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Plan to WIN

After the reading affirmation chant, excited little first graders scurried to guided reading table, computer alley, skills lane, independent drive, and manipulative maze. I must admit that I think I was just as excited as them to see them operating at a level of confidence because it met their need. JACKPOT! My classroom center rotation was operating like clockwork, after several weeks of rituals and routines until students mastered where to look, where to go, and what to do!

However, small group time did not always work this way for me! It was a process.

As a new teacher, many moons ago, this was a foreign land and quite frankly, just not practiced. In my opinion, they were doing okay, and my evaluations were PERFECT! After having a child with “different abilities”, I soon understood the need for strategic and intentional differentiation and small group instruction. No Child Left Behind took on an entirely different meaning.

I stand boldly to proclaim that I teach and treat every child under my care as if they are my very own. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the reciprocal proclamation I received and observed having three children, who all have different learning styles and needs. Homework time in our home is a major production, just as it is in the classrooms.

As a teacher coach, this is a common denominator expressed in nearly every class I visit. Many teachers expressed lacking clarity, purpose, or just the know-how. Some further expressed that as long as their students were in small groups working on different task, they were “doing centers”. Worksheets are the anthem, assessing for proper placement is MIA, and holding students accountable is HUH….and then you want me to teach Writing, Science, English, and Social Studies-all in the same day.

Just as I taught and treated each child in my class as my own, I will help and support you, just as I do with my very own brother and sister. So, as I share strategies that I have found to be effective, please feel free to reflect critically, practice, ask colleagues for advice, and attend workshops. Now, here are the keys to move your small groups from run of the mill to living on top of the hill.

Proper planning prevents poor performance

Spend time creating, communicating, and practicing procedures with your students. View this section as if you are coaching a basketball team. Placing players in the right position to bring you a WIN, high test scores, that accentuates their strengths or weakness in our case as educators. Small group time involves a complex arrangement of diverse students, areas, and materials. Teachers must create comprehensive procedures, communicate them to students, and allow adequate time to practice them until they become routine.

Data drives instruction or WIN

Based on the assessment tool you use, you can group students in a way that creates an environment to practice a skill, if they haven’t mastered it, provide a challenge to think critically for those that mastered, place them on the computer to explore and be taught in a different way, or reteach a standard while they are working with you. In all cases, grouping decisions must be intentional, based on the nature and purpose of each activity.

Create strategic tasks

Centers tasks in any content area should be interesting, challenging, and when possible, provide students a chance to practice skills in authentic ways--meaning that activities help students connect their learning to the real world or develop real-life habits of mind. For example, having students navigate the classroom library to choose books and read independently, write for a variety of purposes (letters, blogs, scripts, ads, or news articles), or play math games that help develop mental math strategies.


In order to manage the flow and transitions, students need a visual model that details names, groups, and task. As you assess, these groups or task may change. Students should be able to successfully transition between groups at designated times without support from you, after it has been modeled and practice. Incorporation of a bell or soft alarm will signal rotation time. Having a student leader to facilitate responsibilities at each group is a major asset to have in place.

Assess: Whether by observing students as they're working, collecting student work to review, or engaging students in reflections on their learning, teachers must monitor student progress. It's important to know when students need support or scaffolding and when they need to be challenged further.

When implemented well, centers enable students to interact in a relaxed setting, and empower them to navigate the learning environment on their own and in diverse groups. Well-chosen centers activities accommodate different learning styles, and allow students to self-direct as they apply skills and strategies in fun, engaging ways. Centers allow teachers to address the distinct needs of small groups of students.

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