Subversive Lab Grouping Game

With the first day school around the corner for some of you (I don’t go back until after Labor Day), I wanted to share a neat little activity I use to get my students into groups for the first time. Like my previous post on the Marshallow Challenge, this game has several subversive layers.

It is based on an activity shared on an email list (can’t remember which) a few summers ago. In the original, each student was handed an index card with a cartoon character’s name on it. Students then got up and grouped themselves with other characters from the same movie or TV show. Cute, but too simple and obvious for high schoolers. Plus, kids could easily swap cards so they can sit with their friends.

So here’s what I did. I waited at the door and, as kids entered class, gave each one a card with a word on it. Initially, students could sit wherever they liked. On the back of the card, they had to write their name, one thing they considered themselves to be experts at, and one thing they still struggle with. (This prevented card swapping when it was time to organize into groups. Plus I get some tidbits about my students.)

I ditched the cartoon character theme and made the groupings trickier. I didn’t give them the group themes, but simply told them that they were to find 3 other similar people. In the end, there would be 6 groups of 4. They also had to introduce themselves as they looked at each other’s cards.

Here are the groupings:

  • PLUTO, MICKEY, DONALD, GOOFY (Disney characters)
  • VENUS, MARS, SATURN, EARTH (planets)
  • MERCURY, IRON, NEON, COBALT (elements)

FirstDayLabGroups Word document, ready for printing and cutting.

When it was time for students to find their groups, the room started buzzing as they compared cards:

  • “Do you mean President Ford or Ford cars?”
  • “Is Mercury a planet, a car, or an element?”
  • Early groupings based on looking at a few cards typically changed as more groups started falling in place. For example, if Pluto and Mercury initially sat with the other planets, they soon realized they needed to regroup
  • Sometimes when the class got stuck, one or two students emerged to take leadership roles and started writing groupings on the board, or laying out the cards on the floor so everyone could see all the cards. (It’s good for the teacher to quickly see who these students are.)

The Post-Game Analysis

Subversive elements I wanted kids to experience (which we discuss after):

  • There’s more than one “right” answer; several groupings were possible (e.g., Lincoln and Ford could be swapped).
  • One or two data points does not a pattern make.
  • Data from EVERYONE is needed to see the big picture. (We do labs where every group does something different, then we regroup as a class and report out.)
  • Models evolve overtime as more data is added.
  • Communication and sharing is vital.

What are your student grouping strategies?


69 responses to “Subversive Lab Grouping Game

  1. This is a great idea! Since my classes are a bit larger, I added two new groups with some local flavor.

    Stockbridge, Ho Chunk, Oneida, Menominee (Wisconsin Tribes)
    Emmers, Schaefer, John, Calumet (streets near our school)

    The fun thing is that some of the tribes are also streets.

  2. Great post, Frank. It’ll be fun to re-engineer the groupings for my math class. I might keep a few the same. Plus, it helps to get kids MOVING, which is always beneficial (change in physiology=change in brain). Thanks for the idea. We start after Labor day too.

  3. Totally stealing this!!!

    – Elizabeth (aka @cheesemonkeysf on Twitter)

  4. @Basler, The Oneida nation is originally from New York, one of the Iroquois nations. My dad is a Seneca, and we have Mohawks in the family too.
    @Frank, I am totally stealing this, I love it. I have previously drawn lab groups from a bag using popsicle sticks with student names on them, but this is better. Even though my bag is a wonderful 12-year-old WWE bag with Hulk Hogan on it.

  5. This is fantastic. Thanks! How long did it take your students to get into groups?

  6. Stolen. Very cool.

    Since I have up to 38 students in some classes, I added:
    Spruce, Dogwood, Hawthorne, Pine (Trees – Hawthorne is a street near school)
    Elliot, George, Deborah, Susan (First names – Deborah is a street near school
    Portland, Springbrook, Baker, Sitka (Streets near school)

  7. What a great idea! Thanks for sharing. Can’t wait to try this out with my 8th graders!

  8. Sweet. Oh yeah, I’ll be using these.

    Most often I have student pick marbles and match colors. With 9th graders, I like removing the social pressure of choosing groups. (We’re a K12 school, and a lot of students know (or think they know?) each other very well… we also get several new students in this year.) Sometimes I make a list of the class names (and slice up), and they figure out my “ranking” order (cardinal by number of letters in 1st name; alphabetical by 2nd letter, chronological by birthday…) Sometimes I’ll design for what I think might be most productive and supportive. I’m getting good at this. 😉 Rarely, I’ll make ability groups on a certain topic.

    It would be cool to use “Element cards” like Mendeleev — then they really are in the same group!

    (I hope this link to element cards works:

  9. This is very creative and so clever. Love the layers and subversive elements. From chaos leaders emerge – who knew?

  10. Frank – great idea! What I like most is that instead of boring the kids by passing out books – you’re getting them thinking right off the bat. Designing a classification schema in a fun collaborative manner. Thanks to the rest of you – all the variations add so many other options.

    BTW – Here’s a post I did on opening day activity – solving a mystery.
    First Day of School? Here’s How to Get Students Thinking

  11. Okay, I am DEFINITELY using this in my 8th grade English class on Day 1. In the Post-Game Analysis I can add to your list of “subversive elements” for discussion as follows:

    Interpretation — each word/card is open to multiple different interpretations, and each interpretation, in turn, can lead to different understandings of what the groupings are (or could be)

    Persuasion — you persuade others of the validity of your interpretive framework based on your analysis and evaluation of ALL of the available evidence

    One comment/suggestion, though: I would recommend changing the name “Donald” to “Minnie” so that ALL of the human referents are not male!

    – Elizabeth (aka @cheesemonkeysf on Twitter)

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  13. I am so totally using this!! Thank you Frank!

  14. A couple of other groups to add:

    Adjectives: Silly, Crazy, Funny, Curly
    7 Dwarfs: Dopey, Grumpy, Sneezy, Doc

    Now it’s time to work on the same thing using numbers.

  15. @DavidCox- You are a genius! I needed a couple more categories but I was stumped. Thank you!

    – Elizabeth (aka @cheesemonkeysf on Twitter)

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  17. Thanks everyone! Keep the groups coming!

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  19. I saw a Pinto on the highway which made me think of these…

    Black, Pinto, Kidney, Lima (beans)
    Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard (Armed Forces)
    Red, Green, Blue, White (colors)

  20. This is fantastic! I will definitely be stealing this. It will also make a good experience to refer back to when we talk about the organization of properties on the periodic table.

  21. Love this idea. Plan to use tomorrow for my grade 11 physics. I added some local flavor by bringing in Mexican football (soccer) teams: America, Cruz Azul, Monterrey, Puebla and also added big cats: Puma (also a football team or a sneaker), Jaguar, Cheetah, Leopard and Sneakers: Adidas, Converse, Nike, Vans. I left out US Presidents since I am not sure my students will know those.

    I have some great kids card games that I use to help with random groupings. Today I had the class line up in order from tallest to shortest and made groups that way. Have used birthdays and eye color and finding thumb partners. A friend made great sets of cards with things like cheesy pick-up lines, famous quotes, etc to pair students up. Also have seen the appointment time sheet done at start of year and used all year = “Work with your 2pm partner today.”

  22. Thanks again, Frank! This thing was so rich in discussion it hurt. Since I get anywhere from 30 to 35 little darlings per period, I added a couple of groupings. Not giving them the categories worked really well for discussion purposes later, and the fact that I had 3/32 in my hand after passing out the tickets at the door gave an excellent opportunity later for the groups to revise in order to accommodate the new information, very NOS. One of the questions I had them answer on the back of the card was basically word association with the word on the front, helped to establish the need to identify their present thinking at the beginning of an activity.
    My new groupings weren’t that inventive, but it helped me out to see the tweaks other put on it, so here goes…
    Rivers in/near Iowa :Missouri, Cedar, Iowa (subbed Wisconsin into the states), Mississippi
    Major Streets Downtown: Gilbert, Burlington, Jefferson, Washington (subbed Monroe and Jackson into POTUS category)
    Surrounding Counties: Jones, Jackson, Linn, Johnson

    Overlap was key, the great examples in the comments primed me for that.
    Thanks all for contributing to a great first day activity!

  23. Thanks for this idea, I actually used it today it worked great. Even the students enjoyed themselves! Thanks Again!

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  28. Marcie Shea (@sheaphysics)

    I’m looking forward to using this next week. I think I am going to add Capital Cities: London, Paris, Mexico City, Moscow – which will overlap with Lima (from beans) and Washington (from presidents).

  29. Added some more groups..
    – Car, Battleship, dog, top hat (Monopoly Pieces) iron also fits in this group and car may be tricky for the other.
    – Maple, Oak, Cedar, Ash – Trees
    – Brock, Pikachu, Misty, Team Rocket – Pokemon Characters (Ash and Professor Oak)
    – Cherry, Watermelon, Grape, Fire – My favorite Jolly Rancher flavors.

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  31. I am excited to try this first day of school. Thanks to all for ideas. This site is awesome.

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  34. leticia moran

    I added the following group:

    Flowers: Rose, Tulip, Violet, Lotus (also car)

    I also needed two groups of 5, so I added Krypton (for element, but some students might think planet) and Daisy (for Disney character, which is also a flower)

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  38. I’m excited to use this this year! My draft categories are:
    – cars
    – Redundant capital cites
    – digestive system organs
    – beans
    – sports with suffix “-ball”

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  47. Thanks, Frank. Wonderful idea. I use groups of three (max class size 26):
    PLUTO, MICKEY, DONALD (Disney characters … former planet)
    VENUS, MARS, SATURN (planets …car)
    LINCOLN, HONDA, DODGE (cars … president)
    FORD, WASHINGTON, JEFFERSON (presidents … car)
    MERCURY, IRON, NEON (elements … cars)
    ORIOLES, BLUE JAYS, TIGERS (baseball teams … birds)
    CARDINALS, EAGLE, FALCON (birds, … cars, baseball)
    COBALT, EARTH (planet, element, car)

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  54. Very clever!

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  56. Lynne Christiansen

    I love this. I’ve added Mountains from Washington State: St. Helen’s, Baker, Rainier, Glacier; Lowland Lakes in state: Spanaway, Kapowsin, Alder, Wapato; Tribes in washington State: Colville, chehalis, Kalispel, Cowlits. Some of these overlap because they will think they are different categories like high school names or trees. I could have 34!!! in class, but I hope not.
    I added this because I love seeing the regional differences.

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  59. I’ve meant to thank you since last year (2017). It was a hit! SO much conversation generated. Brilliant idea. I teach LD students, mostly, and class sizes are small in the HS. 16 (but feels like 40 if not managed properly). 4 groups of 3 and 1 group of 4.
    Using these new groups —
    JACKSON, GRANT, WASHINGTON, GREEN (streets near school)
    MERCURY, VENUS, MARS (gods/goddess…planets)
    TESLA, EDISON, JEFFERSON (engineers/scientist/thinkers)
    RED, BEGONIA, CHERRY (colors)
    thinking that the Tesla will get many of these kids, obsessed with Tesla company out here, in CA.
    thx again

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  61. Rediscovered this, and will assign first lab groups this way, as well as establish the seating chart. I love the inclusion of the Claim evidence, reasoning as well. Just an awesome sounding activity. I had to make several mods, including changing some of the groups (added a group of National Parks, including one that local streets are named after. And added a local street name group, including one that had a horse name, and a group of horse types. This could overlap the beans group also (pinto). Our school mascot is a Mustang (horse, not the car). I dropped the cartoon characters. When I was sorting the cards out to make sure it all made sense, with groups of three (deleting one from the groups of four, I inadvertently created a new group with my own internal associations. Could be interesting on Thursday. In any case, it should be fun.

  62. It was a lot of fun and altogether a positive experience. It was a great introduction to how science works (look at all the evidence, change opinion as new evidence develops..etc). Discovered that only a few students (Freshman high school) know local street names or tree types, so I will have to change those groups. Surprisingly National Parks caused lots of issues also. If it wasn’t for Yosemite and Grand Canyon we would never have put together the parks.

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