Distance Learning · personal narrative · small group

Virtual Small-Group Instruction

What keeps you up these days?

I’ve been averaging anywhere between 5-6 hours of sleep each night. A cavalcade of thoughts enters my mind the minute I lay my head down onto my pillow. We may be sharing the same thoughts and concerns:

  • Will there be a global Zoom shut down again?
  • What should I do if the students’ computer lags and I need to hear them?
  • How can I meet the needs of my students?
  • What does my schedule look like tomorrow again?
  • What will I do if the student turns off his screen and I want to help him?
  • What if my student doesn’t show up again to class?

Small Group Instruction

The list of concerns goes on, but as I have learned from Meghan Hargrave, “Hold tight to what we know works and let go of concerns that we can’t control.” If a student turns off his Zoom screen because he doesn’t want to confer with me, I can’t reach into the Zoom screen and turn it back on for him. I have harnessed my energy into factors that are in my control. Factors that I can control are developing positive relationships with students and their caregivers, keeping a consistent schedule,and above all, utilizing best practices that converge from brick and mortar into distance learning.  

In August, Jonah Edelman hosted a webinar through the International Literacy Association called, “Teaching in Turbulent Times.” The presenters Ernest Morrell and Nell Duke discussed how distance learning can be effectively used to facilitate small group instruction, and that small group instruction has significant advantages over whole group instruction. One of these advantages include how small group instruction helps build and foster relationships with students. “A group of 4-5 students are much easier to engage in learning than a 25-35,” according to Duke.

Grouping Students

In a traditional school model, my small group instruction vacillated between homogeneous groups and heterogeneous writing groups. My small groups in writing were sometimes based on a specific skill or strategy and often consisted of writers at different levels. Other times I would facilitate strategy groups that would have writers at the same level in order for me to provide students the scaffolds necessary to move to the next level. More recently, I have come to rely on Duke’s advice of grouping students based on interests, and sometimes grouping students based on level of extrovertness. A group of 4-5 extroverts virtually can be difficult to manage while a group of 4-5 introverts presents the challenge of getting active engagement by the group. Below are some additional specific grouping strategies to maximize intervention time with students virtually.

Option 1

Teach a whole group mini-lesson, then send students into individual breakout rooms and ask a group of 4-5 students to stay in the main session with you. 

Option 2

Keep the entire class writing in the main session, and give students the option to turn off their screen and mic. While students in the main session write, pull a group of 4-5 students into a breakout room. 

Option 3

Set a scheduled time to meet with each small group. You can let students know at the beginning of each week when their live small group would meet or you could have preset schedules. 

From Grouping to the Rally

The following is a special Small Group Instruction writing strategy I learned from Annie Taranto at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. I had the opportunity to coach and co-teach this structure with one of our third grade teachers, Tanya Gray. Try to deliver a class of 20 third graders who just turned their screens back on from break. Mrs. Gray, just delivered a whole group mini-lesson from the personal narrative unit of study. After the mini-lesson and break, writers were sent off into individual breakout rooms. She asked four students to stay in the main room to talk about their writing. Mrs. Gray and I determined this group needed more support on making their stories come alive.  The Reading and Writing Project calls this the rally stage. It’s a huddle and a gathering with the purpose of sharing with students in a positive but subtle light the importance of developing passion for their writing.

“I called you here today because Mrs. Gray and I were listening to your stories on Seesaw last night. We noticed you are all writing stories that were from true moments in your life. When I heard your stories more closely, I noticed I could teach you something that could take your stories from here (I put my hand on my shoulder) to here (I placed my hand over my head).”

Launch and Coach

Next, I showed them a piece of personal narrative and asked the group to read it on their own, and to give me a thumbs up when they were done. Note that this sample personal narrative is written omitting the three techniques of character dialogue, actions, and thinking. My goal was to support students to intrinsically discover the importance of adding these techniques to help liven up a piece of writing.

Next, I asked the group to talk to each other about what they think the story could use to take it to the next level. Students were encouraged to share with each other what they thought the story was missing, while I got to listen. I was excited to hear comments such as, “Maybe the character could talk or think to himself in his head?”

I recorded all the ideas I heard students say on post-it notes and shared it back with them. After that, I channeled students to add one or more techniques into the shared piece. As students talked out, I used prompts like, “What could he say when the dog wasn’t there?” and “What would you say?” Finally, students suggested we revise the piece to go something like this: 

Link and Teach Toward Tomorrow

After the practice piece of personal narrative, I asked students to find a spot in their personal narratives where they could add one or more of these techniques into their writing. I waited and watched them work live for 3 minutes. I ended by reminding the group that they can use dialogue, action, and thinking to make their stories come more alive at any time.

Sample Schedules – Below are sample schedules that third grade teacher, Tanya Gray and second-grade teacher, Rhonda Barnes use. You will notice that small group instruction is embedded into their daily schedules.  


What are the implications of small group instruction during distance learning? It is proving to my team and I to be an effective approach to reaching diverse learners. It is building positive relationships with peer to peer and with the teachers. Small group instruction is also a time for students to try out the hard parts of school within a low risk environment. Virtual teaching is not for the faint of hearts. It is hard on all parties involved. However, keep in mind that best practices are best practices, even in a virtual classroom.