Re-Imagining Small Group Reading -- Course for Graduate Credit!

Interested in…

  • Re-imagining flexible, small group reading opportunities?

  • Investigating tools & actionable steps essential for starting and sustaining small groups?

  • Earning 2 semester hours of graduate credit?

  • Learning at your own pace?

    • 8 online sessions

    • complete at your own pace

    • anytime between now and mid-August, 2019

If so, join me by checking out this RE-IMAGINING RDG GR 3-8 Course.

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3 Ways to Re-imagine Small Group Reading Experiences

I had the pleasure of writing a blog post for Corwin Connect this month focused on 3 ways to re-imagine small group reading experiences. You might also find our book, What Are You Grouping For?  How to Guide Small Groups Based on Readers—Not the Book (Corwin, 2018) helpful. Small group reading opportunities might be just what you are looking for if you are a:

  • Grades 2-8 classroom teacher

  • High school teacher who is curious about supporting readers through small groups

  • Tier 1 or 2 response-to-intervention (or instruction) teacher

  • Special education teacher differentiating reading instruction across grade levels and through inclusion

  • ENL (English as a new language) teacher who want kids to bolster their reading and speaking skills at the same time through language-rich, collaborative small group experiences

  • Instructional coach, curriculum director, or building administrator

Check out the Corwin Connect blog link!

Thank you #G2great Learning Community!

What a week filled with blessings!  We were invited to be guests on the 8/23/18 #G2great Twitter chat. The chat focused on ideas captured in our new book, What Are You Grouping For? How to Guide Small Groups Based on Readers – Not the Book (grades 3-8) Corwin 2018 where we re-imagine small group reading instruction that goes beyond grouping by students' reading levels.  Tucked inside our book, we outline five teacher moves that position students as the center of decision-making in different, dynamic ways.  We also position students as decision-makers for their own reading lives.  One way we do this is by considering flexible groupings for students based on their:

  • interests
  • passions
  • curiosities
  • needs
  • wonderings
  • worries
  • newly found connection with another classmate
  • something going on in the world now or in the past
  • author
  • many more!

Maybe you are thinking back to your own childhood and how you were grouped for reading instruction?  Our reasons for grouping will challenge what you knew as an intermediate learner.  Yes, that's right...that means NO more squirrel, seahorse, or blue bird reading groups for the purpose of trying to get the next "level".  As Mary Howard referenced in a twitter post (to which I have added on):  Let's make sure that we don't raise another generation of readers who associate their literacy journeys to letters, numbers, colors, animals, or percentiles.  Instead, let's fuel students' reading lives with texts they want to read, alongside peers who are going to nudge them to question, build inquiries, make meaning, and grow.

The #G2great learning community deepened our thinking about small group learning opportunities for students. If you are interested in learning more from this great chat, check out the WAKE.  Thank you to Mary Howard, Fran McVeigh, Jennifer Made Hayhurst, and Amy Kruger Brennan for their kindness and support in helping champion our work!  

An extra thank you to Mary Howard for an amazing gift.  Her blog post combines the best of gifts--a synthesis of the #G2great Twitter chat and highlights from our book.  Thank you, Mary, for your time, energy, compassion, and passion in keeping students at the center of our collective work and for supporting us as we re-imagine small group learning opportunities for the kiddos near and dear to our hearts.  You've helped bring the JOY of our work into the world and we are grateful!

The Proximity Principle: How to Curate Resources In Order to Stoke Student Interest

Written by Julie Wright & Barry Hoonan

The art of curation is matching texts that will inspire and fuel students’ curiosities with the science of also finding texts that can be used as tools for the content we need to teach. Texts with dual purposes - student interests and content - have big take-aways! When we inch closer to students and pay attention to what they are reading and what they are interested in, we can better collect texts that matter to them and make a bigger difference in their learning.  

Let’s call our first move - Curating to Stoke Students’ Interests.

Having the benefit of listening in on our students, we move forward in search of stoking their interests by compiling dynamic texts together.  Then we promote ‘their texts’ by displaying them beautifully and giving credit to the students who lifted the topic or inspired the text set. Or, we provide time and space during whole or small group for students to share hot reads or book stacks with peers.

Teaching reading is also grounded in curriculum – skills, strategies, habits and the growing of new ideas. When we curate with curriculum in mind, we like to believe we are standing close to a radiant ideal … that when we spend time learning, that information, knowledge or new idea matters.

So let’s call our second move - Curating Mentor Texts to Teach Something Powerful.

Whether you are a teacher looking for a text to meet a curricular need or selecting one for a read aloud, at heart you are always doing one thing: you are making a choice that will help you teach your kids something powerful.  The natural step for finding these texts is to look for favorite and reliable authors. The authors and their works will mentor readers. Readers will feel the power of mentorship.  So we lean on these texts as mentors. And we curate with ‘our mentors’ in mind.

In the end, we want our students to “sit around the table” with the likes of Jacqueline Woodson, R.J. Palacio, Angie Thomas, John Green, Matt de le Pena, Jandy Nelson, and Rainbow Rowell -- being wiser and more insightful and more curious than before.

Here’s an example:

Barry’s class has just finished hearing Helen Frost’s powerful prose Hidden read aloud. The sixth graders have discovered from the author’s notes that there is a mystery ‘hidden’ in the last word of each sentence in the second section of the book.  It reveals one of the character’s perspectives. They sleuth their way through and read the cryptic message out loud. The class is a buzz.

There are so many possible next steps to capitalize on the students’ enthusiasm for word play.  We could curate a text set around books written in prose style, like Witness by Karen Hesse.  We could pull together Helen Frost books or even stage a small group to read Hidden again.  

Students’ amusement with twisting story plots and fabulous verse opened the chance to stoke their interest in Shakespeare.  Using Tales from Shakespeare by Tina Packer made the perfect blend of colorful pictures, great storytelling and some insightful placement of Shakespeare’s own words.  And, to capitalize on students’ interests and knowledge of Shakespeare (or lack thereof) Barry asked his kiddos to write on graffiti boards (white paper with color markers) the stories they knew and all the things that came to mind when they thought of Shakespeare and his writing.  The colorful boards and conversation danced with questions and ideas such as:

  • A small group discussed the idea that Shakespeare was a long time ago and people talked really funny then.

  • Titles like Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Twelfth Night surfaced as other things to read or compare.

  • A student commented, “Oh no.  My brother hated reading Shakespeare in middle school.”

There was a mesmerizing amount of experiences and opinions around the texts being discussed, but very little love toward Shakespeare’s play.  Betting on the inertia of word play and misconceptions, Barry began reading ‘Tales’ out loud. Kids were asked to echo lines from the book and together the class engaged and enjoyed  Shakespeare’s timeless and relatable stories.

Here’s the interesting part:  Choosing the next read aloud is curation at its finest.  We want to play to our audience of readers and we want to lift their understanding of humanity, history and themselves.  Our end goal is to leave them knowledgeable, inspired, and curious.

For more on teachers and students as curators, see Chapter 7 in our new book!

The Proximity Principle: How to Assess Readers’ Work In Order to Break the Cycle of Teaching to the Middle

Written by Julie Wright & Barry Hoonan

If you want to know what students know and can do, along with what they need next, using proximity to get up close to students’ work is essential.  We like to think of assessing student work in these ways:

Student conversations:  The stuff kids talk about -- dialogue between and among students and teachers.  Talk is an authentic source of data for understanding what kids know and what they need next.  This might be student talk during minilessons or shared experiences. It could also be the talk that happens as kids share out during mid process or at the end of workshop.   This is particularly insightful is students share how they process understandings during whole group, small group, and 1:1 interactions.

Student work samples:  The stuff kids make, create, write, or design.  Student work can be short (annotations, jots, blurbs, reflections) or longer in nature (paragraphs, projects, models).  The in process, along the way, work helps us create a focus for instruction and know what to do next in the moment. The end of learning work helps us assess culminating learning where we can look back in order to plan forward.

John Hattie explains that, “visible learning is teachers seeing learning through the eyes of their students, and students seeing themselves as their own teachers.”  Think of student work as anything students create, talk about, or do that makes their thinking and understandings visible. Below are some examples of student evidence.  As you read, there are lots of ideas that could be added.  Think about what you would add to this list.

Teaching and learning is hard, rewarding work -- both for the student and the teacher.  As a teacher and coach, we’re often asked to “boil things down for teachers and show them what to do.”  Since reading is a complicated process, it makes “boiling it down” tricky. Yes, reading and meaning making are dependent on students’ ability to decode and comprehend the text.  That part is complicated in and of itself. Add to that the idea that reading is dependent on the individual reader’s interactions about and within the text in order to for knowledge, skills, and understandings to come into full bloom.  Student work is our lens into knowing what kids know and and what they can do. It’s also our lens into what they need next to grow their reading and thinking muscles.

Here’s an example:  

It’s late January and sixth grade students are enjoying a mini-unit focused on interesting people in the world.  Through whole group learning, we created a shared agreement that we would begin by reading short texts and that short texts meant anything that can be read in one to two independent reading times.  Students also agreed that short texts could include pictures. This definition was important because it took into account students’ needs and interests. For example, students explained that one to two independent reading times was important because not everyone reads at the same pace.  In addition, many students wanted the opportunity to investigate higher level picture books, or sets of picture books with a common author or theme, and they wanted to make sure that picture books were accounted for in their definition.

If we fast forward about a week, kids are reading, re-reading, trading, talking about, and enjoying all types of short texts.  

Organizational Tip:  Give each student a two-pocket folder because it gives them a place to store reading materials.  Along with this folder, using a reader’s notebook or a binder with paper is key so that there is a designated place for students to hold their thinking.  

During the work time portion of reading workshop (after the minilesson and before the debrief/share out) is where students are given time to read, write, think, and talk about what they are reading.  Across the mini-unit students have multiple opportunities to read independently and in small groups to construct and co-construct meaning. This becomes a data center for teachers to figure out what students know and what they need next to lift their learning.  During a small group conversation with a group of students who were investigating short, one page stories in Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World by Rachel Ignotofsky, students read, took a few notes about big take-aways and then they shared their thinking with a shoulder partner.  If you lean in, listen and take note, you can size up student thinking and understandings (and possibly misunderstandings) in less than twenty minutes in order to determine what students know and are able to do and what they need next to grow their reading muscles.

Here’s the interesting part:  By leaning in, listening, and taking note, we can assess and respond to readers’ work and we break the cycle of teaching to the middle.  

For more, check out our new book!

The Proximity Principle: How Pivoting into Flexible Groups Shows Who Kids Are and What They Need

Written by Julie Wright & Barry Hoonan

Do you find there are days you are left wondering … am I seeing the forest for the trees? You know, those times when you find yourself so singular in your student outlook or even in your student grouping that you might not be realizing there is the possibility of seeing separate “tress” or kids and how they might grow together to make a forest of new ideas?

In this case, proximity promotes standing back and noticing things with fresh new eyes.  This new perspective can be enriched or elevated when we look across our classroom with different lenses.  Educators are busy. That is why sometimes teachers, ourselves included, have seen a group of kids as singular.  Intentions are good, but the busyness of schools and classrooms keep us from doing what we know to be right all of the time.  Let’s take a look at some reasons why, and perhaps some entry points, into how to go about pivoting into flexible groups in order to see kids for who they are and what they need.  

  1. Curriculum-Centered Reasons - Your unit of study or curricular plan is your playbook for where you intend to go. You plan, you glance, you go.  You watch over your readers and when you see the plans need adjusting, you react by pulling students together in fluid, flexible groups for ‘just in time’ feedback.

  2. Social-Emotional  Reasons - Kids show up often wearing their emotions on their sleeves.  We read our students and we pivot, making decisions we believe will support them in the moment - both short term and long term.  Sometimes it is finding the right ‘thought partner’, the right text, or connecting a student with a study group.

  3. Individual Reader Reasons - Small groups place readers together for purposeful reasons - skill and strategy work, building on and sharing interests and topics, developing keen inquiries together, enhancing a reading diet, and so many more.  These engaging small groups give students opportunities to voice their opinions and insights, and ask questions.

Here’s an example:

It’s Monday morning.  Some students trod through the classroom door, others skip, some even drag.  Shoulders say a lot about how each student is beginning their day. Slumped? Upright?   I watch and greet each student. I watch as each student pulls out their books and begins reading.  I watch as Elijah kicks Omari under his desk. I watch as his eyes fly side to side looking for something his book can’t deliver. I watch as he puts down Jason Reynolds’ Ghost and yawns.

I slide over to Omari first.  He retells his latest Diary of a Wimpy Kid reading.  I ask how his weekend was and he smiles, “Played video games with my brother.” “Awesome,” I say.

Elijah stares out into space.  I move alongside him and he says,”Oh man am I tired. Dad had me up late.  Watched the Lakers game with him. They’re sooo bad.” “Not as bad as the Knicks,” I respond.  He lights up. “Always better than the Knicks,” he quips. He picks up Ghost and before moving over to Madison I tease, “I imagine you’re as fast as Ghost, but not Patina.” “Faster and better,” he says.

Sometimes the right move is the subtle move to connect, not correct.  Sometimes it is holding your breath as a teacher until your students show their cards.  Sometimes our best reading instruction is reading the texts in front of us - our kids...their attitudes, behaviors, and habits.  Our connections and observations are as powerful as the actual text, or reading materials, in their hands.   

Perhaps the next step is to use our observations and then gather a group around Jason Reynold’s great books like Ghost.  Perhaps our next step is to have a small group around what our weekends in the city are like and what weekends in the books we read are like.  Or maybe it’s time to read about the upcoming NBA playoffs and fill the small group with discussion about favorites and predictions.  

Here’s the interesting part: Recognizing what’s happening in the here and now in kids’ work gives insight into possible learning invitations for the future.  The power of proximity and the ability to step back to take stock of what’s in front of you can make a big difference in how you teach, how you group, and how you meet your students’ needs.


Kidwatching: A Practice Exercise

Building a kidwatching routine or habit is important if we want to put this type of data at the forefront of our planning.  Whether you are just getting started or have been using kidwatching as a regular tool for knowing students' wants and needs, this template may lift your own kidwatching know-how.  Take a look and have fun capturing what you know about your students and ways that knowledge can impact a focus for instruction!


The Proximity Principle: How Kidwatching is More Precise Than Other Data

Written by:  Julie Wright & Barry Hoonan

Proximity matters.  That’s because being close creates connectedness.  And, this, in turn, creates oneness. Let’s take, for example, when a teacher reads aloud a beautiful picture book or short story to a group of students.  Pulling students up close during the experience, rather than spanned out across the room, creates a different feel. Gathering everyone to come close to the center, near the book / text and near the reader, creates a community and a shared purpose.  This ups the chances for engagement because we know it’s harder to drift off if you are part of the process. This also ups the chances for participation and learning because the experience can (and should) include dynamic interactions.

While kids are up close and interacting, that’s when we kidwatch in powerful ways.  What we see and hear can lead us to making inferences about our students. It can also spearhead wonderings...creating inquiries around students’ insights, ideas, and questions.  If we aren’t up close, we might miss it. That’s the principle of proximity in action - having eyes and ears on the ground…in the work…to kidwatch. That gives us the teacher know-how of what to do next for each of our students.  

In our new book, What Are You Grouping For?  How to Guide Small Groups Based on Readers -- Not the Book, we describe a teacher move called Kidwatching 2.0 which gives us opportunities to use proximity to learn about our students’ curiosities, passions, interests and needs.  Our protocol guides teachers to orient, notice, take stock and inquire in order to plan literacy experiences that meet students, collectively and individually. Specifically, this is a new way of thinking about small group learning experiences because being up close to students is what drives discovery.  Here’s how it goes.

1.  Orient ~ Orient yourself and take a pulse to what’s going on across the classroom.

2.  Notice~ What do you see/hear - academically and socially?

3.  Take Stock ~ What evidence shows that students are knee deep in the opportunities for learning?

4.  Inquire ~ What inquiries do you have about your students?

If you don’t use the power of proximity – being close to students’ conversations, interactions, and work – you risk faulty or misguided kid “intel”. You might risk having outdated information versus “in the moment” data filled with important knowledge to create instruction and learning opportunities for students.

Here’s an example:
A few weeks into a nonfiction reading unit, fourth grade students are working toward these goals:

  • reviewing and using text structures and features to make meaning of nonfiction texts

  • answering guiding research questions about a chosen topic

  • sharing at an upcoming family literacy night

As students collect interesting information to support their inquiry, shared reading serves two purposes:

  1. Making meaning of nonfiction texts about topics that we may or may not know much about

  2. Exploring mentor texts that excite and energize readers - one readers may end up using as a mentor text for students’ nonfiction writing projects

During shared reading, we explored and read excerpts from

  • London City Trails by Moria Butterfield

  • Usborne Book of Inventors by Anthony Marks

  • Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space by Walliman and Newman

  • The Biography of Rice by John Zronik

At the conclusion of our shared reading experience for this particular Tuesday, students are reminded that next to our community meeting area are a few tubs with some interesting nonfiction titles they might enjoy individually or with a small group.  Before long, there are a few small groups cooking, so I decide to spend a five or so minutes kidwatching in order to keep my finger on the pulse of how these readers are doing in terms of our shared goals as well as their personal reading goals. So I jot in my notebook:

Orient: almost everyone joined in a small group of 2, 3 or 4; some groups had multiple books while two groups chose only one book to read together

Notice: there’s a low hum of student voices across the room; group members are gathered around texts; some group members are standing, some propped up on knees, some on the floor, some at the cafe table, some at the low coffee table;

Take stock:  one group used post it notes to mark the layout of the two-page spread that they liked; one group grabbed a big piece of paper and made a list of new knowledge they gained by reading about sharks; one group decided they liked Jenkins book, How to Swallow a Pig and are considering they might borrow from its structure; one group continues to love the dependable structure in the Eyewitness series and they want to design their two-page spread in the same way.

Inquire:  should the shark group share out with the whole class during our debrief?; does Josiah (who worked alone, but typically joins a group) want to work alone or need a way in to a small group?; Is the Jenkins book the best model or is it the use of space and bold words that could lift the group members’ own writing? Should i meet with them to noodle ideas?; how will we create shared agreements about a timeline for this project so that there is enough time to investigate, plus time to read, research / answer inquiry questions, draft, edit, publish the two-page spreads, plan out family reading night agenda.

Here’s the interesting part:  Developmental reading data on each of the kids was available.  And, yes, that’s important information to know. But, on this particular Tuesday (and the days that followed) levels didn’t guide the reading work at the small group table or the students’ inquiry.  If a student is a level O and grabbed a book about Kyrie Irving to feed his inquiry, checking the reading level of the book wasn’t the most important move. When kids are interested, have a real purpose for reading about topics they choose, and have access to a variety of books and resources -- their motivation fuels more reading and ultimately their reading success.   


Five Teacher Moves to Lift Small Group Reading!

It's not easy being a teacher today.  With all of the demands on time, increased district initiatives, added pressures of state tests (which often includes the yearlong undercurrent of test prep), and the oodles of's a day-to-day juggling act.

The flip-side:  When you see a kiddo's face light up because she makes a connection or figures something out that was tricky, when a group of kids share hot reads or book recommendations for their book stacks, or when a kiddo comes bursting through the door to tell you he made the soccer team or his painting made it into the art show, it fills you with pure JOY!  

What is it that makes the "flip-side" mentioned above happen?  Proximity.  Proximity makes knowing and experiencing all of that, and more, possible.  Across the next few posts, Barry (my colleague) and I will be talking about the proximity principle.  We believe it's the key because our proximity -- or nearness in space, time, or relationship -- makes a difference.  That's because the closer we get to students and their work, the more we can learn about their wants and needs as readers, writers, thinkers, creators, and doers.   Once we are "in the know", we can design learning opportunities that meet those wants and needs.

Stick with us as we try to tackle all the demands placed on schools today through five teacher moves that harness the power of proximity and lift small group reading opportunities.  

Pre-order now available!

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