This morning’s faculty meeting was the first one of the year dedicated to literacy. Since our school goals in reading and writing hinge on small group instruction, that was the focus of our time. I was at once grateful to have time with the whole staff and challenged to make it worth everyone’s while.
Like in any building, we have varying levels of comfort, of openness, of reluctance with small group instruction. And as a district and school community, we’ve shifted our expectations about groups. Currently, the expectation is that all students are seen in conferences or groups at least once a week. In addition, readers who are striving toward reaching benchmarks are expected to be seen almost daily. In some rooms that feels like a big stretch to teachers. In others, teachers are as natural in conferences as fish in water.
Previously teachers were expected to conduct lengthy groups, applying the entire gradual release model in a single session. Lessons stretched to 45 minutes. Clearly we could never meet the new expectations with the old model of instruction and some teachers are at a loss. They want to do what is ‘right’ but are sometimes paralyzed by not knowing how to accomplish it (also by feeling it needs to be perfect).
So in planning for our time together, I thought about what I hoped teachers would take away. Through discussion with my principal we decided that it would be good for teachers to see video examples of what different small group structures looked like, especially guided reading and strategy groups. We also decided that it would be powerful to share videos of teachers doing those lessons-rather than me.
And so I encountered my first set of challenges–convincing teachers to take a risk. I thought about which teachers already have strong small group practices. Some I spoke with simply felt overwhelmed by other things going on around school recently. I approached both veteran teachers and newer ones with the inviting plea: “How would you feel about…Is there any chance I could just…” bare your soul and play the video in public? Just kidding. Though that’s how it undoubtedly felt to some. Apparently I wasn’t quite clear with one teacher initially. She readily agreed to let me record one of her groups and I patted myself on the back for lining up the group. Then I received an urgent email from her: “Wait! People are going to SEE this?!? I may have missed when you said you planned to use this at the faculty meeting!!!” I assured her that I would never press the issue if she was truly that concerned…maybe I could borrow her readers instead I half-heartedly offered. After we talked through her plan (and she discovered she wouldn’t happen to be at the meeting) she decided she felt comfortable enough to go ahead with the recording. Two other teachers also graciously agreed to take a chance.
I arrived early to 4th grade to set up the iPad on a tripod and to test the microphone to be sure we could hear the group. And we began filming-live before a studio audience-amidst the day to day action of a real live classroom. I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.
As the group unfolded before me, there was nothing else the teacher needed from me. The recording was self-sufficient. The other readers were busily engaged. I had time to simply observe the group in progress. I noticed the seating arrangement for the group. I noticed the artifacts and tools the teacher had at the ready. I listened in on teacher talk and student talk bubbling in front of me. Mentally I ticked off compliments and next steps. With my audience in mind I conducted silent voiceovers of the lesson. Notice how…
Very infrequently I felt an “oops!” cross my mind as I wondered how a glitch would impact the video–a restless reader crossing in front of the camera to reach the pencil sharpener, the group member who was watching the teacher talk to another child instead of practicing in her own book, the child who glanced up and waved at the camera or leaned close to the microphone when they spoke.
But what started out feeling like “oops” moments, came quickly to feel authentic. One reason I was recording teachers instead of myself was to make the point that “We can all do this!” Teachers don’t operate on sound stages under controlled conditions. Any teacher watching a silly wave or a restless wanderer will recognize their own class and children in the moment. Far from being critical of these oopses, quite possibly these moments were what would make the new work feel approachable. The child who looked on as the teacher talked with her classmate benefited from an extra model. She wasn’t independent, but she was engaged.
As the group concluded, I started to pack up the equipment and thanked the teacher for being brave enough to share. I offered a compliment and was ready to go. Her response stopped me. She noted a couple of things that hadn’t gone the way she hoped. On the spot she wondered aloud about how to improve those aspects of her teaching. I told her how much I appreciated her self-reflection. She offered to share her thinking during the meeting. (Talk about brave and open to the risk of exposing a lesson she didn’t feel was perfect!)
In third grade a scheduling conflict meant I set up the equipment and left the previously anxious teacher to record herself. When I returned to collect the iPad she also reflected on how long the lesson had gone, how her readers had still had difficulty by the end of the group, and what she thought she would do next with them. She and I spoke on three more occasions following that recording and she asked to have a do-over with a second group the next day. Sure!
Finally, I made my way to a 2nd grade class. What I discovered during and after the workshop that day was that this was their very first day of doing small groups. I had misunderstood when I originally made arrangements to record. I have seen this teacher do exceptional small groups in previous years. I thought that she was hesitant because they’d just moved from fiction to nonfiction and she wanted to know more about them as informational readers before forming groups. In addition, I discovered that this teacher (who has beautiful, respectful signals and strategies for shaping classroom behavior) has a class of full sized personalities in pint sized bodies. Two of her kiddos were having a particularly difficult afternoon and it was contagious in spite of everything. It didn’t help that I toted in a camera and ratcheted up the novelty factor. This time, instead of watching the group play out, I circulated to try to manage the class in the background. There wasn’t enough of me. The teacher carried on valiantly. But some days the best laid plans of mice and men are derailed by squirmy 7 year olds.
I had decided before I even turned off the iPad that I wouldn’t be using this footage. But the class was moving on to social studies, so I made a note to stop back when they went to special. Quietly I tiptoed out. Before I realized they’d headed to gym, the teacher appeared in my doorway, a little green. She was apologetic. She was mortified. I assured her that some days don’t turn out how we hope and that I understand she has a number of needy and challenging friends in her class. Before the last words were out of my mouth she replied, “I don’t want that to be an excuse. I can make it better.” She went on to ask for my help getting small groups established this year. I was humbled. I hadn’t though of it as an excuse–simply a real factor–but I admired her no nonsense determination to be her best for these learners. You better believe I’ll clear my schedule to spend some weeks with her.
So this morning as we gathered in the library I was prepared with a few lesson videos–none exactly what I’d envisioned–but each with a valuable set of take aways. I decided not to voiceover bit by bit, but instead to invite my teachers to be on the lookout. Half looked for what the teacher did and said. The others looked for what students were doing. One colleague agreed to time each of the groups, breaking it down for each part of the lesson. I shared the same Compliment/Next Steps notes format that many of us use as teachers for our conferring notes and asked my colleagues to make note of what they noticed as they watched each group. After each video clip teachers shared at their tables and then popped out their big take-aways to the larger group.
There never seems to be quite enough time, but it was a good beginning to our conversation. A few teachers shared questions as well as observations. Those will be the jumping off points for our next steps. As teachers left, I reflected on two things I wished I’d said.
- We’re not aiming for perfection. We’re aiming for frequent, genuine interactions with our readers/writers. So meet a group with your mind and heart open and see what comes of it.
- There is value in naming what we notice. By simply saying it (or jotting it) we have pressed a pause button that invites us to think more about it. Sometimes we name what we notice ourselves doing (or not). Other times we name what we see our students doing. Naming is the first step in growing beyond.
Thank you to my teachers for their courage. Thank you for your keen self-reflection and for your fierce commitment to your students. While I have strategies to share with you about small groups and other literacy things, I continually learn from you about teaching, about being lifelong learners, and about loving every child who comes through our doors. I see you.
And what I thought was just preparation for today’s meeting turned out to be some amazing learning opportunities in themselves. Learning happens in unexpected ways and when we least expect it–if only we keep ourselves open to it.