Small Groups, Big Gains

March 28, 2017

This year most of my math instruction has been done in a whole group setting. The primary reason for this has been the amount of information I need to get in each morning during my math block, which unfortunately seems to get the short end of my daily schedule. Recently I have been wanting to rework my math instruction but wasn’t sure how to make the best use of time and increase effectiveness. So, I set out to find what would work best for myself and my students.

Finding a Model

I am lucky enough to work with teachers who happily share their classrooms with me whenever I ask to come observe their amazing instruction. I traveled down to the 5th grade hallway to watch a teacher who was recommended to me because of her effective small groups. I got some great ideas from her and set out to try some with my 3rd graders. It took a few tries and a few rough days, but we have finally transitioned into smooth small group rotations. I have been amazed at how it has changed my math class!

What’s the Secret?

Every teacher and each class is going to look different during small group instruction. Here are some things I’ve learned over the past few weeks:

  • Groups should be fluid. Move your students from group to group depending on their level of understanding. This will change skill to skill. The student who aces comparing fractions may struggle to tell the difference between the hour and minute hand on a clock. Be flexible!
  • Activities completed at their seats should be an extension of what you taught in small group. Think of it like slowly letting go of a child riding a bike- make sure they know what they’re doing, then send them on their own to practice the skill.
  • Establish a routine! This one is SO important. Small group time is precious – make sure you can use every minute of it by establishing clear guidelines and expectations for students at your table and students working at their seats. Have students physically practice moving from station to station around the room before you start your groups. It may seem like a waste of time, but it will pay off in the long run!
  • Conversation is everything! My favorite thing about my small groups is listening to the mathematical discourse as my students discuss their thinking. It allows me to hear them explain their thinking and find gaps or patterns in their learning.
  • Use visuals and manipulatives. Small groups are the perfect time to introduce new models and hands-on activities. You can closely observe to make sure they are using them correctly, which will cut down on having to repeat directions during whole group instruction.
  • Get ready to be AMAZED by your students! I have found that my students are so much more comfortable and confident doing math in small groups. They want to discuss their thinking and, even better, they want to talk about what they don’t know. I am loving the honest conversations we have at my small group table!

If you are someone who has always used small groups for reading but never really thought about them for math, give it a try! I think you will be blown away by how much deeper you can go with your instruction!

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