Last November, when Amy Ellerman shared her post, Are We Cutting The Right Corners? I shared it with everyone I knew. In this post, Amy acknowledged that teaching is hard, and while skipping the planning of small groups might feel like an opportunity to take something off the overloaded plate, there are clear benefits to putting plans down on paper. Her reasons for writing our plans down included lowering stress levels, decreasing decision-making fatigue, and making small groups more focused and intentional. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend you take a few minutes to check it out!
As a K-5 literacy coach, I’ve been reflecting on the top tools that I share over and over again when working with teachers. I found that the tools I’m reaching for most often all support the work of purposeful planning of small groups. These are also the tools I see teachers regularly using, which have become part of the system that helps their workshops run with purpose and efficiency.
This simple t-chart is a great place to keep individual records on a student. I like to start a new t-chart for each unit of study, first adding strengths and next steps when looking at initial drafts or on-demand pieces. This document can then become a record of conferences and small groups. When I sit down to confer with a child, I often circle something I have noted on the Next Steps column to teach into. After meeting with a child, I add the date and a quick note about our work together. On-the-spot noticings can also be jotted down as possible next steps for another time.
Keeping a class set of these t-charts in a folder makes them easy to pull out and look for trends. You can easily stack a few t-charts that highlight similar needs and form a quick small group of students.
Before starting a unit, it is often helpful to think about predictable small groups. What small groups can you anticipate, either from teaching the unit in years past or from what you already know about your writers? It can be helpful to think about small groups in various buckets, including writing habits and process, structure, development, and conventions. This document is the perfect place to begin listing those small group ideas so that you’re ready to add names as the need arises.
You can also look for trends gathered from your individual conferring notes to form small groups. Clustering these students together allows you to use your time more efficiently, meeting with students with similar needs at once.
Grouping students into small groups is one thing. Making those small groups actually happen is another. This document has been a game-changer for teachers. Even with the best intentions, it’s easy to get sidetracked during a writing workshop. Making a plan for small groups across a week helps to ensure that the small groups actually happen. Once you get this up and running, a document like this almost runs itself. As you finish a small group and leave students with something to think about or work on, you can schedule your next meeting with them right then and there. “When we meet on Thursday, I’ll check in on how that strategy is working for you!”
Some teachers have even recreated this weekly grid as a display in their classroom, where kids can see who is on the schedule for a small group each day. This system helps to keep the teacher accountable for pulling the small groups. It also increases accountability for the students to continue the work of the small group while independently writing. They come to expect and look forward to coming back together to share what they’ve been working on and continue to learn together.
Each of these planning tools can be printed and used as a record of teaching and how children have responded. I know many teachers that scribble notes on these planning documents, either amid a small group or in the moments right after the group ends. These notes then help them with future planning. Writing our plans down leads to reflection and more specific discussions, targeted plans, and next steps.
I don’t recommend printing out all of these tools and trying to put them into place all at once. Instead, think about where your current planning practices fall. Are you the kind of teacher that is already taking individual conferring notes? Your next step may be looking for patterns or trends among the students in your class. Do you have your students organized into similar needs but find that you can’t make time to get to everyone? Then, you might be ready to try making a plan to get to more groups across your week.
Wherever you are, having a plan for your small groups matters. I guarantee you’ll feel really good about the work you get to do with students based on your plans. Also, your students will look forward to this targeted time with you. You will all marvel over all the ways the writing in your classroom grows when you take the time to plan for this valuable time in your writing workshop.