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
I'm Mae and I am an instructional Coach, 5th Grade ELA teacher, and Thinking Maps trained.