6 Great Activities for Encouraging Collaboration in All Content Areas

Image features children and teacher assembling a puzzle
There are so many great ways to encourage collaboration in upper elementary.


There are so many creative ways to encourage collaboration in your upper elementary classroom. I hope the six collaboration ideas I include in this post inspire you. In short, they are:

  • Using text dependent task cards and discussion cards for novels and picture books in reading;
  • Using decimal, mixed number, and fraction cards for clothesline math;
  • Creating games to teach or review content with peers;
  • Assigning rich tasks for math and projects in all subjects;
  • Using Harvard thinking routines for social studies and science;
  • Giving students STEM and STEAM challenges to solve.
The image features a task card box of text discussion cards.
Engage your students collaborative discussions of novels and picture books with task cards

Use Text Dependent Discussion Cards to Foster Collaboration During Literature Circles and Book Clubs

Raise your hand if you’ve observed (or implemented) book clubs, literature circles, or even picture book discussions where students spent most of their time filling out a packet and a small percentage of their time actually discussing the book. My hand is up.

Sometime in 2017 or 2018, I think, I read that we as adults don’t fill out packets when we prepare for a book club discussion. We read. We might come prepared with some questions or “Ah ha,” moments to share, but we don’t complete a question packet. Why do we ask children to do this? I pondered this. I knew in my heart that there was no way to COMPLETELY get away from requiring more from students to prepare for book clubs because they’re, well, children. However, I also knew that they needed to just be able to TALK about the book.

That’s how I came up with the idea of using discussion cards. I love using discussion task cards with text dependent questions that kids can just read and discuss in partners and in small groups. I see more collaboration and accountable talk when students are able to engage with specific questions when it’s time for their groups to meet.

In another blog post, I talk about this at length. Take a minute to check it out, if you’d like. In addition, here are some resources I have created that include discussion task cards: Novel Studies and Book Companions.

The image features decimal, fraction, and mixed number cards for games and clothesline math.
Students can play collaborative games and use decimal, mixed number, and fraction cards for clothesline math.

Use Decimal, Mixed Number, and Fraction Cards to Encourage Collaboration with Clothesline Math and Games

I love using a combination of fraction, decimal, and decimal/mixed number/fraction cards for so many activities throughout the year during my math workshop. They’re great for small group instruction. They’re also great for games like war, “Go Fish”, matching, and guess my number and for activities like comparing and ordering. But one of the best activities for these cards is clothesline math.

Begin by hanging a clothesline across your room. Clip a 0 at the beginning (the far left side) of the clothesline and a 1 at the end (the far right side) and 1/2 and 0.5 in the middle. Then, distribute a variety of fraction and decimal cards to students. Here’s where collaboration comes in. Let them work together to determine where the cards go. They can have some pretty lively debates if someone has 3/8 and someone else has 3/9 or if someone has 0.3 and someone has 1/3. It’s really fun to watch. Let them use manipulatives and/or paper if they need it.

The image features a chess or checkers type game created by students.
Students can collaborate to create games for teaching or reviewing content with peers.

Have Students Collaborate with Peers to Create Games to Teach or Review Content

My students and I LOVE games. I have a variety of spinner and file folder games that I use throughout the year to keep reviewing and practicing fun for them. We also play different card games. At the end of the school year, I like to challenge my students to create their own games that they will use to “teach” their peers.

To launch this activity, I bring my class together to review and discuss components of the games I have made and other games they like to play and we talk about what makes a game fun. Then, I project a list of all of the math units we have covered over the course of the year. Next, I let them choose partners and select the math unit they’d like to teach with their game. Finally, I provide paper, markers, and different art materials (e.g. pipe cleaners, clay or play-dough, marker tops, straws, index cards, etc.) and let them collaborate! Their efforts never fail to impress me. And, the best part? Engagement is through the roof!

The image features a problem that students solved using pictures, words, and numbers.
Students collaborate to solve rich tasks and to work on projects.

Assign Rich Tasks and Projects to Small Groups or Partners to Inspire Collaboration

So…what are rich tasks anyway? They are word problems that students need to solve using pictures, words, and numbers. They can solve them alone, but I prefer to have my students collaborate to solve them. In Virginia, the VDOE has a whole section on their website dedicated to rich math tasks. I get the ones I use from there. I use about 1 or 2 per month. (I would love to use more of them, but there are only a few.) One I used recently reads as follows:

The Pencil Company sells pencils in the following quantities:
• Singles (1 pencil)
• Bundles (10 pencils)
• Boxes (100 pencils)
• Cases (1,000 pencils)

The Pencil Company just received an order for 2,342 pencils. However, they currently have only one case of pencils in stock, but they have a large quantity of the other packing sizes.

Show at least three different ways that the pencils could be packed for this order. Explain your thinking using pictures, numbers, and words.Source: The Virginia Department of Education

When I assign a rich task, I assign my students to groups of 3, glue the text of the problem to the middle of the large sticky note sheet (the HUGE anchor chart sized ones), tell them to choose their working space, and set them off to work! You can hear a pin drop when they’re working because everyone is on task. I absolutely love walking around and talking to each collaborative group about their process and then seeing their final products.

Another wonderful way to inspire collaboration is through project-based learning. I have no doubt that if you’re a teacher, you know what project-based learning is. I’m fortunate that my county embraces this way of learning and has many ready-to-use projects for science and social studies for all grades. This year, my students created ladybug habitats (dioramas) as a culminating activity for their quarter one science study of ecosystems.

In the past, I have had my students create travel brochures for regions of Virginia, design space resorts, make 3D imaginary ocean creatures with certain adaptations (that, theoretically COULD exist), plan math field trips to destinations we study in social studies and science with budgets and time constraints that they have to consider, and more. I LOVE PROJECT BASED LEARNING.

I have 2 products that feature these types of problem solving tasks – one for FALL and one for WINTER.

The image features a picture of the project zero logo and text.
Use Harvard Thinking Routines to Encourage Collaboration in social studies and science

Use Harvard Thinking Routines to Encourage Collaboration

If you love gallery walks, discussion groups like Socratic seminars, and debating, you will love Project Zero. I’ve mentioned this site before in a post of my favorite sites for freebies because this one is a TREASURE TROVE you don’t want to miss. I use “See, Think, Wonder” for gallery walks when students are learning science or social studies content to get them up, moving, and talking. “I Used to Think..Now I Think…” is great for times when students learn new content that challenges their prior knowledge. I encourage you to check it out.

The image features a flying vehicle students created.
Give Students Collaborative STEM and STEAM Challenges to Solve

Give Students STEM and STEAM Challenges to Solve

Honestly, who doesn’t love a good STEM or STEAM challenge? Are they messy? Yes. Do they require more set up than a bunch of worksheets? Also, yes. Are they worth it? Absolutely. One of my very favorites is one I used with the text Rosie Revere, Engineer. I challenge my students to create a vehicle that can fly, roll, or float or bridge that can support weight. Two years ago, one team of 4th graders made a bridge that would support ME! It was pretty incredible.

The image reads "Are You Ready to Collaborate?"
Are You and Your Students Ready to Collaborate?

Are You Ready to Collaborate?

I sincerely hope that you have some take aways that you can use in your classroom right now or in the future. Leave me a comment and let me know which idea is your favorite.

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