Back to Basics (for a Moment at Least)


Yesterday I was invited to visit my former school to work with their rising freshmen for a breakout session focused on teamwork, collaboration, and project-based learning (PBL). I was thankful I had an opportunity to run a session alongside some really awesome student leaders. With only 25 minutes for each session, I wanted to grapple with misconceptions about how teams work, engage them in a collaborative activity, and thoughtfully reflect on how teamwork and collaboration are affected by group size, personalities, and unforeseen obstacles. What better way to do this than have students design, build, and play their own mini-golf hole?

Most schools in my district provide a freshmen experience where rising 9th graders visit a school just before the year starts to get excited and be familiarized with the school and its culture. I helped with this every year at my last high school, so being part of it again this year was both a joy and a nice throwback. Here’s how I did this workshop in 4 twenty-five-minute sessions:

Like if I were teaching in my own classroom, I started with intros and expectations, using my favorite “clap once if you can hear me” then two times and then three to get each group’s attention (there nearly 50 students in each session!). I am a big believer in humor being a the best icebreaker with students you are unfamiliar with and who are unfamiliar with you, so I work to call students by their names, be a bit self-deprecating, and make a few bad puns along the way.

With intros out of the way, I posed the following questions and used cold calling to generate quick answers and to propel discussion quickly.

  • Projects. What are they?
  • When does learning happen?
  • Why do we sometimes not listen or speak too good? (Grammatically strange on purpose.)
  • How do we play nice with others?

The goal here was to get students in the right mindset of what is possible as a project, how learning can happen anywhere at anytime, and how we ultimately learn to collaborate when we listen first and speak second.

Once that discussion has run its course, I moved into the activity, which was originally inspired from a rather random Google search. (I will update this post if I come across the link again, but I actually can’t seem to track it down again!)

I dubbed the activity the MEGA mini-golf challenge:

By only looking at the pile of “junk” in the middle of the room, design a mini-golf hole (the solo cup will act as the hole) any way you would like on your whiteboard. When told to do so, build your mini-golf hole based on your design for others to try!


The “Junk”

In only about two minutes, students had to scan the pile and then using only a small white board, design their hole that would be both challenging but putt-able in as a 1 par/hole-in-one. The students were also challenged with being varying sized groups. A few groups were huge with nearly 20 students whereas some groups only had 3 students. (This is important for the debrief.) Only one student per group could then come up to the pile to grab only the materials they could grab in one trip after I told them they could grab materials. The build then began for about three minutes with a five minutes left to play their hole and adjust it as they would like.


When all is said and done, we debriefed from the experience as I asked:IMG_20180726_143352

  1. Did everyone in your group contribute to the creation of the golf hole? If not, why not? If so, what contribution did you make?
  2. How did the number of people on your team impact your plan?
  3. What’s one action you would have changed if you did this again?
  4. What does working collaboratively accomplish?

For the sake of time, I used cold calling again to get answers from the large group of students. Typically in each session, there were insightful answers about how group size changed who could contribute to the work and how someone could contribute. They articulated how they really wanted to change the number of people in their group or change the amount of time they had, w


hich I quickly pointed out they had control of neither, redirecting them to consider what they would change that the could control. The session ended with a general consensus that when done well, collaboration gets more done than when you are working on something completely solo.



If I do this again with students or adults, I will likely refine my questioning, but this first attempt was something I really enjoyed and felt helped move away from the “let’s build a tower of limited materials” activity I’ve facilitated and participated in a dozen or more times.

Leave a Reply

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

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

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google 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 )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.