Part 2 – Simplifying Small Group Instruction and Conferring with Progressions: Thinking about Theme

Many of the teachers I have been working with this year are finding that small group instruction is even more of a challenge than usual. Not just because of the the planning but because readers are having trouble staying engaged in their independent reading when the teacher is pulling students to the table away from the rest for small group work.

Those who are choosing to do more conferring and going to readers rather than having readers come to them are finding more success. As we work to get readers back on track with their stamina, it may make more sense to stay in the mix and do table conferences which has many added benefits.

I was recently in a workshop with teachers and instructional coaches on Zoom. We were working on writing our own narrative pieces. The instructor asked someone to share for a conference. While the instructor was conferring with her, it sparked so many ideas in me as I was eavesdropping. That’s what table conferences do. They focus on the reading and writing of one student, but everyone surrounding you and the student benefit from the instruction.

Often times we try to meet with more kids in small group who need the same thing at once, but while that may help us work to move more readers at one time, conferring one-on-one is the strongest tool in your instructional toolbox.

It All Starts with the Learning Progressions

from the resources provided with the TCRWP Units of Study for Reading

Everything we do should be linked back to the learning progressions in order to move readers forward. Using a highlighter, highlight the specific things students can do at each level for that skill then make a post it note for each. The anchor chart that you create using the progressions can be a tool for your conferences as you move about the room looking at current writing in the the reader’s notebook to determine where they are, what to compliment, and what to teach.

Examples Using Notebook Entries

This entry does not state a theme, but look how the reader is reflecting on big moments of choice.

Compliment: You are already looking for themes that are pulled through when a character makes a decision.

Teach: So now we want to ask, “What can readers realize from Pip’s decisions?

Using the read aloud or mentor text demonstrate how looking at when the character makes a decision can reveal a theme.

This particular entry was written by an eighth grader, and I know The Outsiders was the class novel in the beginning of the year. I might say,

Remember in The Outsiders when Pony and Johnny make the decision to go to Dallas for a gun, money, and plan to run away after Johnny kills Bob? Readers could realize from that decision that people don’t always have the best judgement in a crisis or that those who feel powerless in society don’t think they have better options. Now that we have these themes, we can continue to track them to see if they hold true throughout the story.

Then coach the student through this same work using another big decision in The Outsiders and then in her book.

Looking at this notebook, the reader is already asking, “What’s this story really about?” and making a list of possibilities.

Compliment: You already have a list of some pretty significant issues. This is something we definitely want to track to see which ones can be pulled through the entire story.

Then, I would push this reader to move from a list of issues to a list of potential themes by asking, “What can readers learn about power/betrayal/fear/poverty from this example?” Then look closely while reading to see if there are more instances that will support those themes.

The mentor text or read aloud could be used to give examples of how to do this work.

In this entry from a notebook, I am seeing an obvious theme — There are good people out there. But the reader pushes further and a more hidden theme is revealed — Having toxic parents doesn’t mean having toxic kids. Looking at this hidden theme, I want to know how this is being pulled through. using the evidence, and so I would refer to a new anchor chart that is based on the learning progressions for supporting thinking about theme with textual evidence.

from the resources provided with the TCRWP Units of Study for Reading

I would push this reader to think back to what was already read for times that show that Chance is not toxic like his parents and to keep reading looking for more evidence to support this thinking. Right now the hidden theme is revealed with vague, if any, evidence. I would use the read aloud or mentor text to show how a hidden theme can be traced throughout a text and not just found in one part and how to use specific examples to support the thinking.

In this entry I am seeing that the reader is looking at how the story is written with strong character development to determine the themes — Work together to succeed and friends help you grow. The way the reader is going about determining theme through the way the story is written is complex work, but the themes determined are pretty basic. I would work with this student on developing the theme into a more complex one.

I would also work on the text evidence to include the character development of multiple characters to better show how characterization reveals the theme asking which qualities does each have that show how working together can bring success.

Sketchbooks are great for making tools that can be carried around for table conferences. And when made in advance, while pairing with a mentor text or read aloud, your planning is minimal. These conferences are research conferences. See where the reader is in this moment, compliment what they are doing already, and use the progression of post its to determine what they need next.

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