Small Group Organization


i-knowDuring my teaching career I was always searching for the very best way to run my classroom.  Sometimes I even wished that someone would just tell me how I had to organize my day, but I didn’t really mean it.  The truth is, there is not one right way to do things.  Every teacher has to find what works best in his or her individual classroom, based on personality, teaching style, volunteers, space available, administrative restrictions, specials schedules, and a host of other variables.  Sometimes even a certain group of children thrive better with a different set up.  Over the years I tried lots of different ways to organize the day, but I am going to share what worked best for me.  One of my readers, Debbie asked for some information about how I used small groups and volunteers – this is for you!  Hope I don’t bore or overwhelm the rest of you – skip to the parts you think are interesting!

As a teacher I understood that my primary responsibility was to teach the district curriculum, which was based on State Benchmarks, and developed from National Standards.  We had defined curriculum for Language Arts, Math, Social Studies, and Science.  Music, Art, P.E. and Health were taught by “specials” teachers.  During my last few years of teaching my district had adopted several programs that we were required or expected to incorporate into our schedules:  Everyday Math, Reader’s Workshop, Writer’s Workshop, Handwriting without Tears, and Making Meaning; and some teachers were using Daily 5.   Each of these fine programs comes with specific lesson plans, sometimes even encouraging teachers to use scripted dialog to teach.  But as a Kindergarten Teacher I felt a huge responsibility to honor who the individual children are in our classrooms, and to use what I know about how children learn best.

When I switched from teaching half day Kindergarten to Full Day I was so excited because I felt like I had more time to teach the fundamental requirements in a way that worked well for me.  That isn’t to say that I didn’t struggle with fitting things in, interruptions, all the assessments that were required, and the huge range in my students’ readiness for what I was teaching.  Of course if I used every bit of each teacher’s manual for all those programs it would be impossible for me to get through the day, not to mention those little 5 year olds who begin the year so excited about being in school.  For the most part those programs should be tools to teach the curriculum that is required.

I know that children learn best when they are actively engaged with multisensory activities in a safe, fun environment.  I also know that it is easiest to learn when children can make connections and relate new learning to what they already know.  For those reasons I loosely organized my school year into thematic units, incorporating holidays and seasonal changes along with the study of units like:  ME – (5 senses, families, homes, feelings, etc).;  Animals –  (living vs. non-living, body coverings, habitats, etc).; Transportation (push and pull, float and sink), Weather, Ecology (earth materials), and lots more.  Using units like this allowed me to easily incorporate Science and Social Studies objectives, expose the children to rich literature and non fiction books, and it also gave lots of opportunities for hands on fun.

Oh, I do fully realize the ever-increasing pressure for reading and writing.  I also know that some districts are requiring 2 hour blocks of time set apart strictly for literacy activities.  I think you can do it all, and still use topics of learning that engage and motivate the children.   The most important thing I tried to keep in mind was that everything we did in my classroom had to be directed by the curriculum.  Whether we were acting out the Three Little Pigs, trying to sink paper boats by filling them with metal washers, or investigating how the tree outside our window looked when the leaves were changing color, we were always covering curriculum benchmarks.  When I first came around to this realization I had to look carefully at all the activities I introduced.  Some things were fun and cute, but really not connected to the curriculum.  I know that language development and fine motor skills can be enhanced during any activity where children are supported, encouraged and scaffolded by a caring adult.  But with the increased demands for reading and writing I became much more selective about the lessons and activities in my room.

I felt that the children in my class did their best work and were most ready for learning in the morning.  Many children were very tired in the afternoon, especially in the beginning of the school year.  So I structured my morning differently than the afternoon.   The afternoon was usually more low key, especially for the first half of the school year.  I always tried to get as many parent volunteers as possible and I scheduled them to come in the morning when the children had the most energy and focus.  I asked for volunteers who could commit to coming every week or every other week.  I often had parents who wanted to come once in awhile, or once a month, and they were always welcome, but I found out that those parents sometimes came along on a field trip, attended a program or class party, or some special event instead of helping in the room.  Also, parents who commit to coming regularly get to know the children and routines and really contribute a lot to working with small groups of children.  Sometimes the best use of a parent volunteer was asking her to run interference so I could concentrate on working with a group or doing assessments myself.  Volunteers who were good at that would help keep children on task and answer questions or solve problems so I would not have to divert my attention from the children I was working with.   Some parents were more comfortable than others with different activities, and as I got to know the regular volunteers I could sometimes plan my lessons and schedule activities for different parents based on what they liked to do with the children.

Here is a form I used for Parent Volunteers.  I included it in my First Day Packet.

Volunteers Needed

I know it’s taking me a long time to get around to talking about how I organized small groups, but what those groups were actually working on is the most important part.

I began each day with routines and rituals that helped build a collaborative school family environment.  I wrote about those in another post on this blog.  The more you include, the longer circle time lasts so I saved the Calendar activities, which are an important part of Everyday Math – until the end of the morning or right after lunch.  During morning circle time I always introduced or reinforced what we had been learning about.  It always included a read aloud and interactive reading and writing,  I also introduced and modeled exactly what the children would be doing for the rest of the morning.  Usually there were about 4 required “jobs” that everyone would do.  I knew that I needed to differentiate for children of various abilities and readiness, I did that through Reader’s and Writer’s Workshop, by having different expectations of children at varying levels, and by sometimes including different activities.    I ended circle time by making a list on my easel of the jobs the children would be completing that morning.  I used sight words and lots of pictures.  I encouraged the children to take responsibility for completing all the work, but I also kept check off lists to keep track.

first name check off

I laminated charts like this and put them on a clipboard so I always had one handy.  I often used this type of list where I could make a note about the child’s work or behaviors I noticed.  It was the easiest way I found to do anecdotal record keeping.


I also gave these to volunteers to write down anything they noticed, if a child struggled with an activity or went above and beyond what was asked, etc.  I punched holes in these and kept them in a binder, it was really helpful to get an overview of how a child was doing.  If I noticed I had not made notes on a certain child in awhile I would star their name and be sure to make some notes as we worked.

My classes always made many books, completing a page for a book was usually one of the activities.  They also did many drawing and writing responses to literature, recalling facts from informational texts, adding their own ideas as a take off to literature.  Sometimes they made a construction paper project to go along with their writing and drawing because I think cutting and assembling projects is great for fine motor development and following directions.   I modeled everything I asked them to do to be sure they understood before I sent them to work in their groups.  Sometimes they also might be doing a science experiment or math activity.  Everyday Math has many math games, and I also used lots of old activities from Math Their Way.  At the beginning of the year we also made several Alphabet Books.  Sometimes they completed a page in those books too.   I realize that explaining and modeling all these activities during circle time can be overwhelming for some teachers.   Some people I worked with were much more comfortable doing one activity at a time, but I guess I am a bit of a multi-tasker.  I did this for many years and my kids always did great, we were able to accomplish much more.  I did all I could to help them including the list with a sketch of what they were to do, I put my examples up for them where they could see and remember what to do.  Of course I built up to doing several activities, I didn’t start the school year doing as much.

My children had assigned tables of 5-6 children because I found that sitting with the same group for several weeks was the best way to help the children get to know each other in our large class.  I put a different shape and different color on each table, red circle, yellow triangle, green square, etc.  I could call a group by their color “Red table please line up.”  They usually ate snack at their own table, and always sat at their table as we got ready to go home in the afternoon.  Sometimes the children did all their work at their own table – they would get the materials they needed for each job and bring them to the table, or I would have baskets of materials on the table for them.  Sometimes I would call them away from their table to sit with me individually or with a group.  Sometimes a parent might call a group to complete a task or do an activity too.  Other times the children moved from table to table as they worked.    That depended on what the tasks were and whether I had volunteer help that day.   I would often pick one activity and work with small groups of the children at a time.  Sometimes both a volunteer and myself would be working with small groups while other children worked independently.  Sometimes the volunteer would oversee one activity while I monitored the rest.  The BEST was when I happened to have more than one volunteer (I was blessed!) and we could each work with small groups.  Children gain so much more from any activity when a caring adult is interacting with them.  Regardless I asked each child to show their work, read their own writing, read the book we were making, etc. to an adult before they put it away.  Reading these child created books, and reading their own writing, was what made these activities valuable.

When I worked with a small group of students I chose my group for different reasons.  Sometimes I worked with children of similar abilities, sometimes I wanted to be sure there were role models in the group.  Sometimes I wanted to be sure that my group didn’t have too many children who needed a lot of help – I usually worked with those children individually or in smaller groups.  A lot of it depended on the task or activity I was doing.  Children not only have a wide variance in their ability, but also in the pace that they work.  Different activities take a different amount of time too, that is why rotating stations never worked well for me.  There were always those children who were not finished, or those who had been done a long time.   Other times my groups and activities were very flexible.  If there was a chair available a child could come over to work, when they were done they moved on to another job.  Check off lists helped me be sure that each child completed the assignments.  When they were done they independently got their snack, then after they cleaned up they chose a center to work/play at.   I would ask volunteers to monitor some of these activities, I would oversee others.  Again the children always showed their work to an adult before they were done.   In the morning most of the centers in my classroom were usually available – we used a clothespin chart to limit the number of children at each center.  If you want more details please look at the post I wrote about Free Choice Centers.


During the afternoon I was usually alone in my classroom with the children.   We used that quieter time for Reader’s Workshop, Writer’s Workshop, Literacy Centers and Math activities.  The children experienced many math activities in small groups in the morning too.   At the beginning of the year I alternated between Reader’s and Writer’s workshop.  Later we sometimes had time for a block of each during the afternoon.  There were also some times that I changed and began my day with Reader’s Workshop, then moved on to regular circle time.  I have another post about Literacy Centers and the types of activities that were available.  All of those activities could also be chosen during free choice center time.

I had a series of cubbies under a large chalkboard where I kept the materials for literacy centers.  Some of these changed, others were more permanent.  I also had shelves containing tubs of books that were sorted by genre or theme.  The baskets were labeled as well as the shelves they belonged on.

Getting Ready for Kindergarten!.007

Getting Ready for Kindergarten!.006

In the afternoon I seldom allowed the children to choose among all the centers in our room.  Usually they were limited to only literacy centers – which included things like reading the room, writing the room, the writing center, our library, listening center, as well as the games and Handwriting Without Tears materials.  There were lots of opportunities to read, write, listen and speak in different ways.

Other times the children were restricted to just math materials in the afternoon.  Again, math tubs were always a choice in the morning, but by limiting choices in the afternoon I knew all children were finding time to use these materials.  Here is how I organized and stored math tubs.  The children took out the tubs and carried them to the carpet or a table to work.  The top 2 baskets A and B contained books that we were working on.  The tubs with numerals were the math materials, the shelf numbers matched the tubs in size and style so it was easy for the children to put things away.  The shelf on the far right was a mailbox – each slot was labeled with a child’s name.  I had 2 sets of those in my room to accommodate all the kids.

Getting Ready for Kindergarten!.008

It took a lot of time to introduce each of the centers – free choice centers, math tubs and literacy centers – in the beginning of the year.  I took time to explain and model every thing in our classroom before the children used it.  I brought each math tub and literacy tub to the whole group at circle time and talked about how to use and care for the materials.  Often I chose one game or activity to use in small groups in the morning before it was available for everyone to choose at the centers.  During the year when I changed an activity or added a game I would take time to model and explain it first.  I learned that taking all that time, especially in the beginning of the year when it is SO hard for them to sit still, is really worthwhile.  It makes a huge difference in how independently the children can use the materials and clean up!

It takes some experimentation to find a system that works best for you.   Nothing works wonderfully all the time with all the children.   I tried to always think about giving children opportunities to make choices every day as well as challenging them cognitively.  I wanted them to have time to work closely with a small group of other children and an adult, to be able to participate in whole group activities, and I also expected them to learn to work independently some times.  It’s a lot to ask of a little 5 year old!

8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jane
    Aug 20, 2013 @ 21:36:43

    What a wonderfully detailed post! It is always good to read what other teachers do or have done. Thanks too sharing


  2. Debbie
    Aug 21, 2013 @ 07:16:47

    As always, your post is inspiring. I appreciate all the time and energy you spent on responding to me. Many of your philosophies jive with my own which is why I wanted to pick your brain. I’ve read (and re-read) your post and want to clarify some things…
    During small group time, children have 4/5 activities that they are responsible to complete (book page; math game; science experiment; art project…these activities vary). Did you sit at one of these tables or did you pull groups to a different table?
    You mentioned “building up to several activities”. In the beginning of the year, did you do one activity with the whole group? Then, add another and so on? You mentioned the activities vary. Are they somewhat consistent?


    • dbsenk
      Aug 21, 2013 @ 08:52:08

      Hi Debbie, We always used to say that there is no such thing as a typical day in Kindergarten, every day was a bit different. I had a small U shaped teacher table that I loved because I felt close to all the children sitting there. I liked to work with children there, other times I sat at one of the children’s tables. A lot depended on the type of activities that were going on that day. It was not unusual for me to position myself between 2 tables and oversee and interact with both. Of course some years I had some more needy children who required my close presence, sometimes I kept that child close to me and brought over materials – other times I tried to stay close as they did their work. If I did not have a parent volunteer the dynamics changed because I did want to listen to each child read the book we were making, have them read their phonetic writing, and show me their work. I had another table that parents could pull children over to, we called it the cooking table but we only cooked once a week and used the table lots of different ways – especially for messy projects.

      In the beginning of the year – the first week or so especially – we spent so much time going over routines, rules and how to use materials that I wasn’t trying to do as many projects. I would explain and model one thing – after they completed it they would either use math tubs, or literacy tubs, or free choice centers – depending on which of those things I was introducing. The first couple of days I would put things like play dough, puzzles, books, Legos, etc. out for them to use. It just takes so much time to introduce how you want them to work, play and take care of materials at each center. How quickly I expected them to listen and remember directions about multiple activities depended on the group. The problem is when the whole group does one activity you have to have a plan for those who finish fast and those who take a long time. If I didn’t want to take time for everyone to play and clean up I would sometimes put a few tubs out on the carpet for them to use until everyone was done. Then I might introduce a second activity and following that they could choose from the centers that had been introduced. The beginning of the year is difficult and exhausting – good thing it is also exciting and heart warming!

      Through the year the kinds of projects I asked the children to do were often similar. We were usually working on a book – or contributing to a class book. We did many projects related to books. Some units of study involved more science projects or social studies curriculum. When I was planning a new unit I usually began with about 5 important things I wanted the children to learn and created a book around those things. Then I listed all the literature I wanted to use and sorted those books to reinforce the 5 (or so) things we were concentrating on. I also listed math and science curriculum that would go along with the subject. So I basically planned one day for each important thing – I always looked for or made up songs to reinforce the important ideas too. I also tried to include creative open ended experiences and we cooked on Fridays. If I felt like I didn’t have enough activities for a day I would add Everyday Math activities or a literacy game; or sometimes we just had a lighter day that allowed for more free choice time. I did not have a formula like 2 language arts activities, 1 math, 1 science or anything like that – it was more flexible. Hope this clears things up a bit!



  3. Debbie
    Aug 22, 2013 @ 18:44:02

    So were your units of study typically a week? Sounds like you took a Science and/or SS concept and integrated the math and language arts. Is this correct?
    My district has recently adopted Everyday Math. Our language arts curriculum is evolving and seems to change each year. We have been attempting to implement reading and writing workshop but, in my opinion, are overwhelmed with too many resources. It would be nice to have one common framework or a scope and sequence to refer to. Even though we have a full-day schedule, I continue to struggle with fitting everything in. Like you, I don’t think Kindergarten should look like first grade. Sometimes I find myself questioning how appropriate it is. Sorry…just venting! Did you think you would be coaching teachers in your retirement?Your input is very much appreciated!


  4. Darcy
    Aug 24, 2013 @ 23:00:34

    What is the name of the font you use? I saw it on the Pat the bunny post and would like to get it to use, too.


    • dbsenk
      Aug 25, 2013 @ 08:18:46

      I think that WordPress converts my typing to their own font for the basic text – I had not paid attention! I went back and looked to see what it is and it looks like Helvetica to me. I have a LOT of fonts because I like them – on the documents that I import I often use DJ Basic from DJ Inkers. That is what I used on the directions for Pat the Bunny. I also like ABC Print – I usually look for the ball and stick a, and easy to read!



  5. Kathleen
    Jan 23, 2014 @ 14:35:15

    Bless you, bless you, bless you! Thank you so much for generously sharing your wisdom and insight. I have a class that is “making me a better teacher” and it is very encouraging to read your loving suggestions. Your blog is a treasure trove of resources. Your thoughtful reflections ring true with me and I feel bolstered and ready with lots of new ideas. Thanks again.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: