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Urgent Small Groups: Eating the Whole Cookie

“Watch this!”  I observed as my little five year-old  buddy Eric gently pulled the dark sandwich-like cookie apart.  As he did so, he revealed a creamy white layer of sugary frosting that, until now, had been nestled in between two thin, hard round biscuits.  Being five years old myself, I uttered, “Whoooaa…coooooool…”  Then, holding the side with no white icing, Eric proceeded to use his front teeth to scrape the apparently delicious white substance off the inside of the cookie.  “I only eat the middle,” he bragged.  And that was my introduction to Oreo cookies.  But I wondered, Why only the middle?

As writing workshop teachers, we know our classes are a little like a layered cookie; not all writers come to us writing “at grade level.” It is always a mixture of skill levels.  So one way we work to organize our instruction centers around responsiveness.  Who needs what teaching? we constantly wonder.

As a staff developer and literacy coach, I often recommend that teachers think through an “If – Then” lens when it comes to planning and/or creating instruction.  In general, we might think about this loose rule:

  • If 80% or more of students in the class need the lesson, then we teach it as a 10-12 minute minilesson to the whole class.
  • If, say between 30% (a third or so) and 70% (three quarters or so or a little less) need the lesson, then we consider teaching it in small groups.
  • If just a few kids need the lesson, then we plan some intentional partnership conferences or individual conferences.

Last Saturday, at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project Saturday Reunion, Mary Ehrenworth, Deputy Director of Middle School, led a session on working with strong writers.  For those of us using the Writing Units of Study (Heinemann, 2014), Mary reminded us that the minilessons are designed to reach and teach to “the middle”- that is, those writers who perhaps may not stand out as our strongest, but would also not be considered our “struggling” or “weaker” writers.  The middle. We might consider them the middle of the Oreo.  And teaching the minilesson (the whole class instruction), equates to consuming the icing in the middle of the Oreo.  It feels so delicious when it’s done!  And yet, knowing that the minilesson is likely best suited to only most of the class (not the entire class), we might wonder:  what about the other two parts of the cookie, our highest flyers and our most needy writers?

Mary introduced a new term on Saturday (new to me, anyway): Urgent Small Groups.  This work- both the planning and the execution- is important.  She explained how recent longitudinal studies have shown that students who in early years perform as strong writers do not remain strong writers into middle school.  Rather, they slip to the middle of the pack- or worse, they become unmotivated to write.  Why is that?  Well, as educators, it is likely no secret to us as to why this might be true.  As a classroom teacher, I certainly remember my internal dialogue about the strongest writers.  It sounded something like this, “She’s great! What a writer!  No need to worry about her… I better concentrate on these guys over here… they definitely need some serious help!”  Sound familiar?  You’re not alone!  We often scramble to shore up our most divested and less proficient writers, leaving the “good writers” to fend for themselves.

This is where urgent small group work might come into play… if we know our minilessons are targeting our mid-level writers (i.e., those writers who present as on-track for progressing at grade level), we might devote some instructional energy to our more urgent population: strong writers (already writing above grade level), and those who are not yet writing at grade level.

One tool and protocol to help us do this work is the writing on-demand and the thin-slicing protocol.

  1. Writing On-demand— Beginning a journey of study with a quick (one period or 45 minutes in the middle school), open-ended writing on-demand allows us to see what students bring to the writing table.  What do students already have automaticity with as writers?  What are their strengths?  What are their next steps?
  2. Thin slicing – If you are unfamiliar, this term originates with Malcolm Gladwell and his New York Times Best-seller, Blink.  Essentially, thin slicing is a term used for the phenomenon of training your mind to discover a lot from a small amount of data.  Mary suggests a three-step process (to be in done in collaboration):

Step One: Glance (not read) at student on-demands for 5-10 minutes, and pre-sort them into three piles: High, medium, low.

Step Two:  Look at the writing again, and re-sort the pieces.  Still looking quickly, thin slice for kids who write with craft and/or meaning- those are the high writers; kids writing with perhaps not much craft but some structure- those are medium; lower writers will be fairly simple to spot.  In this phase, we may move one piece from one pile to another.

Step Three:  Select three emblematic pieces, one from each pile.  The task here is to try and select three students who represent a larger swath.  These students, Mary suggests, can be tracked over time, both across a year and across multiple years.  Are these students growing? If you own the Writing Pathways book for your grade level(s), Mary suggests matching these three pieces to exemplars provided; what level are these students writing at currently? Beginning of the year?  End of the year?  Are they possibly writing at the grade level above?

Once students have been sorted, we can then begin to think, “What will the urgent small group work need to look like for my strongest writers? My more emerging writers?”

I never did learn why Eric only ate the middle of the Oreo.  To this day, it remains a mystery.  As teachers of writing though, we know all our writers matter, not just the middle.  But sometimes, the pull to teach to our middle or perhaps devote all small group and conferring time to our more desperate situations is so strong that we forget about that other part of the cookie- our strongest writers.  Let us not forget them!

How do you get to everyone?  We would love to hear from you?




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Lanny Ball View All

For more than 27 years, Lanny has taught, coached, presented, staff developed, and consulted within the exciting and enigmatic world of literacy. With unyielding passion and belief in the possibility of workshop teaching, Lanny has worked to support students, teachers, and school administrators around the country in outgrowing themselves as both writers and readers. Working first as a classroom teacher, then as a coach and TCRWP Staff Developer, Lanny is now a literacy specialist, working and living in the great state of Connecticut. Outside of literacy, he enjoys raising his three ambitious young daughters with his wife, and playing the piano. Find him on this blog, as well as on Twitter @LannyBall. Lanny is also a co-author of a blog dedicated to supporting teachers and coaches that maintain classroom writing workshops,

11 thoughts on “Urgent Small Groups: Eating the Whole Cookie Leave a comment

  1. With all due respect (and I know it’s not your terminology) I understand the message here. We want to make sure we are reaching ALL students, and not neglecting anyone. I however, do not feel the term “urgent” is appropriate or necessary in this circumstance. Teachers have enough feelings of anxiety and “urgency.” Do we really want to add more to that stress level? I know I already have a full plate of worry.


    • Lisa, thanks for your comment. Yes, it’s absolutely true that the life of a teacher is high stress, and the current machine of reform exerting its influence is only worsening the situation. I think Mary’s message might have actually been anti-anxiety. I interpreted her as advising us to prioritize those writers who are sometimes underserved. The term “urgent” seemed to be code for, don’t try to do it all. Economize your time and try to get to these kids. Sorry if the word urgent added to your worry as a teacher! Thanks for all you do!


      • I understood the overall message of not neglecting the outliers. I guess to me, the word urgent seemed a contradiction in this case, or just didn’t seem to fit. Urgent always carries a meaning of critical need/state of emergency for me. Therein lies the stressor in the use of the word, but it’s good to know that wasn’t her intent.


  2. Great piece, Stacey! I love how you sandwich the instruction with the childhood moment. Interesting the small group prioritizing and it’s intentional (or unintentional)!effects. What I especially appreciate about how you write this piece are the step-by-step sequences teachers can use and put into play to assess writers in their room. I wonder, did Ehrenworth talk at all about conferring— about shifting some of the instructional time from small groups to more personalized segments? Just curious.


    • Hi Lee Ann- Thank you for the kind words! Mary talked about a number of things during the session, including ways to strengthen writing-reading connections. But I’m saving some of that content for a future post 🙂 Didn’t want this post to go on and on! Thanks, again! -Lanny


  3. Lanny,
    Such a good question: How do you get to everyone? Keeping all those plates spinning at the same time – that just in time. Love that title – “Urgent Small Groups” . . . this thinking will need to stay with me for a bit! 🙂


    • Yes, there are always so many plates spinning it seems. Which is why purposeful collaboration and planning are so important! As always, thank you for your comment, Fran 🙂


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