Small group instruction

For the past few weeks, I’ve been playing around with small group instruction, and although I first tried it because my Spanish 1s are quite…ahem, energetic and easily distracted (to put it nicely!) and to my dismay had acquired embarrassingly little from an entire semester of whole group instruction, now I’m incorporating small group instruction into ALL my classes, and I just can’t get enough!

I’ll share what I’ve tried and why I love it.

In Spanish 1, I’ve implemented some highly structured, low fun plans and it’s really improved things around here. I haven’t thought about quitting in at least 4 weeks, so that’s a HUGE improvement from last semester, AND the classroom shenanigans have really mellowed out. One of the key elements of our “new” Spanish 1 is pre-recorded input, because it turns out that pre-recorded Sra Chase is more captivating than Live Sra Chase. Go figure.

Lately, during our “Pre-recorded” input chunk, I’ve been dividing the class into 3 groups of about 10 students each. I decided to group students geographically, based on where they are sitting, and not by ability level. I didn’t want the high flyer group to feel all awesome and arrogant while the Turtle group has their suspicions confirmed.

While two groups work independently on an EdPuzzle or other activity (Textivate, YouTube video w/ Graphic Organizer, Formative), one group forms a semicircle around the whiteboard, and we chat in Spanish. Each class, each student has a new assignment, so over the course of 3 class periods, each student participates in my small group once, and completes 2 independent input assignments. I set a timer for twenty minutes, everyone knows what they’re supposed to work on, and what to do if they finish early. This is what is projected on my screen:

The first time we tried this, my group did a Card Talk about the things they love and hate to do. Currently we’re creating One Word Images in small groups, next week I think we’ll try co-creating a story. After 20 minutes, we bring everyone back together to do a Write and Discuss, about my group’s conversation.

You might be thinking: What about the kids who are *supposed* to be working independently, but are really screwing around?! First, super clear expectations: Group A and B is working Silently so Sra Chase can work with Group C. If a student needs more than one reminder of the expectation, they join my group, and should complete the class assignment they missed at home. I haven’t had to do it yet, threatening has been enough. (And if/when it happens, I’ll also call home to let someone know that So and So has a some Spanish to complete tonight, because he didn’t get it taken care of during class.)

Sure, there are some kids are not diligently working on their assignment…but those are the same kids who were either zoning out into LaLa Land or kicking their neighbor or writing notes to the cute girl nearby when I was trying desperately to do a Movie Talk or ask a story, back in the old days (September!) Before they were affecting the rest of the class’s input, and now at least they’re not bothering anyone else. The missing assignments are starting to pile up for the Little Darlings who are not completing their independent work during class. I’ve sent out emails, called parents and reminded students how to take care of late work, so… Here’s to hoping that they get motivated real soon.

Why Small Group Instruction Rocks:

  • It is SO MUCH EASIER to give 8-10 students comprehensible input, compared to 30! No one can fade into the background. Everyone has space to participate. I can converse with every single one, and make a real connection with every single one. Seeing who’s tracking and who’s confused is 1,000 times more mangageble. In a perfect world, I’d have classes of 10 students and this would be our everyday…in the real world where I teach, this is a pretty good solution. And “pretty good” during pandemic teaching = “incredible”.
  • It feels like a treat. I asked my Little Darlings if they’re liking this rotation business. One boy told me, “It’s only fun in your group. The other groups are boring.” Oh really, how interesting….tell me more! Interacting with a real human is more fun than staring at a computer screen?! Hmmm….imagine that! Just yesterday, while my small group was discussing a Grandma named Jean who loves Snoop Dogg and goes to the SuperBowl so she can dance with him, I exclaimed loudly, “Tengo una abuela que se llama Jean, también” and a student, not in my group, hollers across the room, “¡YO TAMBIÉN! ¡Chócala, Señora Chase!” These kids…
  • The students not in my group are *supposed* to be working on their independent input on their chromebooks…but since we’re having such fun in my group, they eavesdrop! They’re hearing comprehensible Spanish even though it isn’t directed to them them. I totally see kids take out their earbuds to listen to what we’re talking about. How’s that for compelling input?! Muahaha, the evil plan is working!
  • After each “Input Session” we write and discuss as a whole class, about the content of my small group. I thought kids who worked independently wouldn’t care, but it seems like everyone is even more interested in the new information, just because it is new information….it’s like they want in on the inside joke. And the students who were in my small group really get a chance to shine. It’s really special.
  • While getting 30 students to stop poking their neighbor, and stop snapping rubber bands, and stop passing water bottles because someone down the row is thirsty and needs a sip of water (I can’t even. 🤮 Sooooo nasty!) has proven nearly impossible and not at all conducive to a CI classroom...a small group is much easier to pull everyone together and focus on the same thing.
  • And on a same note, I get to let loose and be silly with my small group. Being silly with the whole group is an open door for everyone to lose their minds…in a small group it’s possible to have a good laugh and then resume the conversation at hand.
  • And most importantly…it has restored my joy. I haven’t felt like a good teacher to my Spanish 1s all year and it’s been really weighing on me. Honestly, I’d watch pre-pandemic videos of me teaching and marvel- Who is that person? I don’t even remember what that feels like, connecting with a class and sharing a special moment, all in Spanish. For reals, I can’t tell you how many tears I shed (and how many job searches I preformed!) last semester, because I so desperately missed being a good teacher. For months I’ve been praying for joy to return to my classroom, and it has! Praise Jesus! Small group interaction has brought back a little bit of the classroom magic that allows me drive out of the school parking lot feeling fulfilled and drive back into the school parking lot feeling hopeful.

Not just for Spanish 1

Since Small Groups have been my saving grace with Spanish 1 Little Darlings…I wondered what would happen in my other classes, you know the classes with students who actually student.

In Spanish 4 and Heritage 1 we’re writing mini argumentative essays, in pairs. I divide the class into 2 group, making sure the pairs who are working collaboratively are in the same group. One group gets an independent activity to work on (Read this article and do X, EdPuzzle, Textivate, Work on a project, whatever) and I focus my attention on the Essay writing group, who has a specific goal, like write a body paragraph. It is such a relief to have half as many students who are needing my assistance, and so nice to have fewer pairs to check in with. I put a 20 minute timer up on the board (have I told you how much I love YouTube Timers?!) everyone works either independently or on their essay, then they switch groups and we start over. It is freaky how well this has been working in my classes. WHY HAS IT TAKEN ME 16 YEARS AND A PANDEMIC TO DISCOVER THIS?!?!

In AP Spanish we’re diving into the Argumentative Essay (gulp) and my beloved Julie suggested that we do one together, Write and Discuss style. In class, they read and listened to the 3 sources, then decided their position on the topic. While half of the class worked on some multiple choice practices, the rest of us wrote out an essay together, doing all the things that AP wants to see, you know, strong transitions, advanced and varied vocabulary, incorporating evidence from all the sources, you know, blah, blah, blah. The following class (because this took way longer than I was expecting) I worked with the other group and we wrote the other side of the argument. Now I’ve got 2 essays, arguing opposite positions, that I’ll have students read next week, while looking critically at the AP scoring rubric.

As we get closer to test date (in 88 days at 7 minutes, but I’m not thinking about that at all!) I’m planning on doing more of this, and letting students choose their participation regarding a specific AP task:

  • Do a practice email on your own, then do a multiple choice practice OR
  • Work in a small group with Sra Chase to polish your email skills

I may be late to the party with this small group instruction business (Elementary teachers are like, “we have been doing this since the dawn of time!”) but for me, this feels like a whole new world (sing with me!) of possibilities. It’s for sure a bright spot for me this semester. If you’ve had a rough week/semester/year/years, maybe it will be the thing that restores your joy and reminds you that teaching during a pandemic isn’t ALL miserable.

Take care, my friend!

20 comments

  1. Reading this on my phone in the car while my daughter is at gymnastics and I’m alternating between laughing and getting teary-eyed.
    Thank you so much for sharing this small group strategy and the classroom dynamic (and how it feels to be seriously discouraged as a teacher AND the blessed eureka moments full of joy at something that works!! )💜💜💜💜💜💜

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    • Man, this pandemic teaching business is not for the faint of heart! Thanks for reading and commenting- I hope your year is going well… and if not, that you’re finding bright spots in the tough stuff!! 💕

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  2. I love you ❤️ you write down in blog form all the ideas I have in my head and talk about to my colleagues but never put into practice until you blog about it and tell me how it works for you . So glad you can read my mind and give me a review of how it works for you! It propels me to finally put it into practice

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  3. Thank you for this timely blog post. Recently I’ve started small groups and ‘task rotation’ in hopes of building student agency and yes, to restore my ‘joy’. There’re still lots to try and improve so your examples and tips are very helpful!

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  4. Yes to pre-recording input!!! Because of a budget crunch at our school teachers need to teach an extra class one semester this year for no extra pay. I have mine this semester so two days a week I go all day without a free period and 4 Sp2 block periods in a row. I was completely exhausted after the first week and knew I had to make some adjustments to how I gave my students input. I’ve been recording on Loom so I can still include some visuals as well from the Google Presentation I’d normally be showing in class. The ability to press ‘play’ and walk around the room (usually adding some gestures for additional comprehension help) has been a game changer. I too have found that students have stayed engaged with these recordings (I often have them draw what they understand).

    Glad you have found success with it too and thank you once again for sharing great ideas!

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    • Oh my goodness!! I can’t imagine teaching all day without a break or prep! God bless you! Pre-recorded input sounds like a Godsend in your sp2 classes!! Of all the Pandemic tools I’ve gained these past two years, I think Loom is the winner!

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  5. Thank you so much for this insight! I too have been struggling with my large Spanish 1 and 2 classes and your ideas are so helpful!

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  6. Thank you for the shout out, my dear friend.  I love this post. Chock full of great ideas and teacher reality.  It is so good to know you are finding joy again. … except for today’s tampon post on FB. OMG. Seriously. WTF??? Un abrazote.  Julie Lozada OcampoNational Board Certified Teacher, WLOEBoard Member for Nevada and Vice President, SWCOLTMembership Chairperson, PLAN2014 Nevada World Languages Teacher of the Year  From: Señora ChaseSent: Saturday, February 12, 2022 7:15 AMTo: jalozada12@gmail.comSubject: [New post] Small group instruction Señora Chase posted: " For the past few weeks, I’ve been playing around with small group instruction, and although I first tried it because my Spanish 1s are quite…ahem, energetic and easily distracted (to put it nicely!) and to my dismay had acquired embarrassingly little f"

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  7. Oh my! I just tried this today in one class. I’m doing it in all my classes tomorrow. Today, kids in the other groups blurted out answers to our small group. Thank you, thank you! This alone may have saved my teaching. Lately, I walk in the building thinking “I’m done. I’m quitting!” But then in the afternoon, I think “ok, I can do this.” I have this self-talk daily. In 12 years, I’ve never felt like this! I had to hide all my pends, crayons, art materials because kids were messing with them behind my back. I told the kids (8th grade) that we can’t have nice things anymore. Unbelievable!

    But thank you. This is amazing.

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    • Oh Inger!!! I so sympathize and I’m delighted that today’s small group teaching brought you just a little bit of joy!! I hope tomorrow is awesome too and it gives you the lift you need to make it through this hellacious year!!

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