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Wednesday, October 11, 2017

making small groups work in the middle

I'm 15 years into teaching and I've finally figured out small groups in the middle school classroom. Of course, I've been seeing small groups in some way or another over the years, but they haven't been as systematic as I've finally figured out this year.

In the past, I'd get kids learning with the activity and then I'd bounce around haphazardly, usually helping kids who were struggling, and leaving the higher-performing kids to their own devices...with no anecdotals about anything I was accomplishing. It was the best I could do at the time, but now I'm able to see all the kids in my class in a smaller setting over the course of 4 sessions of class.

I am lucky to teach on a block schedule, which affords me 88 minutes of ELA every day. We've got a lot of different things going on in 88 minutes, but no matter what we do, I try to save time for workshop: mini-lesson, workshop, and share time:

As much as I'd love my pacing to go like this, it just doesn't always work out that way. The past two weeks, my coteacher, Andrea and I were teaching the Signposts from Notice and Note - those are not mini-lesson lessons - they take a lot of time to teach and model. But this week, we've finally released that work off to pairs and small groups, which is happening in that 12:30-1:00 time frame.

There is one other important routine I set in place to make this work, too: Accountability Buddies, which I originally learned about on this blog post. Cliff's notes is that kids pick a partner that they want to work with for the long term. When we read poetry, they work with this partner. When they get confused and a teacher is unavailable, they go to this person. And, when Andrea and I are seeing a small group, we make sure a pair is either split between the two of us or both independent, and we require them to work together.

Side note about these buddies: when I was evaluated last year, I saw a small group, and my principal observed the buddies asking so many high level questions to one another about their task. What I love about this system is the long term partnership (and choice in the buddy) creates a lot of trust which allows for risk taking. I had no idea that this would be one of the many awesome results of this forming these long term pairs!

So after I have the buddy system set up, and after we have the routines down, and after I have explicitly taught whatever is the thing we are learning, when we're ready to release work to kids, then we are able to follow the pacing guide above. When we get to workshop time, I let the kids know where they will be working on a rotating basis, so each day I show them one of these charts:

Side notes about the charts if you want to try: Make them different colors - it will be easier for you and the kids to see the differences. Also, I prefer to name these "Conferring Day 1, 2..." instead of by the days of the week. Biggest reason is holidays - We probably miss a lot more Mondays than any other day, so this system just uses an ongoing, rotating basis for the groups.

With this schedule, every other day kids are working with a teacher. On the days away from the teacher, they have their Accountability Buddy as a support. They are taught they cannot interrupt a small group, and they don't! It's been great getting into a routine with this schedule.

And the best part? I get to see kids in smaller settings. All kiddos in my group get very specific feedback about their work, which I can see easily as they sit with me at the horseshoe table. They use guided writing practices (Jan Richardson) to orally rehearse the notes they are about to take. They learn to share to their small group (rather than just to me) and ask for clarification to the small group (rather than just from me). The quiet kiddo speaks up. And when awesome predictions or comments about theme or plot are made, I have the ability to take anecdotal notes that inform my knowledge of what kids know and can do.

Win. Win.

Of course this isn't the only way to make this happen...what are you all doing out there in teacher blog land? Leave a comment below with some ideas so we can keep the conversation going!

Happy Wednesday!

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