How to Group Students

I haven’t been blogging regularly, as I end up micro-blogging on Twitter. Thought I’d write a little more here:

Seating Plans in the Classroom

I hate seating plans.

I only make them for substitute teachers on days that I’m absent, but I haven’t ever stuck to them on a day-to-day basis. As an athlete and a yoga/movement teacher, I want students to feel comfortable with their bodies. I want people to come into a cafe where they feel comfortable enough to get work done, not a boring lecture hall to sleep in.

When I taught up north, we moved desks frequently and made circles and small groups. My students were used to grabbing a desk with little notice and no one ever made a fuss. Circle times were the best days and also a very natural part of Indigenous culture! They didn’t feel that their bodies were policed or constrained; they had the option to move, fidget and change it up based on their mood. Allowing movement to happen sets a welcoming tone in the classroom.

If there was an issue, I would ask a student to move and reseat them. The kids understood that this was a privilege and rarely abused it.

I lived in Waskaganish, Quebec, which was an Indigenous community of 2400 people. Everyone already knew each other’s name (and maybe far too much about each others’ families) so I didn’t have a strong need to do ice breakers for community building. We still talked about social expectations and played games once in a while.

Visibly Randomized Grouping

Now that I’m back in the city and teaching in larger classes, I have more issues with free seating. Cliques start to form. Noisy groups develop and interrupt my lesson. Even racial divisions happen unconsciously. Most frustratingly, as I was pairing up kids randomly, I’d have an individual rudely shout, “Who the heck is Joe?!”

Could you imagine someone saying that about you?

It’s demeaning and demoralizing. It make that individual feel devalued in a room that ought to be a community. This happened three months into a semester, so I realized that I hadn’t created quite as strong a community as I had originally envisioned.

This is where visibly randomized groupings (VRGs) come in. They serve some great advantages to classroom culture. Last weekend, I finally sat down and read Peter Liljedahl’s paper on “thinking classrooms” which involves VRGs on a daily basis. He was a classroom teacher and wanted to created more engaged students. As he developed this method, he made observations in over 400 classrooms while preparing his research through Simon Fraser University, British Columbia.

If you don’t feel like reading, listen to this interview with him on Make Math Moments That Matter with Kyle Pearce and Jon Orr.

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Some advantages of randomizing groups include:

  • Breaks up racial groupings
  • Breaks up cliques
  • Gets everyone to learn each other’s names
  • De-centers the classroom
  • Students see each other as learners
  • Less focus on the final solution
  • They talk about math!!!!!!!!!!!!!! OMG!!!!!
  • The teacher doesn’t have to yabber on as long*
  • Increased engagement across variety of learners

How do I create VRGs?

Previously I’d only dabbled in VRGs on once every two weeks. It wasn’t frequent enough to establish any type of routine and they’d complain and sulk, as if I were subjecting them to punishment.

I’d been hesitant to use playing cards, as I don’t want to lose them or worry about sorting the deck. Instead, I’d open the Google Classroom cellphone app and use the “the student selector”. I’d throw my cellphone under my document camera, thus projecting it for everyone to see the process visibly and pair them off; students can see that they have equal chances of being selected and grouped. There is no favouritism; I don’t pair “the bad kid” with “the nerdy one”.

Then a few months ago, my boyfriend’s nephew mentioned that they use Flippity in the middle school classroom (he belongs to the same school board). He wanted to tell me about it and his excitement intrigued me enough to put it down on my to-do list.

Unfortunately, it sat on my to-do for months; I didn’t have the courage to give it a go until I attended the annual OAME conference in Ottawa, where I repeatedly experienced it within in workshops (usually with playing cards). And since my LTO is wrapping up, I might as well try it sooner than later … no time like the present!

I didn’t know who else to ask for help, so I found some instructions on YouTube:

This week, I used it nearly every day this week in my Grade 12 class. There are a couple of whiners who say, “I hate working in groups” or “Can I work by myself, please?” but by day 3 there were no complaints. The kids were even yelling at each other not to pull out all their papers; they were reminding each other to get ready for randomized groups at the beginning of class.

Since I had low attendance, I decided to go easy on Friday and let them choose wear they wanted to sit. It was funny because they had this look – they were waiting for me to mix them up. That means we had a new routine established!


This was a really successful first week at using visibly randomized groupings. The engagement was fantastic and I found myself talking a lot less. I didn’t think it would happen so close to June; kids are tired, teachers are drained but trying something new actually brought everyone out of their coma! I wish I had taken photos but in the excitement of it all, I completely forgot.

The week prior though, I had students study for a Monday test by randomizing the groups and having them move around the room. I used to do this a lot when I taught up north, so this is not a new thing in my repetoire! Just another great way to get movement in the math classroom.

Changing Up Assessment

I’ll also be trying something new with my assessment**. It’s important to remember that assessment should be ongoing and varied.

Next week,  I will give an evaluation that also includes VRGs for small groups of three (most teachers at OAME agree that four is too many). The students will be given a sheet of questions on mortgages and annuities; all the students will have the same questions, but different values within the group (i.e. versions A, B and C). They are allowed to discuss strategies and calculations with each other but must do submit their own sheet at the end of the period.

Still not convinced?

Halton District School Board has really embraced “thinking classrooms” and a lot of teachers – not just math – used visibly randomized groupings. Have a listen to an actual classroom using VRGs on HDSB’s Shift Your What? podcast, episode 4.

It’s great to be able to connect with innovative educators who are using new strategies that increase engagement. Many teachers are making this a regular part of their classroom and it’s not a new thing anymore!

Screen Shot 2019-06-01 at 9.34.08 AM

*On speaking less: Over the past few months, I’ve fallen into the terrible habit of telling students all the steps and the answers. “This is how you do this … this is how you do that …”  Even I’ve gotten tired of hearing my own voice … (you know it’s June when). Since attending a great session with Jon Orr and Kyle Pearce – they run the Make Math Moments That Matter podcast – I have tried to do less pre-teaching.

Do I have to explain how to find the percentage of a down payment on a principal? Nope. Instead, I ask the students as a group and at least 3 of them will explain clearly how to do it to the whole class (you can quietly consolidate by completing an example under the document camera as they are speaking). It does not always have to be the teacher who teaches or shares an important concept! As educators, we often forget that they know more than you think they know. Give them credit and spend your precious minutes on stuff they’re stumped on.

**Alternative assessment: I’ve rarely strayed from giving paper and pencil tests, but OAME has been forcing me to think past tradition. I’ve been reflecting on Australia’s PEEL Web resources (website is now defunct) and wish I could dig up some of their resources on alternative assessment.




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