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Time for Balancing Small Groups and Conferences

I'm back in the blogging saddle again.

I had to take a little (by little, I mean 6 week) break to finish writing my new book - and it is at last finished (at least from my end). Phew and yay. But in the meantime, I have collected many fantastic questions/issues/ideas that I plan to address in the coming weeks. I am also hoping to hear from those of you I haven't yet heard from either in your comments, on Twitter #unstoppablewritingteacher or by e-mail (see the contact link on this page)

This week's question:

How do you have enough time to balance small group instruction while still meeting each student one-on-one in conferences? – Kerri Hook, 5th Grade Teacher

First off, let’s be clear – unless you have a very small class, there will never be enough time to meet with all of your students as often as you would like. That said, balancing small groups and conferences are a great way to make sure you are able to work with every student on a very regular basis. Some teachers try to ensure they meet all of their students by scheduling all of their small groups and conferences ahead of time and making those public. This can be a great strategy for making sure we get to everyone, however, it doesn’t allow much time for flexibility in case a student has an emergency, or you just simply feel that you need to work with a particular student or group right away.

What I would suggest is to first make sure that your conferences and small group sessions are fairly short. Ideally conferences take between 4-7 minutes per child and small groups take about 7-10 minutes. If you manage to have about 30 minutes of writing time each day, giving a few minutes for management and observation, you should have about 25 minutes to work with. This means on some days you might get to one small group and three conferences. Other days you might teach two small groups and one conference.

When you have a sense of how many students you can realistically see in one session, you can start to consider a schedule. Maybe you decide that you will do planned small group work three days a week and the rest of the time will be used for conferences. Or perhaps you decide you will do two days where you teach scheduled small groups and one day where you have flexibility in your small group work. The rest of your days are split between scheduled and unscheduled conferences. It doesn’t really matter what you decide, but if you want to be sure you have a set schedule for small groups and conferences, you will want to take a cue from doctors’ offices where they make a schedule which includes appointments as well as room for sick or urgent visits. Here’s a sample schedule:

Monday: conference with Maggie & Sam, small group on endpoints with Bo, Nico & Kate
open conference/group time - 10 minutes

Tuesday: small group with Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee & Tommy on structure
open conference/group time - 20 minutes

Wednesday: conferences with Stephen, Sarah, Carol
open conference/group time - 10 minutes

Thursday: small group on using checklists (might repeat) with Frannie, Billie, Ruby
conference with Letty; open conference/group time - 10 minutes

Friday: open time for conferences and small group work

In addition to your schedule, you might also consider your tools and movement around the room. I find that teachers who travel with a conferring or small group toolkit (mentor texts, sample writing, checklists, etc.) are more likely to come up with strategies right away and have the tools they need to teach them right at their fingertips. This can save precious minutes.

Also, you might want to consider where you teach your conferences and small groups in the classroom. If you have a conferring or small group table, or ask students to meet you at your desk, you might be losing a few minutes each day waiting for the students to come to you. Unless you have a physical limitation that makes it difficult for you to move through the classroom, consider moving around. As you move from table to table, conference to conference, to the meeting area or carpet to pull a small group, you are also able to look over students' shoulders and get a sense of how their work is going. This can help us imagine other possible groupings for small group work or teaching points for conferences. Another fringe benefit: when students see the teacher regularly moving through the classroom they are more likely to manage themselves, and also more likely to ask questions as the teacher, as opposed to forming a long line at the conferring table. More efficient all the way around.

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