Moving Writers Holds Small Group Writing Instruction

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Let’s talk small group writing instruction, an oft-underutilized tool in the secondary writing classroom but a mainstay of primary grade writing workshops. I still remember the special feeling of being called by my first grade teacher to the U-shaped table at the back of the room, and then dutifully returning to my desk to practice what I had just learned. Of course small group learning has changed a bit since I was in elementary school — groups are no longer assigned animal names revealing the “ability” of the students, and groups are far less static as teachers recognize the needs of students shifting from study to study.

Before we dive into the how, let’s start with the why of holding small group instruction over whole-class instruction:

  • Not everyone in your class needs the same lesson. Whole-group lessons can fall on deaf ears. Some students may not be developmentally ready for the lesson you are teaching, while others simply don’t need it. A great example of this is grammar and mechanics lessons. I find that my students’ needs in this area are so varied that teaching whole-class lessons on anything MUG rarely makes sense.
  • Students may benefit from a more intimate setting, one in which they can ask questions in a small, safe space. Sometimes the proximity to the teacher alone can make a big difference in the experience and retention of the lesson. Additionally,  one-on-one conferring can be very intimidating for some students, but put them in a small group lesson with other students who share similar needs, and suddenly they are able to ask questions and ask for the guidance they need.
  • You want student to be able to learn something that aligns with their interests as writers, not just their teacher-determined needs.

Small group instruction can be a powerful tool in your writing instruction toolbox, but it can also be a nightmare to organize and execute. Here are a few things you might consider while planning for this kind of class:

1. Small group lessons replace whole class lessons, NOT writing time. Two weeks ago I blogged about writing partnerships, and I urged you never to replace writing time with partnerships but instead to substitute them for notebook time or another feature of your classroom that wouldn’t interfere with the most precious minutes of your class. The same goes for small group lessons, and any other feature you want to add to your workshop.

I’ve made the mistake of teaching a whole-class lesson, and then bringing select students together for a follow-up lesson or small group conference during writing time. But as these students hop from one lesson to another, they can go a whole class period without writing a single word. And that’s the exact opposite of what we’re trying to do. Instead we must always optimize writing time for our students, finding precious writing time where time does not exist.

So, when planning your small group instruction, plan on forgoing the whole-group lesson that day and instead offering small writing sessions to students in class.

2. Group students according to needs, and create groups while in the throes of assessment or grading. Back when I used to grade actual tangible stacks of papers, I would read through the papers really quickly and create small stacks that represented common struggles. One stack for students who need to review writing a nuanced claim, another stack for students who need help finding more specific, varied types of evidence, and yet another stack for students who need to review quoting from a resource. In the end, if one stack towered above the rest, signaling that most students needed instruction in that area, I would teach a whole-class lesson. If the different piles looked even, I knew that I should plan small-group lessons for that week.

If you are grading digital papers, print out a class roster, and grab a few highlighters. As you encounter common problems, create a color key at the bottom of your roster, and highlight names in the color representing the various needs of your students. If the roster bleeds yellow, then you need to teach a whole group lesson. If the distribution of color is fairly even, plan on small group lessons for that week.

3. Teach small group lessons according to interest rather than teacher-determined needs. Some of my favorite class periods have evolved around interest-based small groups where students choose from a menu of offerings. I first started doing this in November and April, during various national writing months; students attended a minimum of 5 mini-lessons over the course of a few weeks. This is what our calendar looked like in April one year:

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You can click here for an in-depth post on this experience.

4. The earbud rule. One of the questions I get asked most about small groups and conferring is: what are the other kids doing? How can I keep the environment quiet and controlled so the small group instruction is successful, and so the rest of the class isn’t wasting time?

As a writer who needs absolute quiet to work, I’m very sensitive to the sensory experience of the writing classroom. And I have seen my classes fall to entropy when the volume of my small group instruction or one-on-one conferences interferes with the rest of the students’ ability to think or work. So, I implement the earbud rule. Whenever I am conferring (which is pretty much all the time) or small group instructing, my students are invited to pop in their earbuds and listen to one of their preset writing music playlists (created by them for homework at the beginning of the year). If your school does not allow students to listen to music, offer white noise as an option. Or explain to your administrator that real writers may listen to music while they write. Show them the difference music can make in your students’ writing lives by inviting them to observe a class period or showing them writing that was made while students were listening to their preset playlists.

5. Offer digital lessons. Another way to engage and support the rest of your class during small group instruction is to offer a few short digital lessons they can choose from. You may find something appropriate on websites like Khan Academy or Kahoot, or you may record your own mini digital lessons. Rebekah and I often team up to do this, each creating a few lessons on basic writing concepts and sharing them with one another to create a much larger digital writing lesson bank. Imagine if a whole department went in on this — if every teacher created just one digital lesson that could be helpful to any writer at any time!

6. Plan small group lessons on an as needed basis. The enneagram Type 1 in me would like to have a specific ratio of whole class to small group lessons for every study I teach, but the fact is, some studies will naturally lend themselves to more of one type of lesson or the other. So rather than trying to fit your study into a 5-whole-class-lesson and 3-small-group-lesson structure, take one lesson at a time and choose the structure that would best support your students at that point in the study.

What are your tips and tricks for implementing small group lessons? How do you decide when to teach into small groups rather than the whole class? 

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