For the next four weeks our topic is going to be small group planning, for reading and math. If you were part of my Instagram Stories poll I asked my followers a series of questions about what stresses them out as teachers. Small group planning came out on top as something that stresses you out!
The purpose for small groups, in either math or reading, is to guide students with a specific goal in mind in order to teach them to be independent learners. Usually this occurs for a set block of time, where the teacher pulls groups, and the remaining students not meeting with the teacher work on other skills independently.
Small group planning has a unique set of problems and moving parts that need to be solved in order for the teacher to effectively manage his or her small group they are currently meeting with.
This post is Part 1 of a four part series on Small Groups. In today's post we will focus on the most important aspect of small group learning-what the teacher is teaching!
**I just got to writing number four and wanted to jump back up to the top to tell my readers that I know that the most difficult part of small groups is planning for six groups. I know all these steps, written out, seem incredibly daunting, and the fact that we have to do it daily seems impossible. However! If you hang in there and keep reading my take on small group planning encourages consolidating through standards, to streamline what each group is doing by taking advantage of the way our standards build on one another, so that you WON'T be planning six different skills for six different groups. I really hope this is helpful for you!**
Problem 1: Planning Teacher Time for six groups at different levels for 180 days is exhausting!
My first year of teaching I totally sucked at small group reading time. I had only seen it done well one time during my student teaching, and it was with first graders. I never saw how she planned or when she gathered her materials, so when it was time to do it myself I was completely lost and had no clue how to start. Eventually I landed on the Must Do/May Do system (which I will talk about in another post), extended my planning out to more than one week, and met with less groups for longer so we could dig deeper.
1. Targeted Instruction: What are you teaching and to whom?
Use an assessment to test your class on a particular standard, skill, or focus to determine what they all need to improve on. In reading for littles this should include phonics, sight words, and fluency. For mid to upper grades we should still include phonics, sight words, and fluency because we all know upper grade students come to use with gaps, but now we want to include comprehension and writing skills as well. In math take a look at the core standards for your grade level and find an assessment that will take a dipstick for each core area, but for all ages students need to be assessed on their place value knowledge above all.
Once you have assessed your class you are ready to group students by the skills they need to work on. One thing I like to do to reduce the amount of planning that is needed is to find a common standard that all kids need, and plan instruction around this standard at different levels. For example, in general my class may need more work on theme, so I choose to teach R.L.2, but the second grade, fourth grade, and seventh grade versions of this strand because that's where my groups are. In this way I target planning for myself and my students so that the learning doesn't seem so fragmented and difficult to organize.
Reading Assessment Examples: NWEA, PARCC, iReady, DIBELS, CORE Phonics Screener, Oral Reading Analysis, Running Record, exit tickets, writing samples, and any assessments included with your school's curriculum.
Math Assessment Examples: Pre-assessments (this could be as simple as giving the end unit test first before you start the unit), exit tickets, blank multiplication charts, math screeners, and any assessments included in your school's curriculum.
2. Plan and gather materials: Be intentional!
Now that you know what your goal is for your students and you have them specifically grouped, you can plan intentionally how you will teach this skill. This is usually where the roadblocks come in. I know many teachers who can assess and group, but get their minds in a mess over HOW to go about teaching it. My personal opinion on this is because targeted small group teaching can feel so fragmented; where is the bigger picture? Are we as a group actually making progress? How will it all fit together in the end? It's also difficult because there are so many skills to work on! How do you pick?
3. Determine your time frame.
Here is the key to success: SLOW DOWN. Early in my career I would plan for one book per group per week. I had 15-20 minutes to meet with my groups each day. We never got through all the skills I wanted to cover and every week I felt like a failure. I was exhausted as well because although my plans were solid, I was always planning! So, this is another roadblock. Why spend hours planning when you can't get to everything? Solution, slow down. Spend two weeks per book. Really dive deep and get to analyzing and critiquing. Get to writing! See mastery happen! Instead of spending 15 minutes per group, spend 30.
I know, I know, it seems crazy. But really, it gives you time to think ahead. I usually keep Google Notes up and jot down ideas for the next two week block (remember to cover compound words; this group needs practice with adding fractions; this group really loves animals find some books.) Look over your notes while you plan for the next block and insert these ideas into your plans. You will still be working within your big picture framework we talked about earlier, but including all those skills that drive us crazy that your kids need right now because you observed it.
Also, don't be afraid to chuck your plans. If halfway through week one you realize your mid-level group would understand a concept better with something else, go with it! Small groups is one of those times where you can chuck what you planned, because even though you planned a specific activity chucking it doesn't mean you are throwing out everything, you still have your big picture plan!
4. Teach, assess, repeat
Now it's time to teach. You've tested, grouped, planned, collected materials, organized them, now all that's left is to pull the groups and get to work. Cherish this time with your kiddos, because they really do look forward to this time with you. It's the time for your shy kiddos to shine and feel confident. It's the time for them to ask questions, make mistakes, and get messy (yes, I did just quote Mrs. Frizzle!) and it's the time to make those relationships and connections with your kiddos.
The hardest part about groups for me isn't the tests and planning and materials and all that, it's gathering up the energy to actually sit down and DO IT. I get wrapped up in my day and that I could answer just one more email, or type up one more IEP report, or, or, or. Then I remember that my student is finally starting to pause before looking at words with cl- blends. That student I had a great discussion with about Nazi Germany. The students who finally GOT equivalent fractions.
If you start to get overwhelmed, then simplify. Just do writing, or Word Study or math facts. Use your Scholastic News and dive deep. Print off an interesting Newsela article and discuss in depth. For a couple months I threw all my plans out the window and turned Teacher Time into a Book Club where we discussed chapter books together and wrote short responses. I saw so much growth in that time span.
Then when you're ready, assess again, and repeat 😁
Part 2: What should students do when they are not with me for Teacher Time?
My very first year of teaching was the first year we switched from AIMS to AZMERIT here in Arizona. I had no idea what to expect or how to prep my little third graders. The first day they sat down to take the writing portion on Day 1 they all looked up at me with scared faces, clearly not understanding what to do.
I went home crying that day. I felt like a horrible teacher for two reasons. One, I don't believe in standardized testing. I have come to terms with being able to live with the fact that it is a necessary evil of teaching, but in the big picture there are so many other worthwhile ways to assess children. For now, I just deal. Two, I honestly did not understand how to prep my kids with what they were being asked to do! I couldn't really ask for help because this was the first year we were giving this test for everyone.
During my second year I vowed my kids would be prepared no matter what, but the way I approached it was overkill, and I definitely sucked the spirit out of my classroom. In years following I finally came up with fun ways to get students prepped, without sacrificing regular curriculum time, or making it super intensive so it freaked the kids out. Essentially, its a fine balance.
2. Spice up direct instruction by using cooperative learning structures.
To teach test prep strategy (not necessarily content), use whole class cooperative learning structures to help students recognize and dig deeper into questions and strategy.
3. Teach mindfulness strategies for test anxiety.
We all know there are highly intelligent students out there who cannot take a test to save their lives. I was one of them, every time I took a math test I psyched myself out and basically felt like a failure before I even began. Tests can be long, and a test a will power to keep going versus how much content they know. Be sure to go over Universal Testing Accommodations like asking for water and stretch breaks, using a fidget, and asking for scratch paper.
4. Confidence with testing tools is key!
There are lots of online sample tests for students to use to get familiar with testing tools. If they can be confident in navigating the online test, they can can focus on content and test strategy.
Good luck to you and your students during this time of year!
Make planning for partners, small groups, and extensions a breeze using my Bell Curve Group Planner. Data informed and easily customizable for any subject and grade!
I'm Mae and I am a Master Teacher who supports third through sixth grade in all subjects, Thinking Maps trained, with a Master's Degree in Elementary Education!