Pencils dropping, hands going up, good discussions, bad discussions, weird discussions...group work scares many teachers into straight rows and direct instruction. It shouldn't. I love having students work in small groups, in fact small group "pods" of four desks is the default setting in my classroom.
After years of experimenting and a little help from small group communication theory (love getting to use my Master's degree), I have found four to be the ideal number. Does that mean there can never be five students in a group, or three? No, of course not. It simply means I have found that four seems to be the magic number where students are able to have meaningful conversations, without beginning to divide into "leaders" and "followers." I find when I get over six students, it enables some students to take over and others to back off completely. When I have less than four, I find students can have trouble debating and conversing on certain topics simply because there is a lack of differing view points and opinions. Obviously this is unique to my students and my classroom, you should experiment with what works for you.
So we've established that the majority of the time my students are in class they are sitting in, and engaging in group work. I'm not going to pretend that when you have 26 students working on projects, grabbing supplies, and sharing information with each other it doesn't get chaotic- it does. What can sometimes happen in the process of students approaching me with different requests, is that I miss a student that is truly "stuck." The simplest way I have found to monitor group work, and assure that everyone has their needs met is the "flag system." I didn't invent this, but I have adapted it to my room.
At the center of each table or group of desks you place a cup or holder of some kind. In each holder are three flags; red, yellow, and green. Students decide which flag to place upright in the holder depending on their needs.
Green = Everyone at the table is okay and understands what they are doing.
Yellow = Someone has a question, but it is not urgent and can wait until you finish working with another student.
Red = Someone at the table is fully stopped and cannot continue working until you help them. A red flag indicates that the teacher should immediately stop what they are doing and go to that table.
The first year I did this, I used actual flags that i made out of construction paper. The second year I wanted something a little less "elementary" looking, and I switched to flowers. I went to the dollar store and purchased a vase for each table. I then bought bouquets of fake flowers; red flowers, yellow flowers, and purple (they didn't have green). I cut up the bouquets so that each group had one flower of each color. All in all I think the project cost me $15.00. I then made a poster explaining what each of the flowers meant and set each group up with a vase and flowers. At the start of class students take the flowers out and set themselves up. As they work, they can switch out the flower to let me know where they are at. Meanwhile I circulate checking in accordingly. At the end of class they "re-set" the flowers back in the vase for the next class.
I like that the flowers allow students to indicate that they need help, without having to ask in front of the whole class. If I see a red flower, I immediately go over to that group and check in with them. Often it's more than one student that has a question. It also helps students to assess their needs. Rarely do I see a red flower, most often I see yellows. This means that they are trying to problem solve, and continuing to work through materials but I will be there shortly to help and clarify.
I should note that I circulate throughout the class and check in with the "green" groups as well. The colors are merely a way to indicate if I need to alter my path, or change the order that I check in. Students seem to really respect the system, if I'm working with a "red" group they are very good about understanding that I may need to spend more time there on that particular day.
If you are looking for a way to streamline group work a bit, I recommend trying it out. You could use cups, flags, flowers, markers, anything that can act as a signal.
How do you prioritize while students are working in groups?
Here is the poster I use, feel free to adapt it for your own uses: