On the Power of Small Groups

For the last couple of years, I’ve been struggling with how to make small group lessons work in the middle school classroom.  Sure, I taught the occasional successful one here and there, but I never seemed to understand how to properly and systematically plan for and implement small groups.

Switching schools and grade-levels this year, I was intimidated by the thought of teaching small groups. The task of looking through student work each night and grouping students based on their previous day’s work seemed daunting.  The idea of pulling eighth graders away from their workspace to meet elsewhere in our teeny-tiny classroom seemed embarrassing. The idea of coming up with just the right teaching point for each small group seemed impossible.

Then I had a training with Dr. Mary Ehrehnworth from Teachers College Reading and Writing Project.  Currently, I am part of a Secondary Learning cohort of teachers from the American Schools in Spain. We meet a several times a year to train and teach together.  In our most recent training, we met at the American School of Madrid (ASM) for labsite learning. Our focus for the two days we were together was to plan and implement small groups. 

This professional development was one of those magical combinations of theory and practice.  Each day, a typical training cycle went something like this:

  • First, Mary introduced a teaching strategy, based on the Unit of Study.  This teaching strategy was chosen for a specific classroom at ASM. Mary had coordinated with teachers ahead of time, to be sure her training would be useful for the day we were there.
  • Next, Mary explained to us the large-group mini-lesson she was going to model.  Then, she outlined potential small group teaching points that could accompany the lesson.
  • After hearing Mary’s ideas, we, as teachers, discussed, planned for, and created materials for a small group lessons we would teach.
  • Then, we headed out to the labsite classroom.  Once in the classroom, we would watch Mary teach the mini-lesson.  After students were released to workshop, we tried out our lessons teaching different small groups. 
  • Finally, we returned to our training space to debrief and reflect on the lessons.

Between the theory, discussion, planning, and teaching, I left the weekend not only armed with already-made materials for small groups, but also with a framework for moving forward.

Here are three strategies I learned from Mary that changed how I plan for and teach small groups:

  1. Make it about a mentor text.¹
  2. Manipulatives are not just for math.
  3. Get students started quickly and walk away.  Multiple small groups should be happening at once!

1. Make It About a Mentor Text:

For too long, I had been trying to sort through all of my students’ work to figure out exactly where they were, and then plan small groups based on a specific next step in their individual reading or writing piece.  While that sounds lovely in theory, in practice, that meant in order to plan small groups, I would have to be continually reading through student work every night.  Between planning, assessing, and being a human, this was impossible to sustain.

When we worked with Mary, we approached it differently:  We first talked through the whole-group lesson, and then discussed common problems we could anticipate the students would have.  Drawing on learning progressions and the teachers’ knowledge of the curriculum, we were able to identify skills and next steps that needed to be taught for students who were approaching benchmark, at benchmark, and above benchmark.  Then, we created materials based on a mentor text to address these skills.  Students used our materials and our mentor text to practice the skills, and then they would transfer their learning to their own work.

2. Manipulatives Are Not Just for Math:

In the past, gathering students around me in a small group to watch me try to teach them something had been like torture.  I would usually use one of the student’s pieces as a demonstration piece, which was awkward for the student and everyone else looking at it.  After the small group, one student would leave with their piece marginally revised and everyone else would leave confused.  This structure made small groups feel boring and remedial.

New possibilities opened up for me when when Mary introduced the power of sticky notes for small groups.  Mary recommended creating small group activities that are game-like, reminding us, “Manipulative are not just for math.”  She also encouraged us to prepare sorting and ranking activities for small groups, saying, “When you get kids sorting and ranking, they are automatically doing higher level thinking.” 

What this meant is we would use a mentor text to create materials the kids could manipulate and sort into categories in order to practice a skill (see the photos below for examples).

3. Get Students Started and Walk Away:

Previously, when I attempted to implement small groups, I would spend upwards of twenty minutes with one group of students.  I would give a compliment, introduce the teaching point, and then demonstrate a focus-skill with one of their pieces. After that, students would stay in the small group area and work on applying this skill to their own piece while I coached them and, all-too-frequently, helped them prevent mistakes. All the while, I would be scanning the classroom, making sure the other twenty students I wasn’t working with were on-task and doing what they needed to be doing.

Mary’s advice was that we should be teaching multiple groups at once, rather than focusing on one group at a time.  The idea is to get a group started by giving a quick compliment, setting-up a concrete task, and then informing you are going to walk away, but you’ll be back to see their thinking. This gives students time to work together and talk with one another, and it gives teachers time to  start another small group, conduct a one-on-one conference with a student, or give a couple students a quick tip.  Then, upon return to the original small group, teachers can check-in on student progress as students share their accomplishments and explain their thinking. Structuring small groups in this manner creates space for authentic student interaction, teamwork, and accountability.

Putting the Framework to Practice

This past week, my co-teacher, Lauren Freer, and I have been hard at work planning and implementing small groups.  For me, a typical 70-minute lesson looked something like this:

  • Read Aloud: 8 minutes
  • Mini-Lesson: 12 minutes
  • Workshop: 45 minutes
    • Small Group 1 & 2: 15 minutes
    • Small Group 3 & 4: 15 minutes
    • Small Group 5 & 6: 15 minutes
  • Share: 5 minutes

Each day, I planned three small groups:  One for students who needed a little more support on understanding the mini-lesson, one for students who could use a quick review of the mini-lesson and then were ready have their thinking pushed a little further, and one for students who were ready to think more deeply.²

You can check-out some of the lessons we’ve been working on below:

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Note: We are currently in a History Unit, in which students are studying the American Revolution and Revolutions around the world.  The final project is a TED Talk representing their findings.  

Moving forward, Mary’s wisdom stays with me.  She said, “You want students to want to be in your small group.  Small groups should be fun!”

Small groups should be fun.  Fun to plan, fun to teach, and fun to watch students transfer their skills to their own work.  What I’m realizing is planning small groups is a great way to open up a discussion with my team teacher around student learning, student needs, and the progression of our curriculum.  In all of this, collaboration is key.

I’m only at the beginning of my small group experiment, but I am excited for all of the learning in store–both for me and the kids!


  1. Shout out to our Literacy Coach, Jennifer Killlion for helping me solidify this one.
  2. I have a class of 23 students.  For each unit, students have a learning partner. For each small group, I pulled two learning partnerships (4 students).  As I ran six small groups in each class period, I got to work with every single one of my student  in a small-group setting in everyday. I can firmly say this something I had never accomplished (or even really thought possible) in my professional career before now.
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