Encouraging students to work collaboratively to form and synthesize their ideas.

by Cathlyn Dossetti

Grades 6-8, Grades 9-12


My strategy is having students look at a variety of texts in order to synthesize and construct an answer collaboratively. In doing this, one of my goals is to teach that answers can be flexible and can change as more information becomes available.

I want my students to understand that reading is a way we construct our understanding of reality, but that our understanding of reality doesn’t have to be concrete. They learn how something that may be right for them might not be right for someone else; that there are differences of opinion and different perspectives. This process gets students thinking about what it means to form an argument, to have a point of view, and what it means to change your mind in the midst of an argument.

I call this strategy “Four Square.” The way it works in the classroom:

–First I divide the class into small groups of four and give each student a poster board and four squares of paper.

–Next, I pose a question to the class.

–Then, as the students work they answer this same question four times, once on each sheet of paper, working from the outside to the inside of the poster.

–The first time, students work individually and answer the question from their own thoughts and understanding.

–The second time, they answer it using evidence from a common text.

–The third time, they have a conversation with their group and answer it incorporating someone else’s perspective.

–The fourth time they come up with a synthesized group answer that honors all the different perspectives in their group.

These posters are also a way for students to understand how knowledge can be gained in a small group and be shared into a larger perspective. This creates a whole community of learning within the classroom.


What I did well…

In this strategy, the structure is significant and it was set up clearly and well. Text choice is also significant and each of these texts had strong connections to each other and the question. It is important to choose texts that have enough evidence to address the topic and allow for differentiation within the group. The class text, which everyone reads, should also be the most complex. The discussion in this particular example also shows the strengths of this strategy as it provides productive collaboration around building understanding and knowledge. The final step of synthesizing is vital skill when students are researching and building knowledge; the discussion allows them to practice this.

What I would do more of, better, or differently…

If I could do it over again, I would be more purposeful about the steps between texts. There is a significant amount of important processing and synthesizing that can be supported through having students add to and connect to their group-mates responses. Especially when attempt to connect the texts, it’s good to physically draw out those connections. Additionally, I wish that I had emphasized more the importance of drawing specific quote or evidence from the text in order to help students discuss more literary aspects instead of focusing so much on paraphrase and content. These two changes would help students when they moved into their own argumentation or individual writing.

I still want to grow in this practice by…

I’m building on this practice by being more explicit in my requirements for evidence and also having students add more discipline specific language to the posters themselves. We call this “naming what you notice” in my class. If a quote has a simile or a particularly strong image, we name it for what it is and then also discuss the impact. I’m also expanding on this by allowing students to choose which additional text they want to read for homework or having students research to bring in a new perspective they would like to add to the group. This has created a vast library of resources and texts that students have gathered in support of their ideas and reading.

About Cathlyn Dossetti

Cate Dossetti has been teaching English for 16 years. She graduated from Smith College with a Bachelor’s degree in English and a minor in Education...

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