Five, Six, Pick up Sticks

Posted: January 21, 2020 in Teaching

A flannel shoe bag, a pile of mini craft sticks, and a repurposed Q-Tip travel box: These items are in my hands most days. They’re often in the hands of my students as well. Any of them who walk into the classroom early—before the beginning of the hour—and spot the bag and the box of sticks on the front desk know that they’ll be working in groups that day, at least for part of the class period. Their job, if they choose to volunteer, is to make random groups by drawing sticks, which are labeled with the students’ names.

The size and number of groups varies from class to class. In my current English 111 class of eighteen, students draw names to create two groups of four and two of five. For the largest of my British survey classes, which has twenty-seven students, they make three groups of five and two of six.

The sound of the process depends on the volunteers. Before dropping the craft sticks into the shoe bag, some students shake the plastic box, rattling the sticks like dice in a cup. Others pour the sticks into the bag before they shake them, making slightly muted clicks, like coins in a sock.

To me, all of these noises are sounds of collaboration and community building, of students not sitting passively but instead taking an active role in preparing for class. A flannel shoe bag, a pile of mini craft sticks, and a repurposed Q-Tip travel box: In the classroom these are small, good things.

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