A Secret Handshake


In one of my Advanced Precalculus classes last week, I saw a group of three students successfully figure something out. To celebrate, one group member taught his group how to do a three person handshake which was elaborate and awesomesauce.

Yeah, it moved me. Those are the things that get me.

Because what it showed me, in that moment, was how solid a group that was. They came to a collective understanding. They were having fun together — being wonderfully silly. And they were celebrating their success. It was a sign that the group had gone beyond being three people working together; they had created some sort of synergy. It was a lovely instantiation of that synergy.

Sadly for them, two days later, I changed groups. (My groups stay with each other for 6-7 weeks, usually.)

But inspired by this group, I changed what I did when I had kids sit with their new group members (in all four of my classes). They all said “Hi!” but then I dramatically and mysteriously had them hush up, and I showed them the first 11 seconds of this video.

They were entranced. So I asked if they wanted to see it again. They did, so I showed them the first 11 seconds again. They all thought they were going to learn that handshake. Fools! FOOLS!

Instead, I told them about how amazing it was to see this precalculus group develop their own handshake. I shared with them what that handshake meant to me, an outside observer… what it said about their group to me.

And then… I gave kids 3 minutes to develop their own group handshake together. The only thing I said was that the handshake had to involve everyone from the group. (Of course, this took 4 minutes, but saying you are giving them 3 minutes gets them working together very quickly.)

Now I’ll be honest. I thought this could go either way. I thought kids might be hesitant to do something corny/dorky like this, and it would be a huge flop. But in all four classes, every group did it. [1] And they were doing SUPER COOL THINGS including pounding the table, incorporating fistbumps, incorporating dance moves, and creating beautifully symmetric hand formations. It was super fun to watch. And some kids wanted to share their handshakes publicly, so those who were comfortable (and that was most of them) demonstrated their handshakes for the rest of the class.

What is going to happen with this?

I don’t know. Maybe nothing. At the very least, it was a great quick way to get kids working as a team on something when switching groups. And if the group can use it when celebrating a collective success, it will make visible and public what fun and friendly groupwork can look like. And that might just inspire other groups to do the same. I like an atmosphere where kids are propping each other up, patting each other on the back, and see themselves working as a team. And the more structures that I can develop that promote this [2], the better.


[1] Okay, one of my calculus classes was a little less enthusiastic as the others, but they all did it too! I didn’t get the same JUMP RIGHT IN feeling in all groups I got from the other classes. Some groups had it, but not all.

[2] Like the hotel bells


One comment

  1. I do so little group work. Partly this is because of the norms/structures of my school. (Tables are set up in a U, we share classrooms with lots of other teachers, and we don’t have time to rearrange desks between classes every period.)

    But partly I think it’s my personality. I don’t know.

    Anyway, this is just to say that your writing makes a fantastic case for group structure being just a kickass, fun, exciting way to learn math. Great post, Sam!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s