Small Group Learning

Learning is Doing

Doing Reading and Writing

Teacher’s College at Columbia has espoused the Learning is Doing tenet since its inception almost 30 years ago. But- when most of us are faced with up to 36 learners (or more)  in a group, setting the stage for learners to practice reading and writing, or listening and speaking independently is a daunting management task. And this goes for facilitating a group of learners practicing anything.

Full Picture Planning with clear learning outcomes is a must. The real killer is finding, creating, setting up, and managing many activities for learners to practice the target skill.  So, think like a sports coach or a band director.

Teacher as Coach

Last week in an Institute on Small Group Instruction and Conferring at TCRW, Cornelius Minor used the sports coach metaphor to emphasize how students must do the skill begin taught or required for at least 60% of most class periods. Coaches require players to run, pass, shoot, and block in specific ways at practice because players never learn to play just by listening and reading about techniques.

We teachers need to be coaches for reading and writing, along with listening and speaking.  Learners need to be set up to do what they are practicing. Lots of planning and setting up appropriate practice tasks is vital: Readers read, writers write, second language learners speak, and second language learners listen.

But- all learners need to be given specific techniques and tasks to rehearse the target skill repetitively. No soccer player improves if the coach only shouts, “Play!”  (Thank you Cornelius) Teachers of all sorts are faced with the work of breaking down skill techniques and creating tasks that are engaging and effective for learners. Not easy.

So, what do your learners need to practice for 60% of a class period? This is the Target Skill. Examples: Reading for details of the setting, Writing a thesis statement with a claim supported by evidence-categories, speaking about a thematic vocabulary set in a 2nd language, solving a type of equation.

What are some activities that rehearse the target skill? Examples. Readers create a map of a specific setting, then they write about it, Writers use thesis trees about their books, language learners work in partners on specific speaking tasks, math students practice equations with partners.

What are the techniques you will teach to learners? You are the expert! And- you can provide groups of learners with your tips on videos or in slideshows they can view independently. This allows you to circulate constantly to teach small groups and individuals.

The idea is for learners to Do the skills while you constantly circulate and conference with small groups and individuals. Check out Teachers College Reading and Writing Workshop on Small Groups.   Check out Cornelius Minor too.

Small Group Learning

Teacher’s College Writer’s Workshop Institute: Writing Volume

Volume of Writing

How many baskets does Steph Curry shoot in a week? What about Cristiano Ronaldo’s goals?  The volume of their shots in a week far exceeds the volume of their shots in official games. We are well aware that Curry, Ronaldo, and all top athletes need that volume of practice and repetition to perform. So let’s transfer this to writing.  A book, short story, article, or a poem is a professionally edited version of a huge volume of its drafts. This is not a  new comparison or idea;  analogies of writers to athletes, musicians, dancers, and skateboarders have been around for a few decades. But when Emily Strang-Campbell and Mary Ehrenworth of the Teacher’s College  Reading and Writing Project reiterated them last week at the Teacher’s College Summer Writing Institute, it was a helpful, clear reminder. As Mary says, a student’s volume of writing during class writing time is paramount; students learn to write and practice writing by writing in a non-threatening, practice-field environment.

I am applying everything below to myself; I have already written more, and with more focus and clarity.

How to get writers to write?

I am still shocked when students tell me that they don’t write for an extended, designated time of 20 minutes per class in English or humanities classes.  And my blank notebook is a whining reminder of the writing I haven’t done. But I remember how hard it can be to write without accountability.

  • Mandate and designate a specific amount of writing time.
  • Put a timer on
  • Require a heads-down, dancing-pencil act of writing
  • Monitor and redirect lazy pencils
  • Have some strategies for those reluctant writers who will stand you down (more on that in another post)
  • Dole out quick stamps or magic check marks for students when they finish the required writing volume

Where to Write? 

I’ve strayed from the writer’s notebook into my keyboard, but The Writing Institute set me straight. I’m back to eliciting ideas and focusing on evidence in my notebook with some drafting too. And it is so much better! Here is why:

  1. I can generate more ideas and remember more evidence when I create webs or maps
  2. I can organize the thoughts in my web
  3. The claims I write are clearer
  4. I chart out the paragraphs of a piece

We should plan, generate, and organize a piece in their notebooks.  Drafting takes place on notebook paper or on a keyboard. Here is my web on literary devices used in “Angel and Aly” by Ron Koertge.

Pre Writing Web


What to Assess?

  • Assess for writing volume. It is the writer’s obligation to write the three full pages that you designated.   Grammar, syntax, and mechanics do not need to be assessed or edited on webs, maps, and lists for generating a piece. John Grisham’s editors don’t see his plans or his drafts, so they don’t (and wouldn’t think of) correcting grammar, syntax, and mechanics.
  • Assess for staying on topic for the most part. We all have tangential ideas, and that is OK.
  • Assess for genuine effort.
  • Assess for focused, engaged writing behavior.

And this is my first draft on a theme and literary devices in “Angel and Aly.”

Draft in notebook

Creating a writer’s workshop environment takes time, trial and error, and lots of energy. Setting up your writer’s practice field will be so worth it when you and your students see not only how much has been written, but at the end of the process, how well. Check out the Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project and  Heinemann for materials and how-to’s.