The 2011-2012 school year has come to an end and my first year of teaching third grade is now complete. It is super important that teachers take time to reflect at the end of the year in order to celebrate successes and improve on areas of weakness for the benefit of future students. As I thought about this year, one aspect of my classroom I am so thankful I took on was small-group instruction in math. Reading instruction is definitely my strength. I use differentiated groups in reading, and find it to be very beneficial and necessary in meeting the needs of students. I’ve always struggled with meeting the needs of my students in math with my whole-group math lessons in the past, so I decided it was time to take on small-group math instruction.
Though I was not nervous in taking on this task, I knew it would be a change for both my students and myself. In addition, I would be asking beginning-of-the-year third graders to be independent. With this being my first year of teaching third grade, I really had no idea how they would handle this. But, I also thought, as with anything in teaching, kids can accomplish amazing things, and if a teacher takes the time at the beginning of the year to set up the structure of their classroom before jumping into instruction so quickly, then it pays dividends the rest of the year.
So, my first task was to seek out help for this. I was excited to find that Beth Newingham utilizes small-group math instruction. Beth writes for Scholastic, and is clearly a teacher who goes above and beyond. Here is a link to her explanation of her small-groups in math: http://www.scholastic.com/teachers/top_teaching/2010/05/math-workshop. I also referred to a website Mrs. Newingham used when she set up her small groups. Here is that website: http://alicesmathworkshop.weebly.com/. Both of these websites served as a great starting point in my new adventure into small-group math instruction. It was also a ginormous help that my district uses the same math program as their district (Everyday Math).
The school year started and my plan for structuring my small-group math instruction was as follows: Introduce the lesson to the whole-class in a quick five minute mini-lesson. Then break up into three rotations: one group would work with me for continued instruction on the skill of the day. A second group would be taking part in independent practice, and a third group would be taking part in math games that practiced basic math skills. A challenge for any teacher is limited time. I found that it was easier to introduce the skill in my small-groups as opposed to the whole group. I found that this worked well, even better than introducing it to the whole-group, because I could immediately begin differentiating, starting with the introduction.
I have to admit, the first few weeks were a struggle and I wondered if I would be able to manage my plan of small-group math instruction. However, I was determined to make it happen as I am a huge believer in differentiating and small-group instruction. I also believed in the ability of students if a teacher can effectively facilitate the structure and environment they want for learning. So, I forged forward. Eventually, the students became more independent and we hit the road running with our new way of structuring math instruction.
Looking back at the year, I can definitely proclaim that I will rarely do whole-group math instruction again. I knew my students’ abilities so much better this year than I have been able to in previous years. I was able to differentiate lessons and assignments. (This part is a challenge and one I am definitely still perfecting). I think with federal mandates such as No Child Left Behind, we tend to focus a lot on our lowest achieving students. We should absolutely address their needs, but I think sometimes our average and high-academic students get lost and we do a dis-service to them. Small-group math instruction allowed me the opportunity to meet the needs of all of my students, not just the low-achieving ones.
I asked my students at the end of the year what they thought of small-group math instruction. I had 21 students in my class and all but two said they preferred small-groups. I asked why and their reasons included the following: not getting bored as they sat through a whole-group lesson they already understood, not getting embarrassed from sitting group a whole-group math lesson that they struggled with, while others didn’t, being able to focus better and getting an opportunity to do three different activities as they rotated from station to station. Pretty telling, eh?
I have a lot of work to do on this new small-group math structure, but its success is obvious to my students and myself. It was a challenge to take on, but so is anything else that is worthwhile! And, if it benefits students, why would I not take on that challenge?!