Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Small-Group Instruction

As I was conducting research for my literature review regarding the most effective strategies to engage students in their learning, I decided that small group instruction would become a priority in my classroom. There is a bounty of potential benefits that can be obtained from small group instruction. For example, small-group instruction is tailored to the specific needs of 4-6 students. Further, when placed in small groups, students are much more at ease with their peers in their small-group because they are of similar ability which leads to greater involvement; there is no extraneous pressure from more advanced students. Moreover, a teacher engaging four students can hear and reply more clearly, provide direct and specific feedback, and can respond to children’s reactions in a more effective manner when compared to a large group. Even though research shows an abundance of benefits, at first, I was extremely apprehensive and had a few concerns surrounding small group implementation.
My primary concern involved making sure that the remainder of my students stayed in tune to their learning while I was providing other students with small-group instruction. Before the beginning of the second semester, I was constantly questioning how I could ensure and be certain that the remainder of my students were focused on their studies.  After all, I was planning on releasing responsibility to the rest of my students while I am in small-group. This thought really stressed me out! The last thing I want to do as a teacher is fail to provide the means necessary for each and every one of my students to be successful in their education whether my instruction is the focus of their attention at the time or not. However, after the past seven weeks, I believe our class has small-group instruction time and what is necessary to be successful during this time down pat.
The most important things that I do to ensure small-group instruction time is productive for all and not just those in small-group is providing the whole class with a procedure to accomplish the learning tasks at hand while I am instructing in small-group. Because our procedures are very similar each day but with different exercises, over time, the procedure became routine. Now the students know exactly what to expect each time I am working with small-group and how to accomplish their learning tasks. Additionally, I set learning and behavior expectations for my students during this time. Not only do I set the expectation, I have them reiterate them to each other in their learning groups. After they have repeated them to each other, I collect their attention, draw a name from the cup and have that individual repeat the expectations for the class. Lastly, I have the class verbally agree to the expectations in unison before we break.
Just as research supports and as we have learned, I have found that my students are much more productive and successful when having procedures, routines and expectations. After the first two weeks of implementing small-group instruction, I really started to recognize just how engaged all of my students can be without me directing their every thought. But, there was one thing I really needed to work out.
Just when I thought everything was up and running smoothly, a few students would come to me while I was working in small-groups and ask, “What do I do now?” I thought that there was no way that a student could have successfully accomplished all the tasks laid out before we broke into small groups, but there are students that can and do all the tasks asked of them to support their learning and produce a high quality learning product. So I immediately learned to over plan during this time for those very students. For these students I decided not to simply give them additional practice but to practice the same skills as everybody else but with the requirement of higher order thinking due to providing them with more challenging tasks. Now, these very students are engaged the duration of our small-group time and have responded extremely well to their new responsibilities as reflected in their assessments!
The initial stress I endured just at the thought of releasing responsibility to my students has subsided, the students are largely engaged, and the time I get to spend with my small-groups is priceless. It is so wonderful to be able to engage 4-6 students at a time and focus on their specific needs and rest assure that the remainder of my students are engaged in the learning process. The most important thing that I have learned is to differentiate, differentiate, differentiate and not just in small-group, but for the various students that are working without my supervision. I look forward to the coming school year as I will be much more prepared to implement and manage small-groups in my classroom.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Active Engagement

One of my primary concerns in my classroom is whether or not my students are engaged in their learning. It is accepted that if our students are not engaged in their learning that our students will return home each night without comprehending the skills or concepts presented each day and will not know how to apply these skills to future learning. This problem is exacerbated when students need to recall previous learning to be successful in their current studies but cannot. Speaking with colleagues, I have ascertained that as teachers we sometimes feel that it is easier to move along in our teaching and never mind the children who are constantly off task and probably won't "get it" anyway. I feel this is a major downfall in many classrooms and schools today and a contributing factor as to why so many of our students are grade levels behind their like age peers. Many teachers rebuttal my thoughts and make the claim that we now have interventions and associated teachers in place for such children. I say that it doesn’t matter if they are in intervention if they are not engaged in their learning there either, and I am still receiving students that are years behind their counterparts and have been in intervention for a couple years. Additionally, wouldn’t it be dreamy if we didn’t need interventions to begin with? So what do we do? How do we make sure that we are not simply passing students along to the next level of learning without the knowledge to be successful? After reading studies, observing classrooms, and being a teacher myself, I believe that effective active engagement is a great part of the solution.
It really makes me contemplate each day after school when I feel that student engagement for the day's lessons did not meet my expectations as to what I can do differently tomorrow to get even one more student truly involved in our lessons. As I have mentioned before, my classroom is composed of quite the eclectic group when it comes to reading and comprehension ability. To combat this issue, I have been utilizing every active engagement strategy I learn about so long as it is fitting in my lessons. To mitigate the hyperactive tendencies that results in a loss of focus in my classroom, I have recently been trying to work in as much physical movement into my lessons as possible.
Most recently, as our class engages in a read aloud or choral reading, I have been having my students act out all of the action verbs that we come across in our reading. This action might look different from student to student, as we do not stop our reading to practice together, and some students’ actions are more subtle than others, but my students have been responding really well to this engagement activity. Students are beginning to ask, “Can we do that thing where we act out our reading, please!” Not only are my students excited for these lessons, they are gaining more from these lessons as reflected in our follow-up discussions and lesson work. Not to mention, my students now identify and act out every single action verb they come across whether we are in the room engaged in a lesson or walking down the hall to PE. What a great sight to see!
As my teaching continuously evolves, I hope to find just the right balance and combination of active engagement strategies to ensure that every one of my students, regardless of their current ability, get the most out of their education and me as their teacher. We owe it to our children to provide the most outstanding education from the moment they step through the door their first day of kindergarten and every single day thereafter, and active engagement is one way to ensure that we do just that. Maybe, once our students enjoy the learning process and are truly engaged in their learning from day one, intervention will be a practice of the past and our students will enjoy the knowledge they have gained and all they can do with it.