Classroom community is another area where I've come a long way in the last few years. It wasn't that long ago that I said, pretty regularly, "I don't like group work."
A couple of years ago I discovered partners. Students seem to work much better with partners. They're more focused and accomplish more. I can put two sets of partners together when I need to, but I almost always begin work in class as partners.
Last year my colleagues and I found partner-matching cards, and this makes the process even better. Partners are random, and nine times out of ten this works extremely well. Occasionally a partnership or two has to be adjusted.
I like students working together, because they often seem to learn more from each other than they possibly could from me. They can reword things in ways they understand. The student helping another solidifies their understanding, and the student being helped gets to turn around and help someone else.
The benefit of student collaboration became very evident to me last year, when I first flipped my classroom. Since so much practice and application was done in class, students got to talk to each other a lot. They got to refine their mathematical vocabulary. And learn how to use their notes as a reference. And how to ask good questions.
What troubles do I have with my classroom community?
I have a few students who prefer to work alone. I allow this, but I sometimes wish those students would occasionally get to know the students around them and learn from them.
Middle-schoolers will be middle-schoolers, and they can sometimes get off-task easily. I keep this under control by circulating and asking groups where they are in the activity and what they're working on.
Middle-schoolers can also blurt things out that don't need to be said and can come across as mean. I have a sign in my room that encourages students to THINK before they speak: Is it True? Necessary? Kind? Most of the time they just think they're being funny, but they need frequent direction on what is and isn't appropriate to say.
How do I scaffold collaboration?
This year (we're almost 4 weeks in!) I find myself joining groups quite a bit. I facilitate the conversation and try to model positive collaboration.
I fairly happy with my classroom community. As I continue to seek to improve my classroom community I would like to find more meaningful, deeper ways for students to collaborate.