we have tonight?”

It was the third week of school in my 8th grade social studies classroom, and the work of introducing my students to how a PBL classroom functioned was well under way. Students enter my class with varying levels of collaborative skills depending on their previous experience and their social-emotional development, so its important to develop collaboration the same way you work on skills like reading or writing; they need to be taught, assessed.

During the first few weeks of school I try to make time for my students to work together in small groups or pairs in low-stakes ways. This includes simple assignments that assess history-related skills, but also games and group challenges that help build a PBL classroom as much as independent inquiry or similar activities. By the end of our first month, students are much more comfortable working with others and sharing their thoughts aloud.

When laying the foundation for positive collaboration, keep these things in mind;

  1. If they can play together, they can work together: Many of the game and activities I plan for my students are cooperative in nature. History-themes board games or all-class activities that allow the students to work together in teams are especially good because they are low-stakes. If a student fails, they can always say, “its just a game” and because we do so many there is always another opportunity to be successful just around the corner.

  2. Games and social activities are naturally engaging: Tell a student they’re about to do a group project on Jamestown and their eyes glaze over before you finish your sentence. But tell them they’re going to play a game with a group of classmates where they all have to come to a consensus as they play and you had their complete attention at the word “game”.

  3. Break the ice early on: Students might be reluctant to work with new people on things that will receive a grade, but if you ask them to play a game together they are more likely to put themselves out there. Keep students interacting and working with new people early on so they feel like they know everyone.

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