I studied with Jennifer Serravallo for the first time at a TCRWP Summer Writing Institute in 2006. I was surprised just how much she packed into a week-long course on conferring. The things Jen taught during that course transformed the way I conferred with children.
Just as I was a stronger teacher of writers after having studied with Jen, I always come away from her books feeling like I can conquer more as an educator. In her latest book, Teaching Writing in Small Groups: Grades K-8 (Heinemann, 2021), Jen takes on small-group instruction in ways that will encourage you to re-vision the ways you engaged kids with small group work. Jen does a masterful job of explaining how to choose goals for students, how to use the goals to form small groups, and how to help students meet those goals through a variety of small group lessons with varying levels of teacher support.
Small-group instruction maximizes teacher time while providing highly-individualized instruction, increases engagement among students by building peer relationships, and helps all learners play an active role in becoming a better writer. Small groups have a pre-determined focus set by the teacher and provide students with lean support and immediate opportunities to practice a writing skill. Throughout Teaching Writing in Small Groups, Jen shows readers how to curate small groups that will move every young writer forward by teaching into each child’s greatest area of need and moving them forward. There are video clips throughout the book that illustrate the concepts being presented, which make it feel like Jen is your personal literacy coach. (And what teacher can’t use one of those!?!?)
To help gain a better understanding of what’s inside of Jen’s book, here’s a brief Q&A I did with her:
STACEY: Your book is heavy on goodies in that the online resources are plentiful! One of my favorite goodies are the 15 skill progression note-taking forms, which I wish I had when I was trying to move students forward through small group work when I was in the classroom. Would you talk more about how you envision teachers using them when they’re keeping records of small group sessions?
JEN: Yes! I wanted to make sure to give teachers really practical tools that they could print out and use immediately. The skill progressions are meant as a way to both identify what strategy(ies) may be next up for a student as they work on a goal, and also as a way to monitor progress. I find having the progressions right there on the notetaking forms simplifies and streamlines notes we might take during or immediately after a conference or small group—I will often just date the progression when I see evidence of a student exhibiting a skill which makes the narrative notes I take briefer. Of course, I also talk a lot in the book about how kids don’t always develop along linear progressions and to expect kids to surprise you in all sorts of ways. Still, I hope these are a helpful tool that makes decision-making, progress monitoring, and notetaking simpler for busy teachers.
STACEY: Another goodie I appreciated were the table tents since they act as a cheat sheet, of sorts, to remind teachers of the flow of each kind of small group lesson while they’re getting used to using a variety of small group structures. Talk more about the way the table tents can be used as a scaffold for teachers as they begin to lead different types of small groups?
JEN: In the book I share seven types of small groups—each with slightly different purposes, some that are more helpful to certain grade levels or goals than others, and each with a different structure. I advise in the book that teachers choose one at a time to focus on and practice, and the table tents are meant as a reminder of the way they “go,” their structure. I did these table tents for Teachers Guide to Reading Conferences as well and teachers and coaches responded really well to them so I thought I’d include them as a free downloadable tool for this book, too!
STACEY: In the “Understanding the Principles of Effective Guided Instruction” chapter, you discussed the types of small groups which teachers can lead. How do you suggest teachers support striving writers without over-scaffolding (or maybe it’s over-supporting) them? Also, do you think that using a moderate amount of support, but increasing the frequency of time spent with a group of striving writers could be more helpful than providing them with small-group types that have a heavier type of support?
JEN: This is a really important question. It’s crucial as writing teachers that we find where students are, and target them with strategies that can help, always keeping in mind that our goal is to support student’s independent practice. We can’t always be sitting beside them, nor should we! Yes, sometimes we might meet with them more frequently, or/and adjust the types of groups we lead, the ways we set children up to practice during the small group, and the amount of support we give them as they practice. The different group types I mention in the book, the ways we might introduce strategies, and different considerations for giving feedback all come into play when figuring out what the “just right” amount of support is so that they are both engaging in productive struggle when they are with us in a group so they learn and grow, AND so that they are equipped to work independently once the group has concluded. This is a theme throughout the whole book and I’m glad you asked about it.
STACEY: What’s your next project?
JEN: I’m always working on something! I’m working on a partial Spanish translation for this book now, with one of the Spanish-speaking consultants from my team. It’ll include new original student work in Spanish, sections from the book that go with that work will be translated, and all charts that include student-facing language will be translated. All of the notetaking forms with skill progressions, too! We hope to get that out soon to support teachers who teach in bilingual and dual language classrooms.
Click here to download a sample chapter of Jen’s book.
Both the book and the accompanying online resources for Teaching Writing in Small Groups will help educators add to their repertoire of possibilities for engaging students with small-group work. If you’re looking for ways to provide highly individualized writing instruction for your students, you’ll come away with lots of practical ways to engage them after reading Teaching Writing in Small Groups.
This giveaway is for a copy of Teaching Writing in Small Groups, Grades K-8 by Jennifer Serravallo. Many thanks to Heinemann for donating a copy for one reader. For a chance to win this copy of Teaching Writing in Small Groups, please leave a comment about this post by Friday, June 4th at 11:59 p.m. EDT. I’ll use a random number generator to pick the winners, whose names I will announce at the bottom of this post, by Tuesday, June 8th. You must have a U.S. mailing address to enter the giveaway. Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so I can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win. From there, my contact at Heinemann 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, I will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – SMALL GROUPS. Please respond to my 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.
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Jan. G.’s commenter number was selected so she will win a copy of Jen’s new book.
All images in the post were used with permission from Heinemann Publishers.