Expanding the Reach with Small Group Work Blog Series · writing workshop

Pattern-Seeking Strategies to Optimize Efficiency and Effectiveness: Expanding the Reach With Small Group Work

Have you ever gone looking for shark’s teeth at low tide? This has historically been a favorite pastime of my family on our annual trips to Topsail Island, North Carolina, and I am spectacularly hopeless at it. It’s become a bit of a joke. My mom, on the other hand, is a master. She can spot a shark’s tooth from yards away, leaning over to pluck a single tooth out of what looks (to me) like a mess of multicolored shells and stones. Where I get overwhelmed, she knows exactly what she’s looking for: the size, the shape, the color, and the way the sun reflects off the wet surface. (She insists this last part is the key.) 

In the same way that clarity helps a beachcomber to spot the shark teeth in amongst the flotsam, clarity helps me as a writing teacher to spot the writers ready for small group instruction in a workshop. The key is knowing exactly what I am looking for. 

What I am looking for are patterns. 

Pattern-seeking is one of the ways that I keep planning for small group instruction manageable in writing workshop. When I can both anticipate common needs and plan for ways to learn which kids share those needs ahead of time, then I can be much more strategic and efficient with small group instruction.

This “pattern-seeking” is my strategy for making sense of the complexity of embedding small groups for all kids—not just striving writers—in a busy workshop with a wide variety of strengths and needs.

It is easy to get overwhelmed. Pattern-seeking helps me to stay focused and proactive.  

There are two essential parts of my pattern-seeking process that help me to be intentional in the way I approach small group instruction—the first on the planning end, before the unit begins, and the second in my strategies for data gathering, over the course of the study with writers. 

Part 1: Before the Unit of Study Begins

An essential part of my unit planning process is creating the document I will use to capture my conferring notes. This is something I do before each unit begins. If I don’t take time to do this ahead of time, I become the overwhelmed beach comber, sifting through mountains of writing, unsure where to focus my attention and feedback. I’ve written about how and why I do this in a previous post.

As illustrated in the example below (and linked here), the columns of my conferring notes are labeled with prioritized teaching points within the unit. Anticipating teaching points in advance helps me to clarify what I will be looking for in student writing as well as what I will teach. I think about both content/skill and process.

  • What standards/skills/processes matter most in this unit?
  • What will I need to keep front of mind, based on what I already know about writers? 

One of the reasons this system works so well for me is that it is set up to elevate patterns. Being able to see my notes for all writers on just a couple of pages makes it super obvious when I am making notes in the same columns over and over again. I can notice at a glance where writers are demonstrating strength as well as where they require more support.

I have a coding system (upper left hand corner) that makes it easy to mark when I’ve pulled a small group—I circle the box and date it—so I can also see at a glance who has had small group instruction (and on what skills) and who has not yet had any small group instruction. 

As Stacey pointed out in her post yesterday, all writers deserve small group instruction, and this style of conferring sheet makes it really obvious when this is happening (or not yet happening). Because I also have a code for tracking goals set by writers, I can easily identify and pull a small group of writers working on a similar skill or process (at any level) for an accountability/sharing small group. 

These conferring notes definitely get messy over weeks—sometimes I need to make myself a clean copy to have space to add on—but they get messy in a way that helps me to see patterns. I can see what I am coaching into, and I can see where I am having to circle back over and over. I can see where I am not yet focusing in conferring or small groups. Prioritizing teaching points in advance—as well as the evidence I’m seeking in student work—helps me to stay focused in both my conferring and in my small group instruction. 

[Side note: Lesson plans for small group instruction are kept on the same clipboard but on a different type of page than my conferring notes. I definitely need more space to jot down plans for each group and to take anecdotal notes on what happens during the groups.] 

Part 2: During the Unit of Study

Over the course of the unit, I need a variety of ways to gather data around students’ strengths and needs. I need strategies for being in the know, so that I can make strategic decisions about which students to pull, when, and for what purpose. Therefore, I need sources of data designed to draw attention to these same patterns: 

Source #1: Conferring

Conferring is always my number one go-to for learning about writers. I learn so much sitting side-by-side, writer-to-writer, listening to what writers are trying to do and seeing evidence of how it is going in their work. Because of the way I set up my conferring notes, patterns tend to jump out at me. I can tell at a glance which student conferences focused on the same teaching points. This makes it quick and easy to pull a small group either to reteach, to dig deeper/extend, or to check in. I love the way Stacey differentiated between “one and done” small groups and “course of study” groups in her post yesterday. The data I gather from conferring informs both types of groups. 

This might sound like:

  • To reteach: “Each of you is working hard to. . . as a writer. Let’s take a look at how the author of this mentor text has done this same thing. Then we can try it out together (or with our own writing).” 
  • To dig deeper/extend: “I’ve noticed that you’ve all mastered [insert skill here] in your current pieces. Here’s a more sophisticated example of what we’ve been doing so far. What do you notice about how similar and different this is from what you’re doing as a writer? Let’s see if this mentor text gives us more ideas for how we might. . .” 
  • To share/check in: “So this week I had a conference with each of you, where we talked about ways to. . . (Or, in our last small group, we worked on. . .) I pulled you all into a small group today so that you could share examples of where you’re trying this out in your writing. Let’s talk about how it’s going.” 

Source #2: A Data Snapshot (a.k.a. Kidwatching)

I love this strategy at times when I want to gather information from all writers on a single data point within a short period of time. For example, let’s say I’ve taught a series of minilessons on strategies for revision. I’ve modeled ways writers physically make space for revision by cutting/taping their drafts to insert blank paper, attaching sticky notes, embracing the messiness of drafting by crossing out, and using numbers/symbols to mark (and organize) where additions live in the draft. I want to know how writers are applying these strategies, and where they might need more support. 

On the day of my data snapshot, instead of conferring with individual students or pulling groups, I’ll do a quick inventory of all writers first—moving through the room, peeking over shoulders to find out who is using these strategies (and which ones they’re using). This is likely a skill/process I’ve already identified and included on my conferring notes document, but if it isn’t, I can easily make another page with that column (or multiple columns) using my template with writers’ names on it. (See example below and linked here.) I always want to be intentional about  writing down what I’m taking the time to notice on purpose. 

Because I’ve predetermined a specific focus, it only takes a few minutes to find out and document how each student is doing with these revision strategies. I can add a checkmark and/or use my code to quickly note where each student is demonstrating application. With something this visual in nature, I don’t even have to read much of each student’s writing to see how it’s going. At the end of those few minutes, I can already see groups:  

  • Which students still have those perfectly neat drafts they’re afraid to “mess up?” 
  • Which students still understand revision to be the insertion or deletion of a single word here or there? 
  • Which students have been freed up to genuinely elaborate and/or restructure, now that they aren’t worrying about recopying or feeling inhibited by artificial space limitations? 

Each of these categories of understanding/transfer might become a small group—either for a single session or a course of study. I can use the exact same chart I created to capture my data snapshot to check in again after the small group work to see how writers are growing. I’ll just use a different color for each subsequent snapshot/date. 

The data snapshot is an efficient way to gather the information I need to create small groups based on what writers are transferring to the page. The frequency with which I’ll do this depends on what it is I need to know in order to teach forward. . . but I would say it’s a practice I implement about once a week. 

The data snapshot strategy works equally well with something skill-based, but I will typically plan for a little nudge (or formative assessment) to make sure I can see an example from every writer within a short time span. 

Source #3: Schedule a “Try It” (Formative Assessment)

If I want to make sure all students have had an opportunity to apply a high leverage skill so that I can assess how it’s going with a data snapshot, I’ll tack a “try it” on to my minilesson that day. A “try it” is just a defined period of time at the beginning of work time in which all kids are tasked with trying out the specific strategy some place in their current project. It’s kind of like an exit ticket, but in the context of their current writing project—and at the beginning of work time rather than the end. After spending a few minutes on the “try it,” writers jump right back into wherever they had left off with their writing work the day before. 

For example, after a minilesson on using sensory details to establish a specific setting, all kids would “try it,” going into their narratives to look for places they might make their settings more distinct by adding sensory details. After a few minutes, I circle around and do a quick over the shoulder check in on all writers on that specific skill. Again, it just takes a few minutes, and then I know enough about where all writers are with the skill to make decisions about small groups over the next couple of days. 

A variation of this strategy that gets bonus points for layering in student self-assessment is to ask students to mark a place in their writing where they have [insert skill focus here]. Writers mark their work with a sticky note, or it might be a comment in Google Docs. I can either swing around to check in on everyone as they continue writing, or I can ask them to turn it in at the end of workshop. (This way feels more like an exit ticket.) Either way, it gives me an opportunity to efficiently and intentionally gather data on that skill for everyone. This technique saves me the time of searching for evidence of the skill—and having to read everything from everyone—while giving writers an opportunity to engage in some self-reflection. 

To up the reflection layer, I’ll sometimes ask students to share (on the sticky note or in the comment) why they think it’s a good example of the skill, or how it helped them as a writer, or how it helps the reader to [insert skill/strategy here]. 

Closing Thoughts

Humans are pattern-seekers by nature. And like my mom pouncing on those shark’s teeth like a beach-combing maven, knowing what you are looking for makes all the difference. As a teacher of writers, I try to set myself up for success by organizing my conferring notes and my data collection methods to surface the patterns that will allow me to be most efficient and effective with small group instruction. 

Giveaway Info

  • Many thanks to Candlewick Press who is sponsoring a giveaway of ten books. TWO readers will receive FIVE of these books each. The books are A Child of Books, Grow: Secrets of Our DNA, Hoop Kings 2: New Royalty, How to Have a Birthday, If You Take Away the Otter, Mi Casa Is My Home, Rain Before Rainbows, The Barn, The Stars Just Up the Street, and Walrus Song.
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8 thoughts on “Pattern-Seeking Strategies to Optimize Efficiency and Effectiveness: Expanding the Reach With Small Group Work

  1. This was a great post! I love the idea of students putting a post it where they tried a strategy. Do you have a particular planning template you use for small groups? Maybe I missed it in the post.


  2. Thank you for this post! With my first graders, I often ask the children to “try it” for the first 5 minutes after a mini-lesson. Before I started this, I found most of my students would engage in practice during the mini-lesson but not apply it to their writing. I love your ideas for how you plan before the unit and organize and mark up conferring notes. I’ll definitely start trying this before starting a unit. I am always looking for pattern, however, I usually just confer and have made it a goal to begin pulling small groups during writing. I will use your idea in developing charts with content/skill/process, do some observations and conferring, and use the info to pull small groups more often to reinforce those strategies that they need more scaffolding to develop. I’d love to hear more about organization and planning for groups. Thanks again!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow, thank you for sharing your pattern-seeking strategies to support small group writing instruction. Amazing ways to support the young learners in this process.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for sharing all of your wonderful pattern-seeking strategies. I love the efficiency of these strategies and I am very excited to try them in my classroom!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. So many great ideas! One that is new for me is having students mark with a post-it where they’ve tried a strategy for fast formative assessments. Giving that a try today!

    Liked by 1 person

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