Last week I experienced another one of those precious moments of true teacher satisfaction. I was sitting at the front of the classroom with a group of seven students, while the rest of class was scattered across the room engaged in a variety of activities. We started learning long division this week. Long division can be traumatic for fourth graders. As usual there was a small group that caught on immediately and were eager to move to more challenging problems, while others were lost and overwhelmed by the multi-step process. In order to reduce their stress and mine, we moved into small group instruction. It’s very satisfying to witness the light bulb turning on, as I guide students through the process.
I have been using small group instruction in math for about six years now. I don’t use it every day, and I don’t use it for every skill, but it is definitely one of the best changes I have made to my math instruction. I was first introduced to the idea when I volunteered to represent our school by taking additional district math training. I volunteered because I knew that my math instruction was my weakest area. Ironically, I ended up presenting professional development in math for the next several years. Lots of good things came out of that training. I learned how to make math more fun with skill building games and activities, and I learned a lot about how to differentiate. It improved my own understanding of math, and best of all, I actually like teaching math now.
Small group instruction lets me give guidance to those who are struggling. It allows me to identify where and how their mistakes are occurring. It provides me with opportunities to reassure students that they will get this and that they are growing in their skills. It enables me to correct misperceptions in a non-threatening and non-embarrassing way. It frees the kids up to ask more questions and ask for help as they need it. Recently, I was reminded of all these great advantages, when I read a blog post by Nancy Hniedziejko on her blog Nancy Teaches. (She is @nancyteaches on Twitter.)
I usually introduce a new skill to the whole group. We work for a day or two before I transition to small group instruction. I usually do a mini lesson to start, and then set a focus for the day. After several years of doing small group instruction in math, there are a few things I have learned.
1. Keeping the rest of the class busy and engaged is key. Since students are with me for only 20-25 minutes, it’s imperative that selected activities support math skills. I teach my students to play games that reinforce math facts. We have a math page on our class Read the Web wiki with links to math games. Following their small group time they are responsible for a seatwork assignment. This week, I also had students using the iPads to write a blog post.
2. Use frequent formative assessment to determine student needs. For me that may take the form of an assignment or a quiz. I find that math groups change more often than my reading groups do. I mix up my math groups on a weekly basis.
3. Give yourself permission to not meet with every student every day. It took me a while to come to this conclusion. Since I have 28 students I usually rotate my groups over two days. I work with every student in a small group setting, but it is done over the course of two days and I do spend longer with some groups than others.
4. Adapt your small group approach to meet the needs of the students you have. There’s no doubt about it, success with small groups depends a lot on the make-up of your particular class. With the kids I have this year, it’s easy. These kids work well on their own, and they get along with each other. I have had some years where my materials were destroyed, and kids did not use the time productively. In those years, I still did small group instruction, but I had to do so for a shorter length of time each day.
The best part of all is teaching in small group lets me connect more with my kids. It creates a more relaxing atmosphere, and kids soon realize that math is fun.