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5 Tips for Making Small Groups Work Online

Picture it: I’m meeting with a large group of educators and I can’t see everyone on one screen because I’m not techy enough yet to have set up two screens. Someone speaks up, but it takes me an awkwardly long time to figure out who’s speaking. Even after an extended amount of time, I’m not able to make a personal connection with each person in the meeting.

Does this scenario sound familiar? Teaching your whole group is important for several reasons, but the issues I described are all too common and can leave us feeling less than effective. This is where small group work comes in. You were probably already using them in your brick-and-mortar classroom and the good news is you can use them in distance learning, as well.

Here are a few tips that can help make small group work effective:

#1 Talk less

In the case of small group work, Aaron Burr’s advice to Alexander Hamilton might be right. We want to keep our small group meetings brief so that we can 1) connect with more students, more often, 2) give kids time to practice with coaching and feedback, and 3) students aren’t spending too much time away from their reading and writing.

To do this, think about keeping your teaching lean. Your connection can be brief; quickly name the work kids have been doing and tell them why you’ve gathered them together. “You’ve all been working really hard to make your stories come to life! I think you’re ready for this next tip to make that work even stronger.” Make your modeling or demonstration quicker; no need to completely re-teach the mini-lesson. Finally, let students share with a partner instead of eliciting responses one by one. This tiny tip is a huge time saver and allows all kids to share!

#2 Work, work, work 

As mentioned before, we want to maximize the amount of time kids have to practice with coaching and feedback. Aside from keeping our teaching brief, make sure kids are working the whole time. As a new teacher, I would often convene small groups of readers and then have each student read a part of the text individually while the rest of the group and I listened. Predictably, the other students tuned out when it wasn’t their turn. Rather than listening to others read or share their writing, get students engaged in reading their own texts or writing pieces while you coach them individually. You’ll still be able to offer individualized feedback, but now everyone will be working.

# 3 Remember the link

Just as in the mini-lesson, the little link at the end carries a lot of power. The link allows you to remind students of the teaching point and reminds them that the strategy is now part of their toolbox of strategies they can use anytime they need it. The link is also the place where students can make a plan for their work. You might say to kids, “What strategy are you going to think about first as you start your reading?” This decision-making fosters independence and agency.

#4 Streamline your planning

Planning for small groups used to give me anxiety. I was trying to come up with new strategies every time I met with a group of students. This took much of my time and didn’t even serve my students well. What’s more effective and less time-consuming is considering students’ goals and then teaching a progression of lessons toward that goal. For example, if you have a small group of students working on inferring about characters, you could re-teach a mini-lesson for the first session but make the demonstration shorter. In the next day or so, you might check in with group members individually or in pairs to see how it’s going. If these students still need support, the next session would help students with inferring about characters, but with a little more scaffolding, perhaps doing the work together in their read aloud. Finally, a third session could be less scaffolded, reminding students of the strategy and then coaching them as they try it.

#5 Use breakout rooms

There are different ways you can do this important work online. Some schools or districts have schedules that dedicate time to small group work, while some have schedules that are more open or mirror the brick-and-mortar classroom more closely. Here are some options to consider:

Working with small groups can help us keep a strong connection with our students, be more responsive to their needs, and give them opportunities to practice with our support.

If your workshop time mirrors workshop in the classroom…

• set a tentative schedule for individual conferences and small groups, leaving a bit of time for in-the-moment conferences
• students can work in the whole group room while you meet with students in a breakout room
• students can work in independent breakout rooms alone or with a partner, while you meet with students in the main room

If you have a separate time for small groups or will meet with small groups during asynchronous time…

• set a predictable schedule for when cohorts of students will meet with you so they can do some independent reading or writing while you meet with individual students or smaller groups of students within the cohort
• send families a weekly sign up or a schedule with times to meet individually or in small groups

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