I glanced up at the clock in our classroom. That clock was my nemesis and my guiding light. Twenty minutes. I had 20 minutes left before I had to call the class back together to debrief and share our reading work for the day.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t have endless amounts of time to devote to my small-group instruction during reading workshop. I actually have a very finite amount of time—10 to 15 minutes to meet with a small group. Therefore, succinct planning and lesson delivery for my small groups is essential. I don’t have time for inefficiency.
In “Forming Groups Using a Small Group Planner,” I wrote about how I use a planning template to form small groups for instruction during reading workshop. Forming the groups is important, but it is only half of the job. The real power, of course, lies in the instruction. These groups are fluid and flexible, usually meeting only a few times before disbanding. Over the course of a week, I could potentially meet with anywhere from three to six different small groups with differing needs. That’s a lot of lesson planning for a small chunk of instructional time! I use a strategy notebook to help me plan and deliver lessons.
The notebook I use is actually a “ring binder easel” found at any local office supply store. You can add and take away three-hole-punched blank paper. It stands upright (like an easel) for easy viewing during small-group time.
In my strategy notebook, I show students how to use a particular strategy by creating an example. On this page, I was teaching students the difference between plot and theme. For my example, I wrote a simple plot statement: “A boy moves to a new apartment. He is worried about missing his friends.”
Then, I modeled how I might ask myself, What’s the big idea about those events? and wrote my thinking in the second column. I usually prepare the notebook page the day before I’m going to meet with a group, but as you’ll see, the pages soon become a bank of reusable resources so I’m not always re-creating the wheel.
Here’s a second example from a small group of students in writing who were learning how to slow down important parts of their story. You can see how I took two sentences and modeled how I might slow the action down.
I have two go-to resources for finding explicit strategies for my small groups. The Writing Strategies Book and The Reading Strategies Book, both by Jennifer Serravallo, are easy to use and full of strategy examples for small groups. Or, I simply think about how I would do something as a reader or writer and create my own strategy based on my own knowledge. I don’t spend an inordinate amount of time making my strategy pages pretty. I make sure the pages are clean, explicit, and easy to read.
After I’ve demonstrated a strategy, we give it a try together on the blank sticky notes. For this shared experience, I already have a second example prepared ahead of time in the notebook. We look at it together and try the strategy. You can see here how my writing group tried to slow down the action on the sticky notes at the bottom of the chart.
The beauty of the sticky notes is that they are replaceable. You can remove them and try the strategy again. You can give the sticky notes to a student to put in their reading or writing notebook as a model. Then, you save the pages for next time you have to teach that strategy.
Finally, I have the students try the strategy in an authentic context. In the examples above, they might do a quick-write about plot versus theme for their independent reading book in their notebook, or they might highlight a portion of their own personal narrative and try to slow it down in the margins. As they’re working to engage with the strategy, I might leave the small-group table for five minutes to walk around the classroom or have a one-on-one conference. When I return, we talk about how trying the strategy went.
Using this method of gradual release—I do, we do, you do—I feel good about my instruction. My small-group demonstration notebook helps me plan quickly and efficiently without sacrificing clear instruction.