Problem 3: What system should I use for organizing students in the room?
During student teaching the only system I saw for organizing kids in the room during small groups was rotation station style. I grew increasingly frustrated with this model during my first two years of teaching, and sought out alternatives. I found the Must Do/May Do model on Pinterest, tried it, and loved it. Oddly enough I still liked the rotation station method for math centers, as I was able to quickly see all my students and keep the room and energy moving. In today's post I am going to share with you the pros and cons of each method!
Rotation Station Style: Students are assigned stations around the classroom and must stay with their group and station for a set time period. When the teacher signals (or slides change, or timer goes off) students rotate with their group to the next station. This repeats until all students have gone to every station.
Must Do/May Do: Students have groups and two lists of assignments: a must do list, and once those are complete there is another list of activities they may complete. Students do not need to stay with their group, and there are no stations. The teacher is free to pull whomever they choose.
I hope that this post has given you some good information about the two methods. Be sure to check out the Recommended Readings to see the original sources for these two ideas, and download the Must Do/May Do freebie offered by 1st Grade Pandamania!
Next Week: Assessing students in small groups.
Problem 2: What should my students be doing while I am teaching a small group?
The basic answer I have for this is that there is no "wrong" thing students should be doing while you are teaching, as long as they are engaged in assignments with purpose. Children know when they are being given seat work that will never be looked at or graded or count toward anything, and they will quickly grow bored and resentful about this.
So, what constitutes "assignments with purpose?" This will depend entirely on your class. Think carefully about the skills you want your students to know and learn by the end of the year, or the trimester, or the quarter. This will also depend on the age and independence of your students. I am firm believer than students can do approximately 100% than we think they can do, and its mostly adults not being patient enough or clear enough with our expectations. So, let's start there!
Small Group Expectations: Modeling & Positive Praise Are Key
Never assume students know what to do during guided reading or math. Also, never assume that even with clear directions it will turn out the way you want the first time. Model, model, model. Even with 5th graders I will introduce one task at a time and spend 10 minutes modeling moving around the room narrating what I am doing. Then I let them try, and if it's not what I want I will stop and give positive praise about what they did do correct, and adjust by modeling what to improve and we try again. I do this daily for about a month, slowly introducing new assignments, starting with the simplest ones and ending with the hardest ones (technology and book club.)
While you are doing this I highly suggest you do not teach during this time, just watch and monitor. At some point you'll be left with one or two students who need adjustment and that's when you can coach them on procedures one-on-one, or assign them a buddy to help.
What are some meaningful assignments I can give?
For small group reading I generally stick to Word Study, Writing, Technology, Book Club, Silent Reading, Independent Reading Comprehension, and I do a Must Do/May Do system where students have two weeks to finish their assignments. This system worked for 2nd, 3rd, and the 5th graders I teach now.
For small group math I did a rotation system, where students moved through Teacher Time, Technology, Problem Set, and Skill Drill. Groups were decided based on their exit tickets the day before. Rotations were about 15-20 minutes each. Skill Drill was the station I changed every month to two months based on what we were working on at the time.
Word Study: At the beginning of the year I use spiral journals and glue a nine choice menu of word study assignments onto the front cover. During the first two weeks of school I teach one activity to the whole class each day. Assignments include 5 Clues, Spelling Grid, Add It Up, Vocabulary Sort, Flash Cards, Short Story, Picture It, ABC Order, and Greek/Latin Roots. In a two week period students need to finish two activities that I star in their journals and check off its completion. Words come from the glossary of their weekly book (see Independent Reading Comprehension), and they can add any interesting words to my living word wall any time.
Writing: This station usually turns into "finish whatever we worked on today during Writing," thus allowing students to keep themselves accountable and develop an intrinsic motivation to take advantage of the time given to work on something they care about. Another idea would be to use Michael Friermood's Keep It Fresh Writing Centers.
Technology: When I had only six computers for my class I had a whole rotation system for students to work their way through each week, but now that I have more computers I can use more tools and get more students on at one time to target the skills the need. Here is a list of my favorite technology sites for reading and math:
There are a ton more tools out there that I haven't gotten a chance to use and vet, but these have been my go-to for five years and have shown great results in my classroom.
Book Club: Once every week or so I meet with students to discuss a book we a re reading together. I assign their work in Google Classroom over a shared Google Slide. They love it, and we have a great time discussing literary elements in depth and had made a bigger difference in their comprehension than any lesson I could create.
Silent Reading: Students have a full 30 minutes everyday during guided reading to enjoy a book of their choice. They can read independently or with a partner. I don't use logs or reading reports, I don't restrict what books they can read or level my library. They can read books, menus, maps, comics, ebooks, do Readtheory.
Independent Reading Comprehension: This is probably the only worksheet type assignment I give, but I give it because I can use it to track real growth over any given period of time. I print leveled books from Reading A-Z and I also print all the supplemental skill drills, quizzes, and vocabulary work (from Vocabulary A-Z) to go with it and create a packet. This packet is due completed in a two week period, where I check off on its completion and take notes on skills that they struggled on to inform my lessons during small group time. They then take the book home to add to their library at home.
Skill Drill: For math I purchase many things from TPT, but once I found Math Tech Connections I stopped using anyone else's resources. Her stuff is so good, simple, and reusable, it was a no-brainer. I even got a grant to laminate her 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade sorts into reusable puzzles with velcro. The main thing I love about her stuff is I could pick standards for any grade level and do skill drill with all my groups no matter what their level. I also recommend her Tri-Folds, Math Games, and any of her digital products (Google Classroom compatible!).
Part 3: Must Do/May Do versus Rotation
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?
I'm Mae and I am an instructional Coach, 5th Grade ELA teacher, and Thinking Maps trained.