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Powerful Lessons from the Field

From the desk of Cindy Nelson, M.Ed.

After 44 years of teaching and working with others as they teach, I am totally convinced that the #1 most powerful strategy to impact success is the teacher’s ability to pull students into small group instruction. This one intervention builds relationships that calm behavior issues, differentiates instruction to address learner needs, and supports novice learners as they grow into expert learners by knowing how to learn and wanting to learn.

I’m sad to admit that I did not come to this conclusion easily or quickly.  My first glimpse at “the truth” came when I was explaining my problems with classroom management to my mother.  She taught 2nd and 3rd grade in the same classroom many years before (4 room school-house). As I explained, she grew concerned that during my first year of teaching, I had all 25 of my 6th graders sitting in rows to improve comprehension, vocabulary and study skills, whole-group in unison…..except they were in anything but compliant unison!  My master’s degree in secondary reading had not prepared me for this!  Mom gently reminded me of the reading groups used by my elementary teachers and helped me adapt my lessons to that format.  By the end of my first year, I was having more good days than bad and decided not to sell real estate, but continue my teaching career.

I continued to teach various ELA then mathematics courses from grades 6-11, and relied on different versions of what is frequently called, guided reading , guided math or station teaching.  After years of teaching, I changed my role to be a coach to other teachers, particularly to collaborative partners who support struggling students.   Recently, I observed 2 skillful partnerships put new and powerful twists on small group instruction.  I love my job and learning from teachers who love theirs!

The First Partnership

The first partnership taught 6th grade math to 24 students, 7 of whom had IEPs, 5 with 504 accommodations and 3 who were English language learners.  They told me that their plan came about out of frustration with traditional whole group warm-up and homework check time that seemed to set the tone for off-task, “I don’t have my homework” behavior and wasted what brain researchers call “prime time” for new learning.  I watched as they greeted students and set them quickly to think about what was bigger, “Three cupcakes divided among 4 friends, or 2 cupcakes divided among 3 friends?” Students removed red spirals from backpacks before piling them onto a back corner.   Journals were quickly distributed by “materials managers”, students recorded the date in the table of contents of the journals, moved a post-it note from their spirals to the journals, and wrote their response to the cupcake question on the correct page.  One teacher taught a 10-minute mini-lesson on changing fractions to decimals to compare them while the other used a projector to take brief notes and record sample problems to model what students should write on their journal page.  I noticed that the journals of several students had part of the notes already written so all they had to do was use academic vocabulary to fill in blanks.

It was 17 minutes into the class when students were reminded to check the board to prepare for their first rotation.  Journals were collected and put into a designated basket, 6 students turned their desks to face a white board mounted on the back wall, 6 others left their desks to sit at a horse-shoe table at the front, 6 logged onto to computers along one wall and 6 began working out of their text to change fractions to decimals. We were now 21 minutes into the class.  Students at the back of the room began working the day’s warm-up in red spirals as the special education teacher sitting with them checked to see who had done their homework and had brief conversations to consider their excuses and learning difficulties. Several students were asked to work problems on the white board as homework and warm-ups were checked, misunderstandings were corrected, and notes were made on a clipboard that, I was told, would be used to plan interventions. These partners do not have a common planning period, so they decided that the general education teacher would introduce new content in the mini-lesson with the special educator modeling note-taking strategies, and then the special educator would work with yesterday’s lesson doing homework check and warm-up.  This worked well for the partnership as the special educator’s strength was offering accommodations and other ways of explaining content and she learned her next-day’s lesson as she took notes during the mini-lesson.

After about 14 minutes, students were told to log off computers, close texts, stand behind chairs and get ready to rotate with red spirals in hand. The transition was quick and orderly.  Students and teachers took advantage of time to stretch before reengaging for another 15 minutes at a new task.  I sat with the general educator’s group several times and noticed that the extension of the mini-lesson she offered changed slightly with the different groups.  Students were getting bits of individual attention, working with partners in the small groups, building relationships and having fun doing mathematics.  I sat with students working somewhat independently on the textbook assignment.  They explained that they had been assigned “study buddies” but were to write what they could in their spirals before asking for help.  They also told me that near the end of the month, those who had completed enough “levels” on the computerized number fact program could play games instead and they looked forward to that.  After 4 rotations, students in the homework correction group returned desks to whole-group formation and the special educator led the class in a discussion of which is greater, 2/3 or ¾ and how they knew.  After a brief conversation with table family, each student wrote a response on a post-it note and stuck it into the red spiral, to transfer to their journal first thing tomorrow.

My final impression of this class was that great care had been taken to: (1) plan a lesson that fit students’ needs (without the benefit of a common planning time); (2) arrange furniture, white-boards and back-packs to facilitate movement to small groups; (3) deliberately instruct students in classroom procedures to help them manage movement and independent learning.  The result was students attending to their learning and happy to be partners with teachers in making it all work.  Kids like to be successful and like an orderly environment that supports positive relationships with teachers and peers.  What a gift these lucky students have been given!

The Second Partnership

I was surprised as I observed 20 students in 90-minute double-blocked  9th grade Algebra I class taught by the second partnership.  It began “normally” with 20 minutes of “prime time” dedicated to warm-ups in standardized test format and homework check that was followed by a 12-minute whole-group lesson. Students were then given two problems to work independently and this is where the lesson got interesting! While students were working, both teachers monitored the room, but made notes on a seating chart and turquoise initials on the work of several students.  My first surprise came after about 5 minutes of this independent work when 5 students, all with turquoise initials, and the teacher who presented the whole-group lesson moved to a table at the back of the room.  I moved closer to listen.  They had gotten the 2 problems correct except for one careless computation error, so were assigned a few more difficult problems then a problem the teacher had created from a U.S. News & World Report article.  They seemed excited and began work. Throughout the remainder of the class, this group kept focused. Sometimes they worked individually and sometimes with a partner or the whole group as they prepared a presentation of their problem to the class.

My next surprise was to see the second teacher erase the board and present the same whole-group lesson her partner had just completed with the same examples and same vocabulary, now to the 15 students who remained.  The two problems that had been given previously were discussed.  Two different ones were given and, again, students set to work.  The two teachers monitored the class with turquoise pens and seating charts and a few minutes later, a group of 6 moved to a second table at the back of the room with the second teacher who talked briefly to them and then gave them additional problems to work and a different application problem, this one from a self-checking puzzle.

While this was taking place, the first teacher erased the board and began breaking down the day’s lesson.  Numbers were simplified, but the process and vocabulary remained the same.  Within a few minutes, the second teacher joined her partner and the 9 students were broken into a group of 5 and one of 4 for all but the last few minutes of class.  One group began working with colored tiles and markers.  I was happy to hear one of the nine, “I got it, didn’t I?”  The 9 seemed to appreciate the personalized attention as they stayed mostly on task.  The two groups working independently were reminded only once of class procedure for getting work done without the teacher.  The whole group reconvened to hear the U.S. News & World Report problem, receive a homework assignment, and be dismissed.

Although both of the teachers in this partnership are very competent in their knowledge of math content, they have common planning only on PLC days, 1 day a week.  They use this lesson format because it allows all students (8 of the 20 with IEPs) to hear the on-grade level standards based lesson twice from two different teachers before given small group/individualized interventions that address the same content but bridging carefully from pre-requisite skills. The teachers acknowledge that some students have gaps that cannot be eliminated during regular class instruction.  This format, however, assures they receive accelerated rather than remedial instruction and the small group allows the teachers to collect data on individual needs that are used to target interventions during an advisory period.  The format also accommodates students who only need to hear a lesson once or twice and are ready to move on to practice and application with peer support and provides a quick review for the special educator who supports other math classes as well before picking up the chalk and teaching the lesson.

I love the work I am privileged to do and continue to learn from the wonderful teachers I meet.  I hope to have shared several with you so you can put your own twist on their practices to impact the success of your students!

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