Re-examining and Revising Our Thinking Series Small Groups: Broadening Our Perspective (Third of 5 Parts)

By Fran McVeigh

Wakelet artifact from April 22, 2021 #G2Great chat can be found here.

Small group instruction is ubiquitous in classrooms across the world. John Hattie found small group instruction has an effect size of .47. (Hattie source) Because that is above the .40 linch pin for effect size,  small group instruction is often automatically on a teacher’s list of research-based activities. But . . . What if the teacher (or students) are engaged in an activity during the small group work that has an even higher effect size?  Will the learning increase even farther?  This post is going to bring some clarity to the purpose and rationale for small group instruction as well as explore some of the main issues with small groups before ending with some tips for re-examining and revising your small group practices to broaden your perspective.

As we begin, it is important to note that “grouping for instruction” has been discussed multiple times on #G2Great that can be found in the many resources listed at the end of this post. But one of the most important books dealing with small group instruction is Barry Hoonan and Julie Wright’s book, What Are You Grouping For? How to Guide Small Groups Based on Readers – Not the Book. This book dug even deeper into some of the issues raised in earlier books by Burkins and Yaris in Who’s Doing the Work and Moses and Ogden in What are the Rest of My Kids Doing?. So let’s get started.

Who forms the small groups? Does it matter?

Is a small group formed by a teacher typically for the purpose of instruction, assessment, collaborating, conferencing or learning?

The initial organization of the group will often set the tone and culture of the group. Sometimes groups are “assigned” or formed by the teacher. There may be a variety of reasons for teacher assigned grouping especially for short-term, flexible groupings. Some of those were included in the question:  instruction, assessment, collaborating, conferencing. Other reasons might include re-teaching, teaching lead students who will teach other students, an opportunity to double check student knowledge, or even forming an activist group. Laura and Nadine added further considerations during our chat.

Is a small group formed by students for the purpose of instruction, assessment, collaborating, conferencing or learning?

If the students form the small group it may also be a flexible group that varies to match its purpose. It could also include instruction (teaching you what I just learned), assessment, collaborating or conferencing. But other possibilities abound.  It could be a student initiated book club, peer revision partnerships, or editing conference group. Check out how Yvette and Mary see student-formed groups progressing.

So before we go any farther, let’s check some common critical understandings about small groups so that we are all talking about the same thing.

What is a small group?Is it a label? Is it a grouping? If yes, how many students does it take for a small group? Two students? Three students? Three or more students? Is there a maximum size for a small group? It depends! Typically more than two. Purpose dictates the size but having partners within the group allows for more talk and practice.
Who decides whether instruction or practice is a small group or whole class?The teacher? The students? Data?  Doug Fisher reminds us that:  “Assessment data helps us plan instruction, especially in small groups so that specific needs are addressed.” One rule of thumb is that if more than half the class needs the information, then whole class instruction is more expedient, efficient and effective.
 What might I provide?Strategic, just-in-time instruction:  this may be pre-teaching, re-teaching or extended teaching from the lesson just taught. It all depends on student needs.
 WHY might I use small groups? Everyone does NOT need the same thing. 
 What might students need from small group instruction?To Differentiate:  To follow up on instruction or assessment data in order to answer the question – Who needs more time?
To Intensify: Quick, yet intense reinforcement, continued practice to move closer to automaticity 
For Independence:  So students can practice and the teacher can observe and answer questions about process or observe competence, confidence and habits of mind. 

Regie Routman who has been a part of #G2Great and is highly respected for her practical and knowledgeable approach to education defined four issues with small groups: equity, professional learning, reading, and management. (link) She talks about these in terms of guided reading but they also apply for many small group settings.

  1. Equity

“No teacher deliberately sets out to disadvantage students and, yet, we unintentionally do so all the time.

Students do not become self-directed, joyful readers because teachers and administrators prioritize daily, guided reading groups. Students become readers, in every positive sense of that word, when most of their reading time is dedicated to uninterrupted, voluminous reading of texts they can and want to read.”

Mary and Yvette were again in tune on the issue of equity and small groups.

  1. Professional learning 

Lucy Calkin’s quote used in our chat says so much. How does this vision become a part of professional learning, what we determine as our learning goals, and a part of classroom actions every day? How much professional learning is needed? It depends on how close the desired outcomes are to current instructional practices.

  1. Reading

Our focus has to be on “teaching readers not teaching reading.” This shift in language is both critical and deliberate. Being responsive to the reader maximizes resource. Small groups that focus on skill and drill minimize resources and often reduces the time that the student has to read. The result is what Richard Allington called the “slow it down curriculum” because the emphasis is on every single skill and quantities of isolated practice that are not helpful for student growth or agency. Susan, Jill, Rhonda and Gen add to our understanding!

Students have to spend time reading in order to improve their reading. This applies to small groups as well. A small group session that does not ever have students reading would be counter productive. One goal of small group sessions would always be to increase the volume of student reading.

  1. Management –  

Regie Routman also says this:

“As well, even though it may be unintentional, managing the management system often winds up taking priority over effective instruction and time for reading, not to mention the enormous amount of time teachers spend planning for management. Sometimes, when teachers are not sufficiently knowledgeable, the management system even becomes the reading curriculum.”

Time at school is finite. There isn’t a second to waste. Not a minute. Time needs to be allocated for those instructional and assessment practices that will not only promote learning but will also fuel student engagement. That means that the most effective and efficient practices need to be sorted out for the student. It’s not about a school-wide adoption of “these top three strategies”.  It’s about choosing some strategic strategies and practices, teaching them to students and then allowing the students to choose the one(s) that work best for each individual. 

And in the area of management, I have to give a shout out to the late Kathleen Tolan from TCRWP. My jaw hit the floor when I saw Kathleen effectively manage three small groups simultaneously. Yes, SIMULTANEOUSLY. Exquisite Management! Clear planning of two to three days cycles of possibilities that were responsive to students but yet also meant that students were actively engaged in the planning and delivery of the instruction. They all knew their expectations and goals, they came to the group session completely prepared, with the tools and resources that they needed, and they did the work. The. Students. Did. The. Work. Teacher voice did not dominate.

How can we improve the effectiveness of small group instruction?  

Andrew Miller in an Edutopia article (link) says that the key strategies for improving small group instruction are:

  • Using small group time to listen and learn from students,’
  • Making them invitational rather than required,
  • Extending learning, 
  • Providing choices in method and 
  • Encouraging student-driven lessons. (Edutopia)

Andrew Miller in his closing goes on to say,

“Ultimately, small group instruction, like instruction in general, is reciprocal—a two-way street: “What can I help my students learn?” and “What can I learn from my students?” In our rush to help students, we may miss the opportunity to learn from them to do our jobs as teachers in an even more effective way. In addition to addressing gaps in learning, it’s about looking for opportunities to empower students to take agency in their learning and celebrate their funds of knowledge.”

Where to begin?  

Check your purposes for small groups. Where have small groups been effective? What issues have been seen as barriers to effectiveness?  How can the issues be minimized? Where can small groups use some re-visioning to improve? Find a “thinking partner” to share your thinking and ideas.

Think about these two final pieces of wisdom from Val and Hannah . . .

What is our goal? Is it to increase student learning? Is it to empower students so they can and will be lifelong learners? Does our use of small groups reflect our vision of equitable, quality instruction for ALL students? How will you maximize the power of small groups?

Learning Lenses posts

What Are You Grouping For? How to Guide Small Groups Based on Readers – Not the Book (grades 3-8)  August 25, 2018

Breathing New Life into the Power Potential of Small Group Instruction February 28, 2016 

What are the Rest of My Kids Doing by Lindsey Moses and Meredith Ogden August 8, 2017

What’s Our Response? Creating Systems and Structures to Support ALL Learners March 20, 2021

Hands Down, Speak Out: Listening and Talking Across Literacy and Math October 10, 2020

Reflecting on My Beliefs: Values + Promises for the Future June 14, 2020 

This is Balanced Literacy December 16, 2019 

Resources:

Debbie Diller  2007  https://www.stenhouse.com/content/making-most-small-groups

Regie Routman https://regieroutman.org/blog/rethinking-guided-reading-advantage-all-our-learners/

Re-examining and Revising Our Thinking to Transform Our Practices: Reading Levels Maintaining a Flexible Stance (Second of a 5-Part Series)

By, Jenn Hayhurst

You can revisit the Wakelet by clicking here.

#G2Great delved into the second of a five-part series on April 15th: Re-examining and Revising Our Thinking to Transform Our Practices, Reading Levels Maintaining a Flexible Stance. I have grown to regard our series as a professional lifeline. These conversations continue to have a big influence on how I define teaching and my day-to-day practice. After years of learning alongside so many teachers who join in these chats, I have grown to believe that teaching comes down to two important questions: How responsive are we to students’ needs? How do we best promote a sense of agency for ALL students? I believe that leveled texts play a significant role in finding the answers to those questions.

Responsive: Leveled Texts a Teacher’s Tool

I attended a conference by Irene Fountas and she said, “A leveled text is the teacher’s tool.” That one statement shaped my whole approach to reading instruction because it rang true. Good books make children want to read. Leveled texts are built on a continuum of reading development. They offer growing complexity for reading behaviors in word study, syntax, and comprehension. It just made perfect sense to me. Then years later I heard Lester Laminack speak, and he said, “The first read of a book is a gift. Let the author do his job.” Those words touched me deeply and shaded the nuance of what reading instruction ought to be. You see, before books can be used as tools, they need to be loved by children. Teaching children how to read is a sacred act, one that requires deference and skill. For these reasons teachers had a lot to share about why leveled texts are responsive tools while also drawing attention to the dangers of their misuse:

A Sense of Agency: Living Readerly Lives

There are so many reasons why my friend Mary inspires teachers all over the country and the world. She is the constant advocate for a child-centered approach. One of her many attributes that I admire is her unflappable adoration for children. She is truly one of our better angels. Giving children access to literacy is essential, and in this quote, she is reminding us that it is our responsibility to see the whole child in that pursuit. To do less would be to undermine who they are. Teaching children how to read is to show them that they have a place in the literate world. Peter Johnston said, “If nothing else, children should leave school with a sense that if they act, and act strategically, they can accomplish their goals” (Johnston, 2004, p. 29). Using leveled texts is one part of how we teach children how to read with growing confidence. Literacy grants students access to an agentive life. In other words, agency and literacy go hand-in-hand:

As I close my post, I want to leave you with this: the goal is not just to teach children how to read, it is to honor who they are as literate beings. Grade level expectations are one thing, labeling a child is quite another. Above all else, we cannot allow anything to interfere with a child’s love for reading, or a teacher’s craft. Believe in your kids, believe in yourself. A skilled teacher, a classroom library, and a room full of readers is the ultimate goal.

Re-examining and Revising Our Thinking to Transform Our Practices: Fidelity: To WHAT and to WHOM? (First of a 5-Part Series)

by Mary Howard

You can revisit our Wakelet chat artifact here

#G2Great launched a five-part series on 4/8/21: Re-examining and Revising Our Thinking to Transform Our Practices. We dedicated our first chat in the series to a topic that is sorely in need of new thinking: Fidelity to WHAT and to WHOM? We also explored fidelity in a series in year 1 of #G2great: Reclaiming Our Professional Language: Spotlight on Fidelity. This was prior to starting a blog on our 2nd anniversary 1/5/16: Looking Back On Our Good to Great Journey.

In order to engage in a discussion about fidelity, it makes sense to begin with a definition:

Synonyms that are associated with “fidelity” are shown in the visual www.WordClouds.com

You may be wondering why the above references suggest the need to re-examine and revise “fidelity” in order to transform our practices. Shouldn’t we want to approach our teaching with dependability, reliability, constancy and such? While these descriptors appear to be desirable qualities, it’s more complicated than a simple yes or no. Rather, it depends on who or what is asking for our fidelity and the degree and form of allegiance expected. It’s actually far less about the qualities and far more about the intent of what we find beneath the surface of those qualities. 

To make this distinction clear, I want to turn to our chat subtitle written in the form of a question we should all be asking: Fidelity to WHAT and to WHOM? Our response to this question should uncover where the fidelity path diverges into widely varying perspectives. The path we choose to take directly impacts our students and has the potential to either make our children the sacrificial lambs or the fortunate benefactors of our directional decision-making.

So let’s take a look at two wide-ranging fidelity paths:

The Dark Side of Fidelity: Rigid Misplaced Trust

Unfortunately, fidelity has morphed into an undesirable stance, largely fueled by our continuing quest to raise standardized test scores. This is driving many schools to seek out quick fixes that are readily available from companies eagerly awaiting a chance to tout their wares for a price. This open sales opportunity door has created an educational marketing frenzy riddled with suspect publishers peddling equally suspect physical or digital products. In many cases, these products are created by individuals with little or no background in education, so they often pay an expert to make them look legitimate. The program is generally connected to assessment used to magically transform the resulting rigid data into rigid preconceived solutions. Schools may also pay consultants to promote the program, warning teachers that success requires following this fail-proof program “with fidelity.” This translates to blind faith in a program destined to reduce students and teachers to instructional sameness even with one-size-fits-all features under the guise of differentiation. Sadly, school or district mandates may offer teachers no option.

The Responsible Side of Fidelity: Fidelity with Flexibility (aka Flexi-delity)

On the other side of the diverging fidelity path are excellent research-based models designed and supported by highly knowledgeable educators and researchers. Two examples are Reading Recovery and Comprehensive Intervention Model. In both cases, research guides all aspects of the model including student-centered assessments that inform instruction. In stark contrast to the above description, these models embrace professional responsibility to the child and the informed moment to moment decisions of highly knowledgeable teachers. In each example, teachers draw from a specific instructional design but their professional agency and informed choices made in the context of teaching are honored and even encouraged rather than vilified. There are no scripts to follow or student activity forms to duplicate because professional learning is at the center of an instructional process where authentic reading and writing are the focal point of all learning experiences. Fidelity in these models are viewed from a lens of flexibility.

Perusing our chat Wakelet, it’s clear that our #G2great friends are as passionate as we are about the topic of fidelity since the twitter style chat conversation proceeded at passion-fueled warp speed. Thankfully I can revisit and capture their wise words so that I can sprinkle twitter wisdom across this post. Fran McVeigh’s opening tweet nicely distinguishes my two diverging paths:

Given my two varying fidelity paths, I hope that I have made it clear that I am not opposed to fidelity but to whom and to what our fidelity is offered. To support this distinction, I use three questions to consider if fidelity fits the dark side, the responsible side or somewhere in between:

  1. Is the program created by highly KNOWLEDGEABLE professionals (vs marketers) who draw from the current research available? 
  2. Does the program encourage educators to use it as a RESOURCE and thus invite their own professional judgment?
  3. Is the program based on AUTHENTIC practices that actively engage students in meaningful, purposeful and responsive reading, writing, talking and thinking?  

Dr. Rachel Gabriel helps us to think about the flaw of fidelity to scripted programs in an incredible ILA webinar with Kate Roberts: The Research-Practice Conversation: Understanding and Bridging the Divide. (Bold print is mine for emphasis)

“You can have the same program and same script but get very different results. Everything is the same except that you are still there and how you express it to kids is different. My art is expressing that information using my own energy and experience and passion.” 

I would be remiss if I didn’t take some liberty in this post by suggesting a third form of fidelity often ignored: Fidelity to our own desires. In some cases, there is no program involved but teachers nevertheless make decisions that are not informed by literacy research. There can be many reasons for this such as the failure of schools to ensure high quality professional learning across the year, preservice teaching assigned to a classroom where limited research practices are evident, lack of mentor support for new teachers, partnerships where less than effective practices are perpetuated and spread, lack of interest in personal professional curiosity that fuels ongoing study, the use of “fun” and “cute” to justify practices or even a lingering appreciation for whatever might be easy and expedient. How can we follow a path leading to research-informed flexible understandings if these things are driving the decision-making bus?

Regardless of whether fidelity plays a role in any instructional experience, I would argue that showing fidelity to a program, practice approach or even personal belief while turning our back on our responsibility to children is not a virtue at all.

I’d like to close with the words of my very wise friend, Susan Vincent, in an interview that Dr. Sam Bommarito shared as I was writing this post: A former reading recovery teacher, trainer and current university professor talks about reading recovery. Susan’s words seem appropriate here since resolving the fidelity issue is inseparably linked to the quality of learning opportunities we are afforded and how we use them to enrich, elevate and extend our understandings in ways that can leave us forever changed. In explaining the life-changing impact of Reading Recovery, Susan says,

“It changed me as a person. It changed me as a risk taker. I learned how to open myself and my teaching up to my colleagues and be vulnerable and say, “Come and watch me teach. Here’s my teaching, help me get better.” When you do that regularly, it just changes you as a person. You become a risk-taker. You become a person who says, “I want to get better all the time.” You become a better learner. After I was trained in Reading Recovery, I knew that I would always be a learner for the rest of my career. I would always want to know the latest research…. It’s not just about learning reading techniques. It’s about becoming a true literacy professional.”

THE BOTTOM LINE OF FIDELITY

As I close this post, I am wondering if we simply perpetuate the status quote as educators or are willing to do the hard work necessary to experience a life-changing professional transformation Susan describes. If research informs practices and dedicated study is seen as a professional commitment, just imagine the impact on our day-to-day teaching. Growing understandings can help us to modify programs, whether mandated or not, or even give us the confidence to move away from them in the future. Most important, this would shift out focus from meeting the needs of some children based on grade level obligations to unwavering responsiveness to the needs of unique learners based on that knowledge. I suspect that you’d all agree that we did not enter this profession to become compliant disseminators. Rather, we were motivated to be professionally responsible decision-makers in schools where professional learning over time is deemed our first priority. If this were the case, then our ever deepening understandings about students would be the catalyst for the responsive professional decisions we make in the name of children. 

The truth is, that this would be a substantially less costly investment of time, money and energy as well as the extensive loss of student learning than we invest in uninformed snake oil salesmen.

Please join us for other chats in our #G2great series shown below

The Anti-Racist Teacher Reading Instruction Workbook

By: Brent Gilson

For a record of this chat you can check out the Wakelet located here.

Last spring for many teachers we were focused on transitioning to online learning amidst a pandemic. We were all focused on the inequity of our education system and how magnified they had become. Then in May another shift occurred in the world as George Floyd was murdered, Black Lives Matter marches occurred the world over and the term Anti-racist was entering the conversations of the education system. The inequity and racism within the education system had moved into focus. Many teachers had already been involved in this Anti-racist work, many more would now be looking to learn to be better for their students and school communities.

The amount of work needing to be done is overwhelming but that does not mean that we can just say, “it is too much I am just going to close my door and pretend like it isn’t happening.” We can’t do this for many reasons but one is that it is very likely the practices that we utilize in our classrooms are contributing to these inequities, are upholding the very education system and traditions that are supported by white supremacy. As Lorena says above we need to reimagine and reevaluate if we are going to make change. Lorena Germán’s The Antiracist Teacher Reading Instruction Workbook provides us with a background on the traits of white supremacy and explores how they show up in our classroom and how we can disrupt them.

What are the traits of white supremacy?

In the workbook Lorena outlines Perfectionism, A Sense of Urgency, Defensiveness, Quantity over Quality, Worship of the Written Word, Only One Right Way and Individualism as traits of white supremacy that show up in our reading instruction. As we began the chat we asked teachers to reflect on what trait they felt most commonly showed up in their instruction.

As I watched and participated in the chat seeing so many different responses for so many teachers I couldn’t help but connect with Mary’s tweet here. So many issues to address and our practice, naming them is the first step but then acting is the next. The workbook helps teachers to identify the traits of white supremacy in their own practice and provides ways in which we can make changes to address them. As the chat continued teachers reflected on each of the traits. Here is a sample but be sure to read through the Wakelet that is linked above.

Perfectionism

Sense of Urgency

Be bouncers, thank you Matthew R. Kay.

Defensiveness

This really was an area I struggled with in the past. This need to say “NOT ME” when someone points out problematic practices. I sadly still see it so much in both EduTwitter (Especially among those folks who profit off the Educelebrity system); this need to defend ourselves rather than listen, to argue rather than understand. Here are a few points from the chat.

Just a sample

I think this post could be thousands of words and I still would not be able to address all the traits Lorena brings up or share the brilliant responses from the chat that her work inspired. As we consider things like Worship of the Written Word, Only One Right Way, Quantity over Quality and Individualism to round out the traits the biggest take away I had was that the system needs to change. We need to be open to other ideas, build community, celebrate all forms of text and build a system that is serving our students. Our students need to be heard, they need to see themselves in the work we are asking them to do, in the texts they encounter and they need to see that they are valued.

So many teachers have asked over the year how they can make their classroom a safer space for all students, how they can disrupt the system that has been built relying on the traits of white supremacy to ensure its own survival. I continue to be one of those teachers. Learning and working to be more Antiracist, more purposeful in my actions to counter racism. This is a work in practice. This workbook provides a blueprint, a guide to interrogate our own practices. Changes may come a teacher at a time, a classroom at a time but it will come if we take those steps for our students. In my own classroom being aware of these traits has led to shifts, away from the old texts and approaches to making more room for student choice. Allowing myself the grace to know that perfection is not the goal but growth always is and being open to feedback as a learning tool. There is so much to be done.

If you have read this or participated in the chat and need a copy of the workbook it can be found on Lorena and her husband Roberto’s website Multicultural Classroom Consulting You can get the electronic version immediately.

Thank you, Lorena, for this work and allowing us to feature it on #g2great.