Collaborative Small Groups – Middle School PLC

Seeing lessons where students take on the responsibility of learning is always something that I feel empowers the students and works to help students become true life long learners. I feel this because it gets our students in the habit of learning on their own, both inside and outside of the classroom. The strategy, collaborative study groups, get students working together, asking questions, reflecting on learning and making connections between current learning and previous learning. Collabroative study groups focus on one specific question that is not yet fully understood by the entire group, one student is presenting their thinking and together, all students ask questions and take notes as they work together to arrive at a solution. For a more in-depth explanation of this strategy, visit AVID Collaborative Study Groups.

Quality Indicators

The teachers, lead team, admin team and coaches all work together to construct quality indicators for our professional learning cycles. These indicators work to guide our students to participate in the strategy effectively, help us, as teachers, understand more about what our role is as educators and reflect on what our classroom environment should include to better support the process.

Student Presenter:

  • Articulate the specific question to the group
  • Thinks critically about the question
  • Interacts with the question
  • Interacts with the group members by responding to their questions
  • Records thinking on the board

Students as Group Members:

  • Respect the ideas and thinking of others
  • Use inquiry to gain a deeper understanding of content
  • Actively participating by listening, asking and answering questions and taking notes
  • Contribute to an environment where others feel comfortable and ask questions
  • Communicate to teacher about the group experience (reflection piece)


  • Monitors the collaborative study group to coach the process
  • Rotates to all groups
  • Supports the students in developing critical thinking skills
  • Handles classroom management
  • Takes notes for student presenter
  • Models respect of ideas and thinking of others
  • Models inquiry for deeper understanding of content
  • Encourages active participation
  • Contributes to create an environment where others feel comfortable and ask questions

Room Environment

  • Arrange the group seating to promote collaboration among all group members
  • White board space needs to be available for all groups
  • Group of students (6-7 per group)


In the Classroom

Two of our teachers’ classes, Ms. Morris and Mr. Hill were filmed to show how collaborative study group can look different in different grades and subjects.

Watch the video clips here:

While I was filming the lessons, I noticed the power of diving in deep to one question and I recognized how powerful it is when students can rely on each other to learn. The community that is built and the ownership of learning is something that goes beyond a basic lecture because it gives the students the opportunity to apply their learning and to get feedback from their peers. It moves the students from a place of compliance to a place of empowerment because the learning is theirs to own and take control over, yet they are supported by their peers as they work to process complex questions. The reflection piece at the end, where students make connections between current learning and previous learning, helps the learners improve upon their skills. When collaborative study groups are applied in classrooms, they can empower students and help them recall prior learning experiences and develop new learning experiences.

A huge shout out to our Feaster Charter Middle School leads for being open to sharing and reflecting on practices! This is something that truly helps us grow as a school and a community because we are working together as a team to reflect and grow.


Self Care

Every year, around this exact time, there are teachers going out sick, feeling worn down, exhausted and still managing to plan great activities and coordinating memorable and meaningful celebrations for their learners. This is part of the job and we do it to the best of our ability because of the kids. Over the years, I have found three things that work for me and keep me somewhat healthy and mostly stress free; this does not mean that these three things will work for you too, but it is at least a starting point! So, before you go to Target to fill your shopping carts with Theraflu, Cold-EEZE, Airborne and all of the essential oils, try a few things to prevent yourself from getting sick and from feeling worn down.

  • Finding Your Calm

    • What is it that makes you feel stress free and appreciated? How can you accomplish this on a sustainable and daily basis? These answers will be different for everyone, but that does not mean that we should keep them to ourselves! I love hearing how other people find calm because that is how I learn about new things to try out myself.
  • Making Self Care a Regular Routine

    • This one requires a daily commitment but not one that should seem overbearing or impossible on most days. Self care works best when it is something that you actually look forward to!
  • Communicating with Others

    • Sometimes, we just need to sit and talk with someone who will listen. During one of our PDs, the speaker asked us to share how we feel heard. He asked if we would rather be given a solution to our problem or if we would rather just be listened to. It is important that whoever you go to knows which one you need in that moment – do you want to be heard or do you want ideas? Take some time to tell them at the beginning of the conversation what you need in that moment.

I would love to hear more about how you all plan to take care of yourselves! I think talking about this helps us build stronger relationships and it may even give us ideas for how to better care for ourselves!

IMG_5955 2

Further Reading and Viewing

I recently read a blog post from one of the Keynote speakers that CVESD brought in over the summer to speak with a group of educators. It was called Because of a Teacher  and it explained how hard it is to be sick around this time of year. In this blog post, there was also a video – A Thank You Letter to Teachers. Both this blog post and this video reminded me how important it is to take some time for self-care and really make that into a routine. My hope is that you too will take some time to take care of you; our educators at Feaster do so much for everyone else, so it is important to take some time and do something for you as well!

Hour of Code 2018

Computer Science Education Week will be held nationwide December 3-9!  This is a week where additional coding challenges are posted on Hour of Code and students around the world are encouraged to learn more about computer science. This does not mean that teachers suddenly become web developers, instead, it is an opportunity for our learners to understand more about how websites and games are made. Coding can create situations where learners are dealing with complex problems and have to use multiple strategies to complete a task or challenge. Through the years, Hour of Code has developed and expanded to include activities for all ages and academic levels. I encourage you to explore this yourselves and have fun with it by trying out some of the resources and tips in this post.

Watch a video reflection of one of our second graders talking about Hour of Code “helps her brain grow” 

Screen Shot 2018-11-30 at 6.37.15 PM.png
Watch the full video here:

Why Code?

Coding is not just limited to computer science week! I see and hear Roel Mislan talking about coding all the time with our Mindlabs students. He discusses how pair programming (when two coders work to complete a challenge) can help web developers work through complex problems and help develop important teamwork skills.

  • Social emotional learning connections
  • Helping students problem solve
  • World of Work connections
  • Learning to productively struggle
  • Inspire students to understand how the websites they use and the games they play are built
  • Set up routines for brain breaks and rewards that help develop grit and self control

Need more reasons to participate in Computer Science Week? Check out this video and show it to your class for some great examples on how coding has helped others:


Screen Shot 2018-11-30 at 6.50.13 PM.png
Watch the full video here:


Sign Up Link:

CVESD has a set a goal of completing Hour of Code in 800 classrooms! If you will be participating in Hour of Code this week, take a minute and sign up using the link:

Swift Playgrounds:

**This is an app on the iPad, if you do not already have it, please email Heather Galyen**

Swift Playgrounds is an iPad app as opposed to a website. It was developed by Apple and is free to download and use! This is just one resource that we have for students to practice coding. Students choose one of three animated characters, they can create their own “playgrounds.” Student see the actual coding language while working on Swift Playgrounds. The lessons within Swift Playgrounds start off basic and then get more advanced as the students complete challenges. There is some more rigorous vocabulary that comes up in the advanced levels.  See this article or see this YouTube Video for more information:

Hour of Code How to Video:

Explanation of Activities:

Suggested activities by Grade Level and Device Ability:

The Hour of Code website has created a great online course catalog:

This will give you specific links and lessons for your grade level and your students’ coding knowledge.

Screen Shot 2017-12-03 at 9.50.43 AM

There are a ton of new coding challenges this year! A lot more have been added that have academic connections – students can explore challenges in coding while learning about famous people in the English Biographies coding challenge, they can complete multiplication math challenges and learn about how pollution is impacting the ocean.

All Ages:

**These do play music, so make sure your students have headphones or their volume is turned down.

Primary Grades:

Upper Grades/Middle School:

IMG_5752 2

The Productive Struggle

The term “productive struggle” has been around since the beginning of Common Core (probably even before) and has often been a concept that teachers have been encouraged to consider when lesson planning and creating resources for their students. Productive struggles happen when challenging tasks are met and learners use strategies and tools to try various solutions while understanding that the first solution may not work but also knowing that they will not give up. Experiencing productive struggle can help set students up for working through potentially stressful and anxiety-inducing situations and completing them with a sense of confidence and pride. How powerful would it be if we could reduce the anxiety and pressure that students feel by giving them time to practice using various strategies to arrive at a solution for a complex problem? When we give opportunities to productively struggle, we are helping our students gain skills in critical thinking, problem solving, reflecting and showing grit.

Feeling Supported

Before giving our learners something that, on first glance, may seem impossible, it is important to make sure that we have set up routines where they know that they will be supported in any strategy they choose – except giving up. Support can come in the form of team work, use of technology, communication – anything that helps our students know that they are helping their brains grow by working through things that seem impossible. In this way, productively struggling can have a lasting impact on the classroom community by showing everyone how effective it is to work together and feel supported.


All Grade Levels, All Subjects

When I was researching this topic, I found so many examples of math in upper grades. However, there are opportunities to pose challenges that will allow your learners to experience how to productively struggle in all subject areas, that simply means allowing your learners to show determination in figuring something out. There is no limit to age or subject when it comes to struggling through difficult problems:

“…giving students an opportunity to struggle through a difficult problem with a clear learning goal in mind, combined with just enough stretch and strategic assistance, students can develop lasting connections about important ideas, increased capacity for productive struggle, and durable skills for solving novel problems in life.”

Beyond Growth Mindset: Creating Classroom Opportunities for Meaningful Struggle

Brad Ermeling, James Hiebert, and Ron Gallimore

As the quote above notes, it is important to have a learning goal and make sure that there is some assistance when the students are facing anything that they will struggle with. Assistance may come in the form of a help chart, a buddy in the class, the opportunity to do online research, a strategy that was taught earlier, small group support…any resources that will help our students feel like they are getting somewhere and making progress instead of feeling anxious and stressed.

When opportunities to experience these challenges come up in class, it helps students get in the mindset of figuring it out and using grit to continue working towards a solution. The idea is that experiencing the productive struggle will eventually lead to less testing anxiety because students know they have overcome complex challenges in the past and they can do it!


Social Emotional Learning Connections

Productive struggle can help our learners better face challenges with a sense of confidence and pride especially when they have faced other challenges and felt supported and prepared for the task ahead.

  • Building a stronger classroom community: students work together to resolve problems and begin to rely on one another
  • Grit: students learn to try multiple strategies and use every resource they have been given while following through and making sure that the challenge is completed
  • Support: students know that they are able to get resources and strategize with each other in order to figure out a solution that will work
  • Taking risks: students are more confident in trying new things because they are not forced into a “one answer is the only answer” mentality all of the time – I am not saying that there are not times when there is only one answer, but I am saying that our classrooms should have a balance between things that you can google and figure out and things that you need to use critical thinking to solve


Teachers Productively Struggling

John Spencer wrote a great article recently about teachers experiencing productive struggles and connected it to feeling empathy for what our learners go through: Why Teachers Should Experience Productive Struggle. If time allows, I would encourage you to take a few minutes to read (or listen to, this is also a podcast), this article. I would also encourage you to think about:

  • What opportunities do your student have to productively struggle?
  • How will this better impact their education and future?
  • What strategies do you have or in place or what strategies do you plan to implement to make sure that your learners feel supported?



Taking Time

In a profession where we have so little time and time always seems to be getting away from us, I was reminded this week about how important it is to just take a few moments to enjoy and celebrate each other even when we seem to have so little time to do so. That is why this week, our #Feastergiving had a theme beyond the fall season:

Be kind,
Be thoughtful,
Be genuine,
But most of all,
Be thankful

Feastergiving Poem 2018

Author Unknown

During our #Feastergiving, I was looking around and recognizing how many people we have on staff and I was thinking how nice it was to see everyone mixed up, not necessarily with their grade levels, but with other people, laughing, talking, getting to know each other. I took it all in and spent a moment just listening to the laughter and the conversations that were not focused on lesson planning or on working through some complex classroom situation but were focused on getting to know the other people at the table. These times to build relationships can be invaluable because, just like our students, we need these times to connect with each other and build our personal bonds.

It is through these conversations that we start to recognize the commitment to our students that we all share and we also start to recognize each others personal strengths. Like Ms. Miller who is organizing the Girls on the Run  program or Mr. Samaniego who is passionate about building connections amongst our staff and our Feaster Farm teachers who are “building humanitarians” and Ms. Aderholdt who has worked for over a year to plan Spanish classes for the staff and Ms. Bates who is doing amazing things alongside our athletics department to make sure the league fees are paid and the teams have enough coaching staff…these are things that I only know because I am taking the time to notice them (of course there are many more not mentioned here and I encourage you to share in the comments below). I know we all have those stories and we all have an example of how someone near to us is doing amazing things and we all recognize the strengths of others. This week, it was really great to see everyone in one room taking it all in and just enjoying the time to get to know other staff members and appreciating each other and just being thankful. During this time, we expressed gratitude on leaves that were hung on a tree that will be kept in the lounge. I hope that we can continue to add to our #gratitudetree and share some of the ways that we are thankful for each other.


I saw the tweet below posted by a first year teacher and I immediately felt so much empathy for her because I know that we have all had times when we have felt like this; regardless of how long we have been teaching. It is my hope that because of the relationships and bonds we have forged, even when we are having a tough #FridayFeeling, we have a group of supportive and empathetic people we can go to right here on campus.

Screen Shot 2018-11-10 at 10.02.38 AM

I encourage you to read through the comments linked here that other educators have written in response to this first year teacher’s tweet. It made me realize that we are teaching in a very powerful time when we have so much support right here on campus and we have so much support online from others. It is my hope that you all had some time to feel thankful during our Feastergiving and it is my hope that you will take that time as often as needed to let yourself feel thankful both professionally and personally.


2×10 Strategy & Restorative Practices

Over the course of our time implementing restorative practices, we have come to learn that this is not just a strategy but a part of our school’s culture. It is my personal opinion that at the core of restorative practices is building relationships that work to prevent harm and conflict from even occurring. When I say building relationships, I mean knowing our students beyond who they are in our classrooms. I see a lot of our teachers doing this – they sit and talk with their students when they are having a tough day, they show up on a Saturday for their student’s cross country meet, they stand outside to greet their kids as they come in (every single day, not just the first week, but consistently), they can tell you back stories for kids who are not even in their class and they show they care through their daily and consistent actions. We have so many teachers who are doing these things and working to build relationships with their kids to prevent conflict before it even happens. When we build those relationships and create a feeling of community, harm is less likely to occur because we do not want to hurt something that we feel we are a part of. So, the question is, how do we make sure that all of our students feel like they are part of our school culture and they help make our classroom communities positive?

Consistently using restorative practices (trust circles, buddy-up, affective statements, dual purpose lessons with connections to social emotional learning, pointing out examples of character strengths, and many more that you can read about in this old blog post) all work to start building these calming classroom cultures. However, what do we do when these strategies are “not enough” for some of our learners? We need to do something that is more personal and individualized.


2×10 Strategy

The 2×10 strategy is an idea where educators spend two minutes a day for ten days in a row getting to know a student. This time should be spent talking with them about something they want to talk about. It does not need to be academic but it should be something that the student is interested in, within reason, of course. Hear the kid out and learn about what they are interested in.

A few weeks ago, I was talking with a student who was waiting for their counseling session to start. I had always struggled with building a relationship with this particular student. I happened to be working on a music grant and I learned that this student was part of the our band program. I asked about what they needed and how adding more instruments would impact him personally. Over the next few, days, he came to me with more ideas and we worked together to create a quote from this student that explained the positive impact the grant would have if it provided instruments to our learners. Because of this 2×10 – 2 minutes a day talking about band instruments for 10 days – this student felt empowered and knew that I cared about their personal interests. This helped us build a more positive relationship.

I am not saying that every conversation has to result in a product. Instead, it should be natural and heartfelt instead of forced and fake. Below are some generic conversation starters to get this going (be sure to tweak these so they match your natural speaking style):

  • I would really appreciate knowing more about ____.
  • I am so proud of how you ____.
  • How did ____ go?
  • Tell me about something you did recently that you enjoyed.
  • What are you thinking?
  • I thought of you yesterday when _____.
  • I appreciate _____.
  • I noticed _____.
  • I remember you mentioning that you ______, how is that going?

Critics of this strategy point to fact that this is taking away from instructional time; however, if behavior is extreme, that is taking a lot more than two minutes of your instructional time in your classroom to resolve. Angela Watson wrote a great blog post titled Overcoming 3 Biggest Obstacles in Building Relationships with Kids where some of your questions and concerns may be addressed.

With the trauma that children experience today, the 2×10 strategy can help them recognize the safe places we have on campus and help open up communication and build trust and a sense of community.


*All pictures include Feaster teachers, Ms. Bates, Mr. Thorburn and Ms. Cortez working to build relationship with individual students.

Focusing on Individual Needs Using Reports and Evidence

As we have been focusing on small group instruction, we recognize that there are two crucial parts to this – the first is what is going on with the teacher group and the second part is what the students are doing independently when they are not working with the teacher. I am not saying that one is more important than the other, but there is a clear difference between the two – one is that the teacher is gathering immediate data and information that will help to better understand the needs of each individual and the other is that the students are working to complete an assigned task and information about how they completed the task can be gathered at a later time.

We are privileged to have numerous resources available to us online! ImagineLearning, Achieve3000, SmartyAnts, Benchmark, TenMarks and other personal programs being used with your learners are all great resources that help meet student’s individual needs by providing supports and lessons that would not be possible without the technology at hand. How powerful would it be if we used the work that students are doing on their devices to better understand how they are learning and using that to impact our future small group lessons and, if needed, whole group lessons? I am also not saying that we should only be data driven, but it is important to recognize the needs of our learners and use their completed work as evidence to help us stay informed about their progress.

“Using evidence to INFORM practice and move it forward in serving the child is crucial.”

George Couros

The Principal of Change Blog

Individualizing Instruction

When we look at the results of work that students are completing using our online programs, we can really create an individualized learning experience. Pulling these reports helps us as educators understand the needs of our learners. We recognize where they are excelling and can better understand these patterns and we recognize where they have deficits in their learning and need additional support. We can celebrate these successes and reteach and give alternate strategies in the areas where they are currently struggling.


Looking at the work that is being done online using our programs helps keep students accountable for being on task. They recognize that they are actually doing the work for a bigger purpose when we can look back and comment on what they have been doing.

Setting individual growth goals and supporting our learners in meeting these goals can help students thrive.

Using Results to Build Relationships

When students see that we are actually looking at the articles they are reading and finding out about what they are interested in, we can build relationships and connect with their personal learning. When students see that we are looking at strategies they are using to solve math problems, we can bring this up in whole group lessons and use their ideas to guide our instruction.

This takes the sole responsibility of planning and knowing everything off of the teacher and instead creates a community focused on learning and building relationships. This is done because we are recognizing the progress and needs of each individual learner instead of lumping them into an average that is not realistic for any of them.


When we see patterns in our online reports, we can recognize what needs to be taught again in whole group and what needs to be taught again in small groups. Depending on how many students were able to successfully meet the standards and apply the skills needed, we can identify areas of misconceptions and work to resolve those before they become habits that cause work to be done incorrectly on a consistent basis. We recognize this by looking at the reports, analyzing student work and by having conversations.

Pulling reports are just one way that we recognize the needs of our students. We are also working to hold conversations, hearing how they are problem solving with their peers and looking at more informal work that is being done by our learners. We can use the online reports as one tool to help make our instruction more strategic and purposeful. The first step is, of course, looking at the reports and understanding the needs of each individual! From there, we can make a plan on how to help use this as one of many tools that guides our instruction.