Monday, February 20, 2017

The Eve of the Small Group and Conferring Institute

It's the night before the first Small Group and Conferring Institute at Teachers College and I am lucky enough to be able to attend. And...I get to go with my good friend and coaching colleague Sharon Kranz. I am go grateful to have a thinking partner this week. That time to talk, debrief, think some more, and plan will be invaluable.

Our district is in year two of implementing the Units for Teaching Reading and an additional few more years in with the writing units. Whats has inspired me to come is the Primary Guide to the Reading Workshop. For a while now I've been thinking about flexible grouping. A number of years ago, I read a line in Reading Essentials by Regie Routman that got me thinking, "Once students have cracked the code (for reading), students should no longer be in homogeneous groups." That seemed like a very strong statement and ever since I've been doing action research on using strategy groups. Another book that prompted more thinking on this topic was, More than Guided Reading by Cathy Mere. This made sense to me. We could sort student work based on strategies and skills and very specifically target instruction. Reading Jennifer Serravallo's books Teaching Reading in Small Groups and Conferring with Readers helped me put some of these practices in place in second grade and up. It was also watching Kathleen Tolan lead a strategy group, where each student had a different book, that grounded me as I moved forward in experimenting with what strategy groups could look like in intermediate. (I'm saddened by Kathleen's passing and that she won't be leading the institute. She was an amazing instructional leader, such a loss, but she has impacted so many. We are so grateful for her legacy.) 

I'm still learning how to take a strategy or a skill and break it down into steps in order to give students an entry point into that work, but THAT is what is fun about our profession for me. It's an experiment, we there is no one right way to do something and each student is different, requiring something different. While we look to literacy experts to guide us, ultimately we know our students best and need to trust our professional judgment. Jennifer Serravallo's new book The Reading Strategies Book, give us a scaffold to do this work. And Kate and Maggie Roberts book, DIY Literacy:  Tools for Differentiation, Rigor, and Independence, give us ideas for concrete tools we can make and use in this journey as well. 

I was still struggling with the idea of flexible grouping in the early primary grades, though. Then I read the Primary Guide to the Reading Workshop and I read through each small group section for the first reading unit for first grade; it became so much clearer! The most powerful quote for me was, "To be responsive, there can't just be one way to lead small groups." Why wouldn't we take advantage of all the structures available to us to support students. In K-1 we will definitely be seeing students in typical 10-minute guided reading groups, where we can coach in as we listen to students whisper read a book at their instructional level, but we may want to use shared reading or meet with students in a strategy group where they're applying this work in their own independent texts. 

Last week I had the opportunity to try this out in a kindergarten classroom. We began seeing typical guided reading groups, but as we listened and coached, it became apparent there were three students who needed a bit more coaching than the others. So we were able to release the other two students in the group and over the next couple days just focus on the three. That is one way I see to begin implementing this work. Starting with a grouping structure, but once we see trends give ourselves permission to alter that structure to better meet our students needs. I could also see starting with just conferring. That's how most of the units start anyway, with table conferences and moving into one-on-one or partner conferences. Then as you notice trends and common areas of needs, meeting with those students. The commonality here is that we are noticing what our students need. That is always the key. 

Right now it seems the difference for primary is that students are still in groups with other students that are reading at the same level, for the most part. I have found it to be very beneficial to occasionally, take a week or two and just meet with primary students in strategy groups, especially after we've had explicit instruction around a particular strategy. It allows me to see if they are applying this work independently, as that is our end game.

My plan is to record my journey here, to share my new learning, thinking, questions, and musings. Tonight I've been trying to capture my questions for this week and I think the big question I have is about structure. I'm beginning to get some of the theory down for small groups and conferring in early primary grades, but what does this actually look like in the classroom. A phrase that I find comforting when things get messy, is "flexibility within structure." I definitely want flexibility, so I can be responsive to student learning, but having a structure to organize and guide is important as well. I'm eager to learn more this week and even more excited that I'll be able to bring back this learning and experiment in classrooms with amazing teachers in my school and district, as well as the other districts I work with across the country.


  1. Hi Jen! I enjoyed reading your post! I am doing this same thinking right now as I experiment with strategy groups in second grade (flexibility within structure--I like the way you put that!). I look forward to reading about your reflections as you spend time at Teacher's College. Enjoy!

  2. I'm so glad! So far it's been reinforcing a lot of ideas. Tomorrow is the BIG day, Small Groups in Reading!