Small Groups: Writing Workshop Fundamentals

When I was four, I began noticing and collecting rocks. This led to many rocks. As an adult, I have passed this interest on to my children, and as a family, we can often be found rock hunting on the beaches that surround Michigan. Rocks are each unique and yet there are similarities as well. Color, pattern, size, and texture are among the many visible characteristics rocks possess. When my children sort their rocks into groups, I am not always certain what qualities they are using to determine the placement. The groups are flexible and vary upon each sorting opportunity.

Writers, like rocks, contain unique and sometimes unseen properties. A nudge can uncover a bright spot or strength once left unnoticed. Using a writing workshop model allows a teacher the freedom and flexibility to uncover these unique qualities of the writers within the classroom. Small group work is one way to see your writers with a new lens and reveal bits and pieces of your writers you haven’t seen before.

What is a Small Group?

A small group allows efficiency in our teaching while pairing the qualities of our writers with objectives to nudge them forward. Writers are offered the opportunity to learn from one another while engaging in the mutual benefit of each other’s examples and a teacher’s guidance.

Before we can plan for small group instruction, we need to collect observations, pieces of writing, and review our previous minilesson teaching points. Looking for common needs or qualities within the work of the writers in our classroom is a natural first step toward sorting students into a group setting.

As we begin sorting through our collection of work, being flexible, intentional, and reasonable are important components to consider in each of our planned small groups.

  • Flexible: Are we prepared to adjust the instruction as needed once the group is in motion?
  • Intentional: Is our goal clear and well planned?
  • Reasonable: Do we know the sustainability of the skill we wish to teach?

How to Collect and Polish Small Groups of Writers

Magnify

One tool often used by collectors is a magnifying glass. A magnifying glass allows one to see what might be unseen. When we initially monitor our students’ writing, we can quickly glance for common characteristics or needs. You might equate it to the shape and size of the next step. You will likely see patterns within your notes and observations. As you begin to group students together in your plan, remember to magnify your understanding of what the needs are and what the nudge should be. Think about what strategy or model would be most helpful to the writer. Magnifying the need allows us to identify a specific teaching point that will lead to building a foundation under the writer.

Note: If you are struggling with what to look for or what to observe within a student sample, Melanie’s post on small group work has a nice monitoring checklist. Also, this post articulates with a more primary focus on what to monitor and observe in our youngest writers.

Chisel

When you have identified the needs, look at the size of the groups. Small groups during writing workshop are best when they include three-four students. If you have seven students who all have the same need, try two back to back small groups with the same teaching point. It is likely that you will be more efficient if you chisel the group down to size, as opposed to attempting to reach all seven with your message at the same time.

Pick

Chipping off and picking bits of writers up during the workshop can be tricky to manage. One way to begin is to stay at the meeting area following your minilesson to meet with your first group. The small group is already with you, and the rest of your class is prepped and ready to begin independent writing time. Easing into small groups in this way can make finding the time less daunting. Setting a small goal to meet with one group and confer with two individuals following your minilesson can help you find the rhythm to your workshop structure. When you are ready, and students demonstrate more proficiency during their independent writing time, you can re-adjust and meet with more students each day.

Polish

Much like a minilesson, explained in a post by Stacey within this series, the structure of a small group is very similar. Just as you would carefully plan a minilesson, small group lessons are no different. However, the exception can be when you spontaneously pull together three-four students who are in need of some guidance or re-teaching of a similar or previous teaching point in the midst of your workshop. Small group lessons offer an opportunity to polish a writer’s skills in a specific area that is geared directly toward the need.

This image, from Stacey’s book Craft Moves, clearly indicates the basic structure for a strategy lesson. Click image to enlarge.

Just like in a minilesson, you want to remain clear, offer an opportunity for practice with active engagement in the strategy, and take a moment to allow some independence before students disperse.

Explore

To allow this full immersion within the task, I find that I must walk-away completely from the table or group. This communicates to the students that I now trust them to try it out on their own and allows me a moment to explore the other writers in the room. Stepping away can be difficult; however, it is my belief that if you have pulled students together to nudge them, it is because you feel they are ready to pursue the task independently. The group remains together in the space, and you are then able to check back in with students to note and observe how this true independent practice was utilized.

Before releasing your students back to complete independence, remember to make your expectations clear regarding their use of the strategy from that point forward. I often find I can quickly assess the likelihood of this when I note observations from the active engagement and upon returning from the “walk-away” period of the small group session.

Examine

Even when it doesn’t go well, make a note, reflect, adapt, and continue. Examine the structure of your workshop and where you fit in your small group. Does it work best to start right after your minilesson before students have left the meeting area or is it better to do your small group right before the share portion of your workshop? You may find it best to pull over three-four students in the middle of the workshop. Ask yourself these questions as you watch and guide your small groups toward their next steps.

Quick Tips for Beginners

  • Take time to observe writing behaviors and samples.
  • Keep your groups small and start with one per day.
  • Encourage students with a focused teaching point that nudges their current understandings.
  • Watch and guide engagement within the teaching point and walk away.
  • Make a note for next steps, including, both group notes and individual notes for later reflection.

This is where you maintain your flexibility, noting when something worked or did not. You may see a need to adjust the teaching point or repeat the demonstration again in a different way to encourage success. As you become a seasoned writing workshop teacher, you will become better prepared and more focused.

Next Steps for Seasoned Workshop Teachers

  • Seasoned workshop teachers will be able to come to small group time prepared and ready to tackle the objective. Be sure to have all the tools necessary (charts, demonstration notebook, teacher and student samples or mentor texts).  For more ideas take a look at Melanie’s post on tools for small groups.
  • Allow students to set their own goals or next steps. See this post on student goal setting.
  • Encourage students to lead a small group session with a teaching point they have mastered.
  • Think about trying student seminars, allowing students to choose the focus of their small group lesson. See Melanie’s post here where she discusses student seminars.

Link Round-Up

Want to learn more and need a place to start?

Beth Moore wrote a post with three quick tips for small group strategy lessons.

Melanie wrote a series of three posts all focused on small group instruction.

Suggested Reading

Here are some of my favorite resources when I am planning a teaching point or lesson for a small group.

Strategic Writing Conferences: Smart Conversations that Move Young Writers Forward by Carl Anderson

Note: Anderson’s resource is intended to be used for conferring. However, I have found it has inspired lessons for small group work within my own classroom as well.

Craft Moves: Lesson Sets for Teaching Writing with Mentor Texts by Stacey Shubitz

 The Writing Strategies Book by Jennifer Serravallo

The Big Book of Details: 46 Moves for Teaching Writers to Elaborate by Rozlyn Linder

Information regarding our Twitter Chat on Monday evening, as well as giveaway information, can all be found below. 

Giveaway Information

  • This giveaway is for a copy of Renew! Become a Better — and More Authentic — Writing Teacher. Many thanks to Stenhouse Publishers for donating a copy for one reader. (If the winner has a U.S. address, you may choose a paper or eBook. If the winner has an international mailing address, then you will receive an eBook.)
  • For a chance to win this copy of Renew! Become a Better — and More Authentic — Writing Teacher, please leave a comment about this or any blog post in this blog series by Monday, August 7th at 5:00 p.m. EDT. Beth Moore will use a random number generator to pick the winner’s commenter number. His/her name will be announced in the ICYMI blog post for this series on Tuesday, August 8th.
  • Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment so Beth can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win.  From there, our contact at Stenhouse will ship your book out to you.  (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.)
  • If you are the winner of the book, Beth will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – RENEW BOOK. Please respond to her e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. Unfortunately, a new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.