Teaching Small Groups in the Middle School Writing Workshop

“What is this thing?” Smiling up at my uncle Jim, I knew his Christmas gift was something cool, but I had never seen one before.  “It’s called a ‘Rubik’s Cube’,” he answered.  “And there’s a book to help us solve it.”  Glancing back down at the colorful cube in my hands, I was both excited and flummoxed.  I turned the rows of cubes vertically and horizontally, finding myself intrigued by how I might “solve” such a puzzle.  It seemed, well, impossible.  After several minutes of manipulating the cube, my uncle said, “Let’s take a look at that book.”

For many middle school teachers, planning and teaching small groups in writing workshop feels a little like the Rubik’s Cube; like this famous puzzle, there is a sense that small groups are doable (somehow, maybe?), yet the orchestration of all the many parts can make them feel overwhelming and perhaps even insurmountable.  If you feel this way, know that you are not alone.

So how might we begin to think about this work in a way that helps small groups feel more within the “challenging, but doable” category, and less in the “It’s-impossible-and-I’ll-never-get-this-down” category.  Let’s begin with the ‘why’…why teach small groups, anyway?  After all, as I have written about before, taking a bird’s eye view and understanding the ‘why’ of what we do is a wise place to start.

Why Small Groups?

Back in August of this year, Betsy wrote about small groups in writing workshop.  In her post, she wrote, “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.”  This is certainly one reason for small groups: it allows us to see our writers in perhaps a new way.

In addition to this excellent reason, small groups are also the most efficient way to differentiate our instruction.  Since all writers bring different strengths and weaknesses, it makes sense that we try to group writers together with common needs.

And one final ‘why’ for small groups is arguably the most important: perhaps even more important than the content of what we teach in small groups is the act of attention and proximity.  Research has shown that writers produce more writing when they are in close proximity to their teacher.  Just the mere act of pulling kids close to us and bestowing our full attention on just them (and their needs) can make all the difference. Think of the implicit message we are sending to our students: “You are a writer, and what you have to say matters to me.”

Ways to Plan Small Groups

When my uncle and I began to read the book on how to solve the Rubik’s Cube, we noticed that the author’s approach was to teach one “layer” at a time.  It was only after we figured out how to solve the first layer that we would take on the challenge of the second layer.  In small groups, our first layer is planning.  Consider the following steps:

(1)  Meet with colleagues and decide: what four or five things are we hoping our students will get better at across this unit?  Consult standards, rubrics, checklists, and knowledge of students’ writing.  Name those four to five things and write them down.

(2)  Next, begin analyzing student work.  Depending on what phase of the writing process you and your students might be currently writing within, you might consider the following ways to begin planning groups within the skills or strategies you named in step one:

  • Study on-demands – If just beginning a unit, many teachers find it helpful to ask students to complete a quick, one-period “on-demand” (timed) writing piece in which the teacher provides a generic prompt to which the students will write.  With no teacher assistance or input, these pieces can provide a true glimpse into our writers’ current skill levels.  Spend some time placing kids into groups based on the needs you identified in step one.
  • Look at drafts – If students have already generated some ideas and drafted them, collect the drafts and study them. Who needs what instruction? Sort and categorize your students.
  • Imagine predictable scenarios – Sometimes, teachers rely on their knowledge of kids to imagine what work will likely be challenging.  Create a sheet with boxes and take it to class with you.  As students write, place names in the boxes.
  • Study writer’s notebooks – The writer’s notebook is an integral part of any writing workshop.  Teachers sometimes ask students to flag a strong entry and then use those entries for forming small groups.
  • Researching the room on-the-run – During independent writing time, teachers sometimes research the room, writing down names and grouping students by need.  This can be challenging, but is a possible way to at least get started planning small groups

(3) Once groups are formed, plan some short, concise instruction.  For support, consult the If… Then… Book, mine a mentor text, look through Jen Serravallo’s The Writing Strategies Book, or use your own writing… use whatever resources will allow you to quickly come up with a teaching point for each group.  Remember, the teacher’s main job in small groups is to set kids up to work in their own writing (see next section)- not to plan a ten-minute lecture, conduct a discussion about a strategy, or hand writers a worksheet!

(4)  Schedule groups across the week.  Some teachers find it helpful to create a quick chart that lists which groups will meet on specific days.

Architecture of a Small Group

Small groups, like writing conferences, sometimes work best when following a tried-and-true architecture.  For example, consider the following components:

  1.  Say what you’ve noticed:  After providing an encouraging compliment to the small group, we say what we’ve noticed in their writing.  We phrase it as a next step, versus something they’re “doing wrong” or “need to fix.”  For example, we might say, “I’ve been studying your work, and I’ve noticed you guys really have the structure of essay down pat.  So I’ve been thinking about you and what your next step might be, and I think I’ve noticed you’re ready for an elaboration strategy that will take your writing to the next level…you guys ready for a challenge?”
  2. Teach:  Using a mentor text or our own writing, we then teach the group (“Today what I want to teach you is…”). Work to keep teaching under two minutes.
  3. Get them working:  After a brief, concise teach, we ask the students to try out what was just taught– right there in front of us (not back at their seats).  We might say, “Okay, try that now.  Go ahead and start working and I’ll be coaching in…”
  4. Coach in:  As students work, then coach each student individually, using lean but encouraging prompts.  Tailor teaching to each individual student, moving quickly from student to student.  Try to “make it around” the group at least twice.

When students appear to be experiencing success with the strategy we’ve taught, we send them off to continue working independently.  Sometimes we might hold one or two a bit longer for more coaching.  It’s important, however, that we remember we are not teaching for mastery.  Many or most kids will remain in a phase of approximation, even after the small group is taught.  That’s okay!  I remember my uncle’s approach to supporting me in solving the Rubik’s Cube: “We’ll learn this over time, together, bit by bit.  You’ll get this.”

The point of small group work is to lift the level of each student’s work from where it was before the small group began.

It’s Not About Perfection

Over time, I eventually solved the Rubik’s Cube.  With my uncle’s support and acceptance of gradual mastery, what felt impossible- at first-  became possible. Right before my eyes.  And as I think back, I realize I would have never solved it without bringing intentionality or a spirit of adventure to the task.

We must always remember that everything is hard before it’s easy.  So if small groups seem hard at first, we must give ourselves permission to not be good right away.  It’s okay to be mediocre at first!  As my wonderful colleague, Kate Roberts, taught me, “Doing a terrible small group is better than not pulling one at all.”

Perhaps small group work might become a New Year’s Resolution?  Let us know your thoughts!  And have a safe and happy holiday season!