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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.



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1 comment

  1. Oh my gosh, Tracy, I got the chills reading about Andy!! Love this post; such great reminders for small reading groups. Thank you!!

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