Breathing New Life into the Power Potential of Small Group Instruction

by Mary Howard

1On 2/25/16 #G2Great continued our five part series, Holding Tight to the Practices That Matter as we turned the spotlight on small group instruction. The potential for small group instruction is high as it creates a structure that will form a habit of reading within an intimate setting where teachers can address the specific learning needs of students that would not be possible in larger settings. Of course, achieving ‘power potential’ assumes that teachers have deep knowledge of both literacy best practices and the children sitting at that table.

This power potential of small group instruction was illustrated in the descriptive words of tweet after tweet such as: engaged, focused, responsive, individualized, targeted, strategic, flexible, fluid, purposeful, intentional, productive and joyful (my personal favorite). These descriptors reflect small group instruction at its best with practices grounded in meaningful experiences that engage students in reading writing and talking in ways that put them squarely at the center of our efforts.

But as we consider the power potential of small group instruction, we must also acknowledge a flip side of small groups that continues to plague these experiences. One #G2Great question addressed a potential danger zone:

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Passion rose high for the issue of one-size-fits-all small groups as it defies the descriptors above that represent the opportunities our students deserve. As I travel across the country I have become increasingly concerned that small group instruction in far too many classrooms can feel akin to an obligatory cattle call where a death grip on levels label learners and tether them to those one-size fits all small group experiences we are trying to avoid.

High school freshman and #NCTE15 Panel Speaker Sam Fremin captured my concern with an insider’s view @TheSamer88:

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What makes Sam’s tweet so compelling is that the potential for the very practice that elevates the learning lives of children can also have the opposite effect. We can only create the small group instructional experiences that are worthy of our students by maintaining a spirit of differentiation with a flexible lens of small group variations that may or may not include leveled books and may or may not rise from a single title. The type of small group we choose depends on our instructional purpose and the best way to meet the individual needs of each member of the group based on ongoing formative assessment leading to informed teacher decision-making. Why would we opt for anything less?

The power potential of small group instruction is not about our decision to do small groups but our choice to create powerful, meaningful, and engaging small group instructional experiences. These rich opportunities allow us to intensify our instructional efforts as we maximize each child’s role as enthusiastic, capable, and confident learners who continuously move along a success trajectory toward their personal potential. This lofty goal is only achievable when we CHOOSE to flexibly and intentionally create more student centered small group experiences designed in a spirit of instructional excellence.

     I think achieving the power potential of small group instruction is a choice worth fighting for!

Here are a few #G2Great tweets of educators who believe in the power potential

Holding Tight to the Practices That Matter: Spotlight on Conferring

Guest Blog Post by JoAnne Duncan @joanneduncanjo

On 2/18/16 #G2Great spotlighted Conferring

Am I excellent at yoga? No. Am I excellent at conferring? Not yet. But every time I confer with a child I feel the magic.

Conferring is a practice that transforms the complexities of teaching and learning into a joyful, magical experience. Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting about conferring and wondering what makes it so magical. As I reflect on this question, I find three common areas that make conferring a practice we need to hold tight. Conferring is about building relationships, trust, and responsive differentiated instruction.

Relationships

Conferring creates opportunities to build strong, caring relationships.  A simple yet powerful first step in conferring is to slow down, sit alongside a child, look into their eyes with a warm smile and ask, “How’s it going with your reading today?” In five short minutes we can learn so much about each of our students. This sends a message that we really care about them. When we make ourselves present in the moment by listening, observing and admiring, we come to a deeper appreciation of how unique each child truly is. That is magical.

Trust

Conferring provides opportunities for students to trust our coaching and intentions. As they  trust us, they begin to trust their own thinking and develop skills and strategies to become independent, joyful, proficient readers. Conferring also provides us with an opportunity to begin to trust our own abilities to notice, compliment, wonder and provide just right feedback to move the reader forward. It isn’t about trusting a program or a script but trusting ourselves, the reader and the process. That is magical.

Responsive Differentiated Instruction

Conferring is student-centered, differentiated instruction at its best.  Conferring begins with a student centered mindset. We meet that student, at that moment, exactly where they are. We notice, listen, celebrate, and guide them with next steps. Each student gets what they need. Dylan’s tweet reminds us that conferring, zooming in and focusing can be like taking beautiful snapshots of our readers. That is magical.

2) Dylan

Hold tight to conferring. Make it a daily priority. Fran Mcveigh reminds us that conferring is where the magic happens. Some of us may not be excellent at conferring…yet. But when we slow down, build relationships, trust, and provide responsive differentiated instruction, this is where the magic happens. When we are conferring we are connecting. Whether we are conferring with readers, writers, colleagues, or friends, we are all side by side, learning, growing, talking, listening, and planning.
…And that is magical.

4) Fran

Teachers celebrating the magic of conferring

Independence Develops From Shared Experiences

By Amy Brennan

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Our long term goal as educators is to teach thinking and independence.  When I think about independence the words of Peter Johnston echo in my mind, “Teach them to be independent, you are not going to college with them!”  That day as I listened to Peter Johnston talk about the urgency in teaching independence, I knew that the gradual release model of instruction led students to independence. On February 11, 2016 #G2Great Chat series, “Holding Tight to Practices That Matter” put a spotlight on shared reading.  As I reflect on our chat, I still hold that idea very tight. Shared reading in itself is about a teacher and students reading a text together.  It is inherently a shared experience, certainly not independent.  The independence comes later and as a result of all this great work that happens in a shared reading experience.

During the chat, Joanne Duncan (@joanneduncanjo) tweeted “Collectively our voices grow stronger.”  That is where the magic happens.  We give our students opportunities to grow stronger through shared experiences and once they have grown strong enough they are independent. That is the goal.

Don Holdaway, the founder of shared reading showed us the Natural Learning Model. In this a learner observes a demonstration, then participates in guided practice, later moving to unsupervised role playing and practice, and ultimately performance sharing and celebration of accomplishments.  All of these aspects are built into a shared reading experience where collectively our students are given the opportunity to grow stronger together.

I am reminded then that just as our students become stronger due to the collaborative nature of shared learning, as educators we too become stronger when we engage in shared or collaborative experiences.  This is the beauty of a shared learning experience, whether we are referring to adult learners or our youngest early readers.  Making time for these experiences should be a priority in our schools for all learners. This week as we gathered our minds around shared reading we created a list of books that you can access here. If you are looking for a great shared experience join in on the #G2Great chat, you can see how the shared experience enhances our learning as adults.

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Unwrapping the Joy of Read Aloud

By, Jenn Hayhurst

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 On February 4, 2016, #G2Great initiated our five-part series: Holding Tight to Practices that Matter and turned the spotlight on read-aloud

Teachers are living in a high tech, data driven, standards based world.  Rigor and grit are expected from students and there is no time to waste.  Should teachers squander precious minutes of the school day merely reading aloud to students?  After all, what would students actually be doing while a teacher reads aloud?   Besides, we have computer based programs that read to students, so teachers can use that time in more productive ways. Right? No that’s just scary!  There are those who believe the best way to support standards, rigor, and grit is to devote time that might be spent on read aloud to other pursuits.

Teachers who understand best practices in literacy instruction know that nothing could be further from the truth. I do believe that students need to develop grit and that we  are the gatekeepers of rigor. I also believe that reading aloud is a way to achieve both goals. Our brains are hard wired for story.  Just do a quick search on Google and the neuroscience evidence is overwhelming to support this claim.  But really, the only proof anyone needs is to to look out into a classroom full of students who are listening with rapt attention to their teachers. Children of all ages are drawn into complex narratives through a dramatic reading, or ushered into a world of wonder fueled by new ideas to understand the value of read aloud:  

I couldn’t help but feel elated as I read the Storify  from the February 4th #G2Great Chat, Holding Tight to Practices That Matter: Read Aloud.  Educators from all walks of life were extolling the value of reading aloud. Teachers shared links, books, and ways to support the work with gusto. Why would they do that? The only reason I can think of is that teachers are remarkable, unselfish professionals who are motivated by improving the lives of students.  

We are working to safeguard the practices that matter most because they have the greatest impact for student achievement.  Building a community around literature is one way to ensure that we build both community and critical thinking skills.  It seems simple but it’s true that everything begins with a great book.  To that end, there were so many great books that were shared and will, with a little faith, find great homes in classrooms everywhere.  Mary compiled a list of your recommendations and created a fabulous resource  to share ( just click here ) with everyone.  

I am not immune to buying more books than I can scarcely afford. I just bought Lester Laminack’s Snow Day!  It’s a wonderful book and I can’t wait to share it with students.   I wonder what books will be bought or borrowed because of last Thursday’s chat? How will this chat impact the work that happens with students? We constantly inspire each other to be the best teachers we can be because each day we spend with students is precious and we don’t have time to waste.  

There is no question in my mind that the precious minutes we invest in read-aloud is time well spent.

Click here to watch Lester…

Snow Day!
Lester Laminack video detailing how text structures influence read aloud

The Zen Teacher: Creating Focus Simplicity, and Tranquility in the Classroom

by Mary Howard

Dan Tricarico, author of The Zen Teacher, was our #G2Great guest host on January 28, 2016 and his message spread across the Twittersphere in an hour long calm. Zen Teacher is a literary buffet meant to be savored word by delectable word. Dan serves a double helping of professional and personal Zen at the perfect time in education as he explains in an email interview:

Teachers are overwhelmed, overstressed, and overburdened. The Testing Machine is out of control. Class sizes have grown astronomically. Funds and materials are in short supply. I’ve noticed that the more skilled and gifted the teacher, the higher their stress, tension, frustration, and disappointment. Because they KNOW it should be different and could be BETTER.

Dan’s opening quote sparked a buzz of excitement that could lead us to “better”Quote OPEN

I was immediately drawn to the potential for Beginner’s Mind to impact the quality of our practices at a time when mandates, scripts, packages and programs seem to be the norm. Dan’s words remind us that not holding the answers in our hands can launch professional explorations of not knowing far removed from the guarantees, quick fixes, and silver bullets waved in front of us like a badge of honor. A Beginner’s Mind embraces the idea that there is great wisdom in taking the time to envision opportunities that are not yet in view.

Dan’s Beginner’s Mind exemplifies the extraordinary teachers in this country who still insist on keeping students at the center of their efforts. These teachers refuse to turn a blind eye to the thoughtful decision-making that can elevate teaching, knowing that professional excellence occurs only when a knowledgeable teacher is at the helm even when forging a path that is not always clear.  

The truth is, a Beginner’s Mind resides within every teacher willing to invest time and effort in the unknown. Good teaching is messy because students are rarely predictable. But if we can awaken our Beginner’s Mind and all of the uncertainty that involves, we can recapture the joy of surprise that comes when children, not publishers, are the heart & soul of our work. Now more than ever, we need to acknowledge that students always have been and always will be our first responsibility. And in the end, they are the reason excellent teachers across the country delight in entering the zone of ‘not knowing’ where endless possibilities abound.

As Dan said, “I’ve always really gravitated toward the idea that we were meant to dance with life, not control and overpower it.”

Oh yes Dan, dance indeed!

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