Small Grouping as a Verb
A small group lesson is beautiful. The focus! The discussions! The connections! The honesty! The learning! The insight! Mathematically, however, if a teacher is teaching 4 students in a small group, there are 20-30 other learners on their own. Not great odds! If the 20-30 ‘others’ are busy with, well, ‘busy’ work, that defeats the beauty of the small group. I thought, brainstormed, tried, thought some more… and asked the experts (kids, of course). Our goal was meaningful learning experiences that could be carried out independently. None of these suggestions are magic, but together it worked like magic.
THE BUY IN
Here is where all of your salesmanship skills come in to play. You are selling the Learning Process. The Joy of Learning. The Growth Mindset. Get your pitch ready and be ready to revisit this topic often. Get those kids to believe that learning is power, learning is meaningful, learning is sexy. Well, they don’t like that S word… maybe COOL? Sell it! It may take a week or two, longer for the Goofballs that I’ll mention later. Talk about the excitement of learning. Once students buy into the learning, growing concept, behavior issues settle down and engagement goes crazy.
NO ONE LIKES BORING
For the Others (those 20-30 not in a small group), I worked at designing engaging work that kept their focus. When a concept required repetition, I added a QR code check, or a partner check. Variety is key, so I kept a list of TYPES of learning experiences while I planned: technology, games, real life, partner, writing, literature, project, videos, puzzles, projects, challenges, research, mentoring. Sometimes we get into a rut, so the list helped me stray from boring.
Easy equals boring in a kid brain. They love the ‘just the right’ challenge. Since that sweet spot is different for every kid, I offered choice of ability. When there are 20-30 Others in your classroom, you want to make sure they are able to work independently. I used a MENU method with three columns - MASTERY, APPLY, EXTEND. Students who hadn’t mastered the concepts worked in MASTERY and then into APPLY. Those brilliant students who are smarter than the teacher spent most of their time in EXTEND, where the could go deeper with the concepts. Designing learning that takes a student deeper is a great teacher challenge! BTW, I like the word ‘Mastery’ because there is dignity in mastering the concepts.
NOT SO RANDOM
My small groups were strategically random. I called 3-5 students around my table for our focused lesson. From an outsider, it would seem that I randomly called up students. I sat where I could see the whole class, of course. In a perfectly behaved classroom, I would choose by ability level. I started with low and if a kiddo was struggling, I would have him/her stay through the next group lessons (and they are magically the one who ‘got it’ first!). If there was chatter in the classroom, I chose a chatter-er and left their partner-in-crime to work independently. If I noticed a student was staring off into space, I chose that kiddo. I could innocently ask, “What are you working on." to get them back on track.
How many of you teachers have checked your amazon order, Facebook status, or Instagram account during a workshop? No? Well, then were you the one leaning over to tell your friend about your weekend escapade! As adults, we would be hard pressed to be silent for hours on end and day after day. When I would hear kids chatting, I gave them a mixture to connect. These are great skills that they should be learning. Yes, there is work to be done, but I was in this for the long game. I also kept a sweet sounding chime for the times when the chatting was to much. Overall, the class had a low murmur!
One routine that I stuck to religiously was modeled for me in my early days of teaching. Before we set out on the ‘workshop’ portion of our class. I asked two questions, “If someone walked in, what would our classroom look like? If someone walked in, what would our classroom sound like?" It seemed to focus our behavior and the expectation came from the students. It took less than 60 seconds.
EMPTY CHAIR RULE
My students wanted to have access to me while I small grouped, so we implemented the EMPTY CHAIR. I always kept an empty chair for those kiddos who needed my help.
Most classes have one or a few goofballs who have difficulty working on their own. I gave them options. We love all love options! They could sit at the SOLITUDE DESK so they could focus, they could sit near me (next to the EMPTY CHAIR), or they could partner with of my choice. They usually stayed close to me. I showered them with positive reinforcement until they built up their stamina to work on their own. Come up with your own options and make it sound like you are giving the ‘GIFT’ of options.
If they Others are engaged in their awesome learning experiences and I am in the middle of a great small group lesson, no one likes to be interrupted if noise gets loud. Stopping each time the noise level increased would stop the flow of learning, so we incorporated a sweet sounding chime. The chime was meant to bring the noise to the level of murmuring that we love.
CHEATING or COLLABORATING?
Hmmm! With 20-30 Others in my classroom, I had to come up with a plan for students who needed help. We established that collaboration was part of learning. Our classroom was focused intently on learning, and none of us learn in a vacuum. It was interesting to watch the allies that were formed in the name of Learning. Imagine yourself in a college Physics class where the teacher made you sit at your desk without talking. Scary? Now imagine a class where you could work on your own if you got it, but could work with a friend or that brainy kid you don’t know well.
NOT A FREE FOR ALL!
Choice based classrooms are not a free for all. Not every student completes the same work. I never used the word ‘quota’, but I thought it. If I had fifteen assignments on my menu for the week, we would discuss the number of assignment would reasonable amount to finish. We discussed this as a class so they had more ownership with the accountability. I kept a checklist. If a student did not manage their time well, I gave them extra time during the day - elective time, recess, lunch, before school. Accountability helps students focus. Time management is a skill most adults struggle with, what a great opportunity to teach time management.
LOSE THE RED PEN
Ease up on grading. We are used to grading everything! Shift to just grading some things. I once challenged my fifth graders to memorize the state capitals. I studied all winter break. I KNEW those capitals! Sitting down to take that test was crazy stressful. Heart beating. Any sound made me lose track of my thoughts. I shushed everyone so I could concentrate. South Carolina! Columbus? Columbia! I missed two. I shifted my teaching practice to allow for learning experiences that were meant for learning
Can you imaging if a toddler was graded ever time he stumbled? What if we corrected every mispronounced word? When you 20-30 students you want to work independently, let them have some learning experiences. When I eased up on graded, kids bought into the learning process.
SOMETIMES DIFFERENTIATION LOOKS DIFFERENT
Most, almost all, students love having choice and find empowerment in being able to have some say in the course of their day. For a few, choice is HIGHLY STRESSFUL. When I encountered my first kiddo who was experiencing anxiety with choice, I was shocked! “ Do you want me to choose for you?” “Yes.” In utter dismay, I made her an agenda. At first I thought my choice idea was a failure, but the light bulb came on - It occurred to me that this is true differentiation.
WHATEVER YOU DO, DON’T SKIP THIS
Not every day or activity was great. In the true spirit of growth mindset, I asked my students for daily feedback. I was able to model what learners do - reflect, adjust, try again. They also analyzed their learning process. Simple questions with a lot of listening. They became owners the process and aware of their own process. They saw that not everyone sees the world as they do.
Which activity helped the most?
Which activity was most engaging? (engagement=learning, right?)
What experience seemed useless, easy, boring, difficult?
What do you do when struggle?
How would you tweak our activities?
What type of activity helps you learn?