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I'm All Ears! Small Group Instruction in Reader's Workshop



Edward knew what it was like to say over and over again the names of those you had left behind. He knew what it was like to miss someone. And so he listened. And in his listening, his heart opened wide and then wider still. (page 103)
Kate DiCamillo, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

It had been a long day.  I was teaching my third guided reading group in my reader's workshop block. I was tired, cranky and congested with a sinus infection. My kids had been especially energetic; I think kids can sense a teacher's weakened state.  They sniff it out the way vampires sniff out fresh blood. My students seemed to be feeding on my depleted energy.  I just wanted the day to be done. 

I wrote the teaching point for my guided reading group on my easel, and began to teach the reading strategy, but Andy would not put his hand down.  I tried signaling him that I'd get to him after I was done.  It didn't work. Finally, I just told him that I wanted him to wait.  

"But, I have something to share!" he moaned. 

"Okay, Andy. Make it quick." I replied.

"I'm thinking that 'Daybreak in Alabama' is connected to that article you had us read on newsela! You know how he says in that poem that he's gonna put black and white hands touching each other? I think the poem is kinda like his dream for Selma. Because the poem is set in Alabama, like the march."

I blinked a couple of times, as I listened to Andy. I think the hair might've stood up on the back of my neck a bit. There might've been goosebumps on my arms. In my mind, I heard the angel choirs singing the Hallelujah Chorus, and a small voice whispered, "You forgot to listen, Tracy."

When teachers plan for small group instruction, either guided reading or strategy groups, active listening is the most important thing they can do to prepare.  So often, teachers are conditioned to talk about what they are teaching.  We write the teaching point on the board, and use an "I can..." statement. We say things like, "How am I going to fit grammar in?" and "I've got to teach syllabication." 

These are important things to do, but we can't lose sight of the fact that we are teaching students, not subjects. Hyper-focusing on the subject makes small group instruction teacher-focused, when it is often the go-to strategy for tier 1 and tier 2 interventions. In order for small group instruction to reach its instructional potential, it needs to be student-focused, and teachers need to be active listeners.

How do we maintain this balance in our instruction? It's doable. Put on a pair of rabbit ears, say to yourself, "I'm all ears!" and keep reading. 

"How's It Going?"


My small group is gathered on the carpet in front of me. We sit criss-cross applesauce, with our books in our laps, our reader's notebooks and pencils on the floor beside us. My teaching point is written for everyone to see, along with an "I can..." statement. 

Before I begin, I ask, "How's it going with your reading?"  My kids take turns responding. Sometimes we pass a beanie baby around, and they massage it as they talk about their reading. Something about holding a puppet or a beanie baby is hugely motivating for my students. They participate more readily. As my students talk, I listen and jot down notes on a recording sheet. 

I'm listening for future teaching points, strategy break-downs, comprehension struggles, and comprehension "a-has!"  This is a formative assessment for my students.  It takes about 3-4 minutes, but it's time well spent. 

Other days, I might be more specific with my opening question. I might ask, "What are you wondering about?" or "What have you been thinking about as you read?"

This portion of the guided reading/strategy group lesson leads me to more small group lesson needs. Or, if many students express the same need, it leads me to more whole-group mini-lessons.


You're Not a Bluebird or Red Robin Forever


So, I've conducted a summative assessment (Fountas & Pinnell or NWEA), and I've analyzed the student data. I've used it to help me form my guided reading and strategy groups. I've "listened" to the data. I've used it write lesson plans for my small groups. 

It's important for me to realize that after the summative assessment (week 2 or 3) the data is already old!  In the days of Dick and Jane  the bluebird reading group members would've been bluebirds until they died or went on to the next grade. Maybe, I exaggerate, but small group instruction should be flexible.

Two weeks after NWEA, my learners are not the same.  Two weeks after our last Fountas and Pinnell testing round, my learners have progressed. If I'm not listening to them, I miss the signs that it's time to push harder or be more supportive. Data is only as good as it is current when it informs instruction. That means, we need to be formatively assessing our students at every session.

Recent trends in education have demanded tons of formalized assessment, to the degree that we no longer trust ourselves or our evaluative and observational skills. Every time you interact with your students in their guided reading or strategy groups, you are assessing them. You need to learn how to listen to your own teacher instincts again. 

Take notes. A lot of notes. I use a note-taking sheet that has each group member's name on it. I keep it on a clipboard. I scribble notes down while I'm listening to them at the beginning of the session, and I write again after the session. It's vital that I capture what I saw and heard, and what I think about it. 

Begin by listing what you noticed. Then ask yourself, "What do I think about that?"  When you get used to doing this, it won't seem so awkward, and it'll go faster. It takes me about two minutes for each group.

Equity Does Not Mean Equal


I can thank Lucy Calkins for this little gem. Am I practicing equality or equity when I teach? Equality means everyone gets the same thing. Equity means everyone gets what they need. This concept was liberating when I first encountered it years ago. 

Not every student needs to be in a guided reading or strategy group. Not every student needs small group instruction. No, you don't have to put the high kids in a literature circle. You can, but do they need it? 

I'm not saying they don't receive instruction.  They do. My reader's workshop block begins with a whole-group mini-lesson. In addition, I hold one-on-one conferences with students who aren't currently in a small group. I teach them while conferring. They're usually high or very independent readers. I confer with them a couple of times a week.  I take notes during conferring, too. Those notes help me form strategy groups later on, when those students demonstrate a specific need. 

Edward Tulane knew what it was all about. Remembering to listen to my students has opened my heart... and eyes to their humanity and their learning needs. Listening. It's the most important thing we do as teachers. Don't forget. 

Here are a couple of freebies to help support your reader's workshop block. Click on the pictures to snag them, and may the force be with you. 



If you like what you've read here and want to read about mini-lesson structure or watch a podcast about mini-lessons, try the links below.



PSSSSST! By subscribing to my blog, you're guaranteed a monthly freebie! You don't want to miss this month's freebie...you REALLY don't. Subscribe today for February's freebie in your email box next week. 


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Scaffolding Mini-Lessons for Effective Instruction with IgnitED Teacher & Wild Child Designs





In this January podcast, Michelle Williams from IgnitED Teacher and I discuss the effectiveness of mini-lesson structure. Enjoy!




If you're interested in more podcasts about reading and math instruction, be sure to join us here for live viewing: https://www.facebook.com/groups/strivinglearners/


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The Birthday Girl Brought Birthday Treats For YOU!


Happy birthday to me!!!!! This week, I'm turning the big 4-9. How on earth did I get here? There's something about facing 50 that's making me get a move on some goals that I've been putting off. This week Wild Child Designs is having a store-wide sale. Come help me celebrate my birthday!

CLICK HERE TO VISIT!
                                    Tracy @ 

Pssssst! Have you followed this blog yet? My followers get a monthly freebie! February's freebie is coming up next week. Join me and subscribe. 


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Querencia: A Space for Simplicity



querencia is a place the bull naturally wants to go to in the ring, a preferred locality... It is a place which develops in the course of the fight where the bull makes his home. It does not usually show at once, but develops in his brain as the fight goes on. In this place he feels that he has his back against the wall and in his querencia he is inestimably more dangerous and almost impossible to kill.

Writer and poet, Georgia Heard, introduced the concept of querencia to me. Ever since, I've thought of querencia as a metaphysical space where I am home... a space I sometimes hold for myself in my environment, or a space that I hold within me. To me, querencia means sanctuary. I think we all have these places.  My poet friend from Potatohill Poetry, Andrew Green calls them "sacred places." When he first described one of his sacred places to me, I knew exactly what he was talking about. And while he described Vermont, my mind was already drifting to the shores of Whitefish Point on Lake Superior. 


But, I think that querencia doesn't just mean a physical place.  Any spiritual practice can be a querencia. Sometimes, I sit on the couch with Gracie my chocolate lab/pointer mix, and I breathe. I think querencia can also be inside yourself.  Have you ever engaged in an activity where you are "out of your mind?" Like Ferdinand, the little bull from Spain, I lose myself when I sit in the garden and smell my flowers. I used to run long distances, and when I ran, my mind shut down. I never listened to music while running.  My foot fall, my breath, my heart...I didn't think. I just was.  I may have begun my run feeling like a monster, but by the end of it,  I felt peace.  It was my sanctuary. 


Recently, I started paying attention to my querencia again.  Over the last couple of years, life has been tumultuous. I've lost sight of my sanctuary because of the physical and emotional clutter that has crept in.   So I began a Simplicity Challenge. It began with closets. Then moved to a journaling practice. It expanded to cleaning out my refrigerator and paying off some bills. I let go of old love letters. I made a "Not-To-Do List" for the week, and listed ten things I was not going to let get in my way of feeling human.  I even left my teacher bag at school. GASP!


I began by picking a card every day.  I read the challenge of the day and completed it by the end of the day.  If the challenge seemed too hard, I put the card back and chose another one. Then, I charted it on my Simplicity Challenge Chart.  I journaled about some of the challenges, when they called for it. But I also began to ask myself, "What do you want?" 


Have you ever done that?  My answers surprised me.  Then I asked, "How will you get what you want?" and "How will you know you've gotten it?" And finally I asked, "What will you do if your plans fall short?"  It's okay, go ahead and chuckle.  I just used SMART goals 101. But, it's working!
What happened? I'm smiling more. I'm enjoying my students more. I'm eating better. I feel like I'm accomplishing more on my to-do list, because I'm paying attention to my querencia. I'm procrastinating less.  I'm more focused. New goals and ideas are forming because I have taken better care of my physical and emotional querencia. I smelling the metaphorical flowers.

So, I challenge you this January. Try a Simplicity Challenge. Track your progress. What have you got to lose? Ferdinand and I are waiting for you under the tree. We'll save some flowers for you.




Click the pictures below!


A 30 day challenge to get you started!


A little organization to start your new year off right, these calendars are renewable for the next two years! That means, you purchase them now, and you'll have a calendar for 2018-2019 and 2019-2020! They update for the next two years!


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The Mini-Lesson: A Natural Scaffold for Struggling Learners


For many of our students, climbing the various learning ladders we construct for them in our classrooms on a daily basis is daunting. Some stand at the base of the ladder with sweaty palms and can't bring themselves to even to climb the first rung. Others are like me on a real ladder. They climb halfway up, look down to where they've come from, and are seized with a sudden terror of heights. 

Mini-lesson structure is a powerful tool to combat those fears. 

Now, I'm not talking about centers, guided groups, strategy groups, center schedules and rotations. Hear me out. I'm talking about the first pedagogical practice in any workshop: The mini-lesson.

A mini-lesson should not last longer than 15 minutes. If you're using a mentor text (reader's or writer's workshop), the reading aloud of that text is not part of the 15 minutes. Save that for another time. 

I choose a passage or section that serves the purpose of my teaching point. The teaching point. Notice how there's no "s" at the end of that sentence? Focus your lesson on one teaching point. 

Tell your students about the teaching point. They aren't in a Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys mystery, so they shouldn't have to be learning detectives. Write an "I can" statement in kid language. Don't copy it right out of Common Core. Common Core language is meant for teachers, not students. If you use Common Core language, you've already crippled your students. Be transparent. 

Here's an example of a teaching point and "I can" statement that I shared with my students just this past week:

Teaching Point- Readers synthesize new information with information that they already know. This changes their thinking.

I can notice new learning and think about how it changes my thinking or connects to what I already know.


The connection is the hook. Educational and brain researchers say that we learn only when we can connect the new content to our experiences. That's why building schema is so important for our students. 

In the connection part of the mini-lesson, you hook your students with a story, a video, a song, a passage read aloud, a joke...anything that engages them and makes relevant what they are about to learn.

For example, in my synthesis lesson this week, I showed my students a clip of the Swedish Chef from the Muppets. We talked about how a chef has separate ingredients (separate pieces of learning), and that when they're combined, they make something entirely new and different. That's what happens to our minds when we learn new information and think about how it connects to our previous ideas. Hopefully though, we're more organized than the Swedish Chef! 🤣

This is the meat and potatoes of the mini-lesson. In this part, you directly model the strategy you want your students to learn. 

In my synthesis lesson, I read a passage from the informational book on Native Americans I'm sharing with them. I chose this book because the text is suited for my informational text unit, and because I wanted to support our current social studies unit. It was an intentional choice. That's important. Mentor texts should be intentional. 

After I read the passage, I did a think aloud. 

"I noticed that their marriage ceremonies were different from what we usually see today. I think, though, that they show that marriage was still important in their cultures because they held ceremonies. We hold ceremonies, too."

Then, I did it again. 

"I noticed that they have ceremonies for when children grow into their teenage years. I think that's like a Bat Mitzvah or Bar Mitzvah, a Quinceanera,  or a religious ceremony in churches, like Confirmation. I think our cultures have similarities."

I asked my students what I did with both of my responses. They identified the "I noticed... and I think..." response stems.

Active engagement is my favorite part of the mini-lesson, because it really supports students. Think of it like guided practice. Before your send your students off to practice the new skill you've taught them, they practice it right in front of you.

In my synthesis lesson, my kids brought their independent reading non-fiction texts to the carpet. They turned to a passage in their books that they had already read. They reread it. They thought to themselves, "I noticed...I think..." 

Then, they turned to their talk partner and shared their responses. I was able to eavesdrop. I could tell immediately who got it and who didn't. Because of this, I was able to reteach, and we could openly discuss our errors in understanding. 

Imagine what it would've been like if I had sent them off to practice on their own with out practicing with a partner and me beforehand?  I know what it would've been like...A HOT MESS.  I've experienced it before. 

Think of the link as independent practice time. Before I send my students off to try the new skill on their own, I ask them about their "Be Sure To's." A "Be Sure To" is when a child identifies the errors in their understanding or the place in the strategy where he or she can see themselves falling off the learning ladder, and they write a reminder to themselves in their notebooks or on a post-it. For example, "Be sure to remember that thinking 'this info is cool' is not the type of thinking that I'm trying out."

I ask my students to rate their level of understanding. If they give themselves a 1 or a 2, I send them on their way. If they give themselves a 3 (a "whatchu talkin' bout' Willis?) rating, they stay with me, and I help them a bit more. Then they go off to try on their own. 

In my synthesis lesson, students returned to their seats to practice "I noticed... I think..." using their non-fiction books and post-its. I began to pull reading groups. If I still had students who couldn't do the strategy, I checked for understanding and retaught in my guided reading and strategy groups. 

The share is often overlooked, because it happens long after the mini-lesson is done. Here's a "Be Sure To" for you: Be sure to remember the share at the end of your workshop block. It's powerful, and it holds learners accountable. 

At the end of my workshop block, I call students back to the carpet for two minutes. We discuss how the strategy went. We tune up our understanding. We discuss our thinking. It gives me an opportunity to remind students of the learning goal. 

In my synthesis lesson this week, I tacked on an additional piece for my students to try. It was a sneak peek into what is coming next. I changed our response stems to this: 

I noticed...
I think...
At first I thought... now I think...

One Last Tip

As with any new pedagogical approach, you've got to practice.  As a literacy coach, I worked with many teachers who wanted to focus on developing their mini-lesson scaffolding. The strategy that worked the best for them was to use a mini-lesson planning sheet for 10 days. They chose a subject, wrote out their lessons for 10 days using the planning sheet. It seems laborious. However, at the end of the 10 days, every teacher reported that their teaching improved, and that they were not having to do as much reteaching of concepts. Why? Mini-lesson structure increases the opportunities for authentic formative assessment. 

Think of it like this. Would you rather go to the doctor with an illness or see the undertaker at your autopsy? I don't know about you, but I loathe learning autopsies that could've been avoided had I known there was a learning illness.

To hear more about mini-lesson structure, consider joining Michelle Williams and me tonight in the Teaching Tips for Struggling Learners Facebook group at 8:00 p.m. EST. 

You can grab the mini-lesson planning sheet below. Just click on the picture. It's free!


PSSSSST! By subscribing to my blog, you're guaranteed a monthly freebie! You don't want to miss this month's freebie...you REALLY don't. Subscribe today for January's freebie in your email box this week. 


This month, I've teamed up with some fabulous educators. It's Teacher Talk time! Snuggle up with some hot cocoa and start reading. 






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