In my last post, Teaching Writing: Is it a race against time?, I shared some ways that I have found to give my students the benefit of quality writing instruction within our limited class time. The most common question I hear is, "What do you do with all of the other students while you are conferring and doing small group lessons?" This has been quite a journey for me; I have found a lot of things that didn't work. Like you, I want my students to be engaged in meaningful work, but they also have to stay focused so that I can dedicate my time to the student(s) with which I am working. I am still working at fine tuning my practice, but I have found that literacy centers have been the key to meeting my goals.
I spend over 90% of my time with students either in small group lessons or in one-on-one conferring. Much of the success of using literacy centers comes from having my students set the expectations for themselves while they are either working independently, in pairs, or in a small group. They become the monitors of their own (and their peer's) choices. It puts them in control of the choices that they are making. By letting them have that ownership, I discovered that engagement increases and off-task disruptions are kept to a minimum.
Also, because this is a new for most of my students, we have a gradual release into centers. They need the time to build the endurance to self-monitor and stay engaged for longer periods of time. At the beginning of the school year, we may only devote 10-15 minutes to Lit Centers. As students show that they have an understanding of what the expectations are and they learn how to self-monitor and engage themselves in their work, we slowly increase the time until they are able to devote an entire ELA block to staying focused and on task. To be transparent, my middle schoolers become very adept at this quickly. However, they are middle schoolers. On occasion, I will stop and remind them to evaluate their choices: Are you actively engaged in your work? Are you being as productive as possible? What will change/increase your growth?
Another crucial cog in this process is for students to be engaged in meaningful work. Learners want to know that their work is worthwhile; it's helping them reach their individual goals. As classroom teachers, I'm sure we've all given students work that is a time filler. Students know when an activity, assignment, or project is basically a glorified babysitting tool. The danger in that is we are sending a message to our students that they aren't the most important entity in our classrooms. They need to know that we all have very important work to complete. Our time is valuable. When designing Literacy Centers, each center needs to provide students with choice. They need to push student's learning and growth wherever they are on the learning continuum. Lit Centers should be a time where students can practice, fail, reflect, and retry. Learners should know not just the "what" but the "why" behind each of the centers in which they are engaged.
To design my Lit Centers, I have combined many different schools of thought (The Daily 5, Writer's Workshop, etc.) to make them work for my middle level learners. Typically, we have six centers that students rotate through each week. Some of the centers may last for several weeks, but most of them can be completed within a week. The centers are: Read to Self, Liberating Lexis (meaningful, individualized vocabulary development), Read with Others, Reflection (typically done on KidBlog), Grammar Grabber (using mentor texts with authentic practice), Publishing Studio (as a project based classroom, we always have a working project). Some centers are independent, some are for student pairs, and some are for a small group.
The learning activities change each week based on the standards learners are working on mastering. Because our 6th grade team plans cross-curricular units, sometimes they are working on the ELA piece of a cross-curricular plan. These centers include the freedom of choice while allowing students the creativity to pursue interests, capitalize on strengths, and grow in areas of weakness. Students know that they are accountable for completing all centers within a given time frame. They understand that the work in which they are engaging is practice to push them towards mastering content standards and reaching their personal goals.
I have found that by combining Lit Centers with writing conferences and small group differentiated instruction, my students grow tremendously. They are happy, enthusiastic, engaged, and self-motivated. They are not only growing to demonstrate mastery of ELA standards, but they are also developing crucial life skills: time management, accountability, collaboration, communication, perseverance, problem solving, and creative thinking.
That is what all of my others students are doing while I'm conferring and conducting mini-lessons. I'm working on making a few tweaks for next year. I'd love to hear how you keep your students actively engaged while you work with small groups of students.