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Sleep Deprivation and Small Group Work

Seven months ago my second child was born (well we consider him our third child since our first is a vizla/lab mix that holds a prominent place in our family but that’s another tale...).

I knew before our son was born that I would struggle immensely with the first few months. I’m not comfortable with newborns, preferring toddlers and school age children all of my life. I also knew that I am older this time around and my need for sleep is, well, much higher than most folks I know.

If you’ve ever experienced prolonged sleep deprivation then you already know the trouble it brings- weariness, forgetfulness and confusion. It’s also so much harder to not feel overwhelmed. During these first months as I wrestled with all of this, I thought a lot about teaching and teachers. And students.

I work in several school districts across New York and New Jersey. I’m seeing patterns in practice that go beyond any one school. Across the board teachers are having a hard time pulling small groups. As a literacy coach I know the rationale supporting small group work is straightforward- it’s efficient, it’s targeted and it’s impactful. So when I see teachers in many different kinds of schools struggle to consistently execute this important structure, I pause and try to imagine why.

One of my favorite staff developers, and dear friend, Shana Frazin wrote on her blog Turn and Talk last year:

I love what Peter Johnston, author of Choice Words: How Language Affects Learning, says about trouble. He says we need to normalize trouble in our classrooms. He adds that trouble is neither good or bad, it’s information. I love this. Everyone- reader, writer, teacher, friend, partner- encounters trouble. The goal is not to live a trouble-free life. The goal is to become more and more accomplished at navigating and learning from trouble.

Shana goes on to write, it’s important to follow up on trouble by asking, “What have you tried so far?”

This question, “What have you tried so far?” keeps bouncing through my mind. When I think of my days in a sleep deprived haze our family tried so many things: swings and white noise and black out curtains and... anything. So when I recently asked a group of teachers who weren’t feeling successful meeting with small groups, “What have you tried so far?” their responses revealed so much. They hadn’t tried much because they were stuck in despair. One day of not meeting with a group led to a week and weeks of not meeting with groups.

I told them that I think sometimes the way we get unstuck is to simply try anything. I know this sounds too simple, but when faced with a baby who wouldn’t sleep I didn’t say, ‘well that one thing didn’t work so I’m done.’ I tried the next thing (badly) and the next thing (badly) until we experienced (some) success. Now it’s true with an infant that time and growing older will make a difference regardless, but in those early days none of that mattered. Trying anything mattered.

Teaching small groups goes the same way. You don’t have to do it perfectly, you just have to try. Quickly research your writers during the first few minutes of independent writing time and look for a few writers who have a similar need. Listen to a partnership during a turn and talk and think “What could I show both of them right after this minilesson?” Scan student jots during a prep and ask, “Do these readers have something in common?” Every small group doesn’t have to be grounded in hours of research. Just trying something can help children immensely.

To this end I recently challenged a group of teachers to look at a stack of drafts from a classroom. I gave them four pieces of work randomly chosen and said, “Scan the first piece and name 2-3 things you could teach. Then go to the next piece and think, “Anything in common?” Teachers were stunned that patterns were developing across papers and that searching for something to teach, as opposed to the very best thing to teach, was freeing. Next we spent five minutes (yes, just five!) planning a small group that we would execute immediately. Teachers orally rehearsed what they would teach and how they would quickly model it. They didn’t script out plans and they didn’t fret over the perfect paragraph length teaching point. They just tried something- quickly and clumsily and powerfully.

After the classroom work teachers were energized. They remembered that in-the-moment teaching is a good thing- responsive and appropriate. (And, well, so are in-the-moment sleep strategies. But that's also another tale...).

If you’d like to read more of Shana’s wise words, her blog can be found at:

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