Saturday, March 12, 2011


If there was ever something that struck fear in my heart as a kid, it was hearing the teacher say "you're going to work in groups".

I hated group work.  It's not, of course, that I didn't want to work with people, but it's I didn't want to work with some people. Rarely did I end up in a group that didn't involve:

A. Too many chiefs, not enough Indians.
B. One person who insists on doing all the work / approving all the work / vetoing work done by others
C. One or more person that wants to do no work / talk about the project / display any kind of urgency that the project is due tomorrow .
D. Some one who unilaterally decides to change the project halfway through
E. One person who can't get along with anyone under any circumstances.
F. All of the above.

I thought that when I finished my formal university training these days were behind me. Then I started taking interior decorating courses. And occasionally I'd be put in a group of 2 or 3 to work on an in-class assignment. While this counted for absolutely no marks I struggled to work with someone who didn't follow the parameter of the assignment. 

So we would have interactions like this when putting together a colour scheme:

Classmate: Why don't we make the dining room red?
Me: We don't have red anywhere else in the house and this is supposed to be a unified colour scheme for the house.
Classmate: But red is so dramatic for the dining room!!
Me: If you want red in the dining room then we have to work in red to the scheme for the house. How about red as an accent colour in the living room?
Classmate: No. That won't work.
Me: Why not?
Classmate: Ooooh, how about doing a purple wall in the kitchen.
Me: We don't have purple in the scheme? I thought we agree that we'd have green, blue and turquoise for the colour scheme?
Classmate: But purple would look so good in the kitchen?
Me: Do you want to change the colour scheme?
Classmate: We can just add purple and red. Oh, how about yellow for the powder room!!!!
Me: We're only supposed to have three colours.
Classmate: What about orange in the master bedroom?
Me: {gasping for breath} Look, it says right here in the manual THREE colours and neutrals?
Classmate: You don't like orange for the master bedroom?
Me: It's not a matter of "like", the point of this assignment is to create a scheme within the rules.
Classmate: But it has to look good.  Why don't we call red and purple "neutrals".
Me:  Because they aren't look here it says 'neutrals are beige, gray...'
Instructor: Is everyone ready to present their colour schemes?

Since I finished taking courses I thought I had put this kind of psychological drama behind me.

Then it happened: Jackson came home with a group project. In socials.

To make matters worse, Jackson was out of the room at an elective class when the project was explained and the groups were formed. Our unsuspecting boy came back to the classroom and was asked by N, a friend, "hey Jackson do you want to make a puppet show about John Cabot?"

Jackson of course said "yes."

And so his ragtag team was formed.  There was the de facto leader N, Jackson and H, another student who had been out of the class.

On reading the cryptic note in the planner "research for group project", I asked the J Boy what this was about.  An extensive cross examination yielded zero information but elicited a steadfast claim that he could do no work on the project as he did not understand it.  Some intelligence gathering and I caught the gist, that the group was to do research and put together some kind of presentation for the class. 

After the usual amount of threats, bribes and intimidation Jackson managed to pull together some research on John Cabot, explorer.  I asked Jackson if this was to be a puppet show, where would they get puppets? Did someone have some? Were they going to make them?? Borrow them? Buy them? In a move that shows how desperate I was, I offered to have the group over to our house make paper-mâché puppets.

A few emails secured the knowledge that no one had any puppets or any plans to borrow, buy or make them.  But perhaps instead, they would present their project in the form of a ship's log.

That sounded much more do-able and would not require me to Google "paper-mâché".

The project, I later found out, was due in three weeks.  Jackson has social only on Wednesdays with his only-teaches-Wednesday-teacher.  So the following Wednesday Jackson came home with the news that they were going to do a puppet show with a ship's log and make a board game.  They had also gained another group member, S.

Over the next week I tried to completely forget about the project except for my occasional "what is going on in the socials project again?" To which I  received a dismissive "we're working on it in class on Wednesday, Mommy".

The next Wednesday brought more roster changes, with H being traded to another team after some verbal fisticuffs with N. However, C was added to the team. It was unclear (and unimportant) whether this was a straight trade, or a three way deal.  I really hoped that with 7 days left before presentation day that the trade deadline had passed and we had our final team in place.

Jackson also told me that they were not going to do a ship's log, a puppet show or a game. They were doing to make a stop action presentation and make a comic. As I threatened to collapse into seizures, Jackson told me he was doing the comic.

Oh. Okay. That was doable. Jackson makes hilarious comics just for fun on the weekends. This solo adjunct to the project resulted from his fame as comic-maker and his being out of the class for part of the discussion, so it kind of made sense.

Because it seemed to me that the "group" needed to be put in "group project", I made the ultimate sacrifice. I said the group could meet at our house one day after school.

In the old days, this is how a group meeting would take place.

Student: Hey you guys want to come over on Thursday after school and work on the project at my house?
Group: Sure.

The only thing a parent had to do was to be home and possibly provide some snacks.

In these modern times, I gathered up the crew in the hallway on Wednesday after school and asked the group if they needed a meeting.  They all heartily agreed that a meeting was in order. We did a calendar comparison and it seemed that everyone was free Thursday after school. I got phone numbers from the three kids.  I called all the parents, who sounded very relieved that I was holding the Socials Summit.  And that I would pick up the kids from school and drop them off after the meeting.

When the actual meeting day arrived I accomplished the amazing feat of having the kitchen table clear and ready to receive four grade 4's.  They were all very keen to work on the project.  They needed a computer so I set up a laptop.

I was pleased to see that N seemed to have this project under control. She had the vision for it and the iron fist  leadership skills to see it through to execution. While Jackson worked on his comic, N handed out assignments.

N: S, colour in this page.
S: [picks up green marker] Ok.
N: Do it in red.
S: Why red?
N: Because it represents blood.
S: Uh. Ok.
N: Not that red. It's not red enough. [spends 5 minutes looking for the right red]

Meanwhile C was supposed to be looking for some kind of map online. But what none of us knew was the C is not allowed Internet access at home. Thus he kept looking for and finding hilarious things that he needed to share with the group.

At some point, I had to leave the room to deal with the puppy, who considered it a crime against nature to be prevented from jumping up on, licking and nibbling all these visitors to our home.  S had already taken great offence to Finnegan sniffing his crotch excessively.  Sydney was doing her best to keep the puppy entertained in sequester upstairs, but was calling for back up.

I thought I left Team Cabot in good shape.  They were all working hard. Jackson drafting his comic, C was looking for maps, S was colouring in N-approved colours and N was doing big picture stuff.

I only just got up to the top of the stairs and I heard several sets of running feet.  Since nothing other than fast-onset diarrhea would be an acceptable solution for leaving the socials enclave, I went downstairs.  S and N were shooting elastic bands at Jackson. Jackson was running for cover.

What did they think this was?  A freakin' play date?

I disarmed everyone of elastic bands and told them it was entirely frowned upon in this house as they can be lethal for puppies. I believe the words "do you guys know what a bowel obstruction is" were used.  They went back to their assigned tasks while I went back to the puppy patrol.

I only reached upstairs again and I heard screeches coming from downstairs.  I returned to find Jackson returning from the basement with his nerf gun.  What I didn't know is that S had pockets full of rubber bands and had rearmed himself. Jackson was looking to retaliate, nerf-style.

I again sent them back to the table, this time with snacks.  This time I actually made it upstairs to long-suffering puppy-sitter Sydney and managed to help soothe Finnegan  a little when I heard screeches again from the kitchen.

I arrived to see Jackson standing on his chair dancing and yelling "THIS IS THE BEST PLAY DATE EVER!!!"  N was writing on the grocery list white board "N IS THE GREATEST!!!!", S was shooting elastics and C was enjoying unfettered Internet access.

At this point, I gave them a lecture on RESPECT, which they were gracious enough not to laugh at.  They resumed their positions and I parked myself at the kitchen table and ran the meeting.  When S had nothing to do (and was loathe to ask for work) I told N to give him an assignment.  When C had entirely given up doing any Google searches related to John Cabot, I suggested he could help with some of the colouring in.

Then Jackson finished his comic and offered to help with the main project. N gave him a map to colour.  The map, in Jackson's words was "totally random".  He reasonably thought that the map, if it were to be part of their presentation, should actually mean something.  The map was quite frankly just meaningless cartography.

Jackson: If this is going to be part of a project on John Cabot, shouldn't it have something to do with John Cabot?
N: It's okay Jackson. It's going to be fine.
Jackson: Well I don't want to get my mark from this project. We're going to get an F.
N: Let's think positively. We're not going to get an F.
Jackson: Well, a C+ then.
N: Well how are we supposed to re-do all three maps?

Jackson went to the living room, opened up the National Geographic mother-of-all-Atlases and drew a lovely rendition of Europe and North and South America. Drew a line to represent Mr. Cabot's first voyage and labelled it and dated it. This took about 5 minutes. He returned to Team Cabot.  And for his efforts was assigned, in addition to comic-maker duties, the role of cartographer-in-chief and had two more maps to make.

I learned three things about Jackson in this exchange:

1. Despite his absent-minded professor persona he likes to present, he does actually pay attention to stuff.  He figured out that random treasure maps were not the way to go.

2. He can accomplish great things on his own. If he had come home one weekend with the assignment to make the maps, I would have spent an entire Saturday just convincing him to open the Atlas and think about the maps.

3. He does care about marks.  Only the previous weekend Jackson had said "I'd rather fail language arts than finish the last question of this stupid homework!!!" 

Who knew?

How did this all turn out? On the presentation Wednesday, I helped Jackson get his comic into his class without it getting wet from torrential rain, which was mounted up on poster boards. He worked very hard on it and it showed.  I really did not know how the group presentation would go. I did not think they had worked out who was going to say what.  I soothed my inner control freak to just let it go. They were in grade 4, they would work it out.

After school, I arrived to pick up the kids and I saw N leaving the school.

Me: N! How did the presentation go?
N: Good.
Me: Great!
N: Well, we did get into a big fight right before the presentation.
Me: Oh. But you got it worked out?
N: Yeah.
Me: I guess that is what counts.

Jackson was not part of the conflicts as he was at his elective class. But his presentation elicited a lot of laughs from his classmates and kudos from his teacher, so he was pleased with his effort. 

And so was I.

No comments: