5 Ways to Use Collaboration and Critical Thinking

Hey, y’all! Danielle here, from Nouvelle ELA.

Today, I want to get real honest about something that’s been on my mind over the last couple of years. You know, I used to start my lesson planning with the text in mind. When I planned out Romeo & Juliet, I created anticipation activities, scaffolding vocabulary and plot, and ways to review each act to make sure every student was on board. Sure, I felt like my students understood, but then what? Were they really getting the most out of my class?


Now, I start with collaboration and critical thinking in mind. These are the tent poles for every unit I create. How are my students going to build these skills, and what texts can I use to support them?

Here are five ways you can incorporate these skills in your classroom.

1. Build community and teamwork

We’ve talked before on the Coffee Shop blog about building community and teamwork in the classroom. When students feel safe and supported, they can do the other work we ask of them. Before a student can be secure in standing up for a persuasive speech, they need to know that their classmates are cheering for them. What a great reason to focus on collaboration!

In my classroom, I start the year with plenty of collaborative exercises to develop this sense among my students. Day one is a Back to School Escape Room. In the first week, students also do a Peer Interview Project, giving me a real chance to get to know them, even as they get to know each other.

One thing I do to promote collaboration and critical thinking throughout the year is Collaborative Bellringers. These are team trivia bellringers that are ELA-themed and tie in pop culture. Students love them! Trivia is naturally competitive, and I keep the same teams for as long as I use the bellringers. I also love using these because I’ve found they encourage students to get to class on time. No one wants to miss a fun warm-up!

2. Building anticipation

I now integrate collaboration and critical thinking in my anticipation activities. For example, before teaching The Great Gatsby, I make sure students have background knowledge about WWI and the Roaring 20s. I do this through 4-Corners Brainstorming.

In groups, students consider one of the following questions. I use four groups because I have four questions, but you can adapt this strategy as needed.

  • What are some difficulties faced by soldiers returning home from war?
  • What was life like for women and families of soldiers during World War I?
  • What was life like for African Americans after World War I?
  • How did American life change when the automobile became widely available?

The goal is to generate possible answers to present to other students. There aren’t “wrong” answers—the students are sharing prior knowledge in a group setting. Students should record notes from their discussions because they’ll each be ambassadors to other groups. I give students five minutes to complete this first portion.

Next, I split up students and create new groups with at least one member from each original question group. Students share what they came up with in their original groups (practicing small group presentations!) and generate more ideas as a new group. I give students ten minutes to do this. You can use this concept for any set of anticipatory questions, too, and it’s low prep.

3. Maximize critical thinking

My favorite way to center collaboration in my teaching practice is by using Escape Rooms. Escape Rooms are a gamified introduction or review activity that you can create for any text or topic. Students work together to solve puzzles, progress through the levels, and “escape”. It’s great to see students sharing information as a team and truly thinking hard about how the clues fit together.

If you haven’t tried an Escape Room in the classroom, it’s an amazing experience! I have a template for any text here, and I’ve discussed using Escape Rooms in ELA on my blog. Let me know if you have questions.

4. Reduce pressure for them, grading for you

I’ve also integrated more collaborative essays and speeches into my curriculum. This is a great way to reduce pressure on them, decrease busy work, and reduce grading for you. I’ve also been intentional about moving beyond mere “group work.”  Many students hate group work - I was one of those students, and it seemed like I always did way more than my “fair share”. Here are ways you can be intentional when creating collaborative opportunities:

*YOU divide up the work, not them. If you assign a group essay, tell students the breakdown. Set the expectation that groups will be jointly responsible for the introduction and conclusion and individually responsible for a body paragraph. This is an easy way to avoid someone getting the toughest job (the introduction) or the easiest (the conclusion). It will also assure that you’re grading students on equitable displays of mastery.

*YOU set the schedule, not them. To avoid someone having to be a “group leader” or having a group feel adrift without one, set the schedule for what students should accomplish each day. If students are working together on a group speech, set the expectation you’ll see three slides from each student at the end of a workday.

*Value intra-group feedback. One way you can help students learn that every group member has something to contribute is to hold groups accountable for intra-group feedback. When preparing for a group presentation, each group member can give their section of the presentation for the rest of their group first as practice before presenting to the class. This is a great opportunity to incorporate Peer Feedback Activities. When group members receive feedback from the rest of their group, they’ll understand that everyone wants the group to succeed and they’ll feel more empowered for their own presentation or essay. Download these free Peer Feedback Slips to get started!

5. Foster creativity and a supportive space

I love using collaborative writing activities and the workshop model for creative endeavors. One of the first teaching activities I ever tried (way back in my first practicum!) was Round-Robin Writing. Students work together to write a creative story, building on what the group member before them wrote. The trick is that a group of five students actually has FIVE stories circulating, so things get wacky fast. This is such a fun activity for middle schoolers, but high schoolers enjoy the low-stakes chaos of this writing game, too.

Writer’s Workshops are a great place to integrate collaboration. Whereas students should work on their own creative pieces during this time, it is an opportunity to practice free feedback. When students write short stories in my class, I model giving “anytime” feedback. This is what writers do - when they get stuck, they ask critique partners specific questions to get unstuck. Writers pitch ideas to a small group of friends. Writers don’t always fill out a feedback form. Sometimes, it’s informal. Sometimes, it’s magical.

Collaboration and critical thinking - final words

When you plan your unit, add intentional moments for collaboration and critical thinking. This will increase engagement and set up students for success.

Happy teaching!

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