Monday, August 22, 2016

Small Group Learning--Creating a Rotating Schedule

Elementary orchestra sample small group instruction rotation schedule

My elementary orchestra students have their small group learning ("small groups") once a week for 30 minutes on a rotating basis.  Notice that this is called "small group learning" rather than "lessons."  The term "lessons" suggests one-on-one time with a private teacher, performance-based, outside the school day, and generally paid for by the student's family.  What I teach is a comprehensive musical education where students are composing, learning about history and culture, listening, writing, etc. as well as technique and musical literature.  The careful choice of "small groups" and not "lessons" helps to reflect what students are actually doing in orchestra and helps to validate orchestra as part of a well-rounded education.

Anyway, during my first year of teaching, I created a semester-long small group rotation and posted it outside the orchestra room and inside each classroom.  However, I quickly realized that field trips, school assemblies, standardized tests as well as simply getting to know the students better and changing enrollment meant that ongoing adjustments would need to be made.  I have since switched to posting a monthly schedule, which allows me more flexibility with scheduling around conflicts and modifying small group personnel as needed.

Students know to check the schedule each week to know when their small group time is that week, and at the end of the month, I simply post the new schedule.  Sometimes there are still last-minute changes such as when an assembly is scheduled after the monthly orchestra schedule has been posted or I find out about a field trip a few days before, but then I just pencil in the corrections.  I make sure that every student has a small group time each week, which means that some weeks have "combined small groups" to fit everyone in when a block of time is not open for orchestra that week.  Students get a kick out of the few times they have "giant small groups" with perhaps up to three groups scheduled at once.

These schedules can be tricky to visually decipher by students, so I intentionally label each group with a letter, spell out the month (instead of using numbers), include the day of the week, and then finally the time.  Otherwise, numbering the groups and referring to the month by its number results in a lot of numbers on the page and a bit of confusion on the part of the students.  At the beginning of the year, I coach students to check their small group letter first, then find the date, then read down to locate their small group letter and finally over to see what time they have orchestra.  My goal, of course, is for students to independently check the schedule each week and come at their scheduled time with the other students in their group.  I also cross out the day's column at the end of the day so it's easier to quickly find the current day next week.

When I figure out the rotations, instead of just moving each small group down to the next slot for the next week, I like to skip a couple of spots, usually three, so I can avoid having a student miss the same subject multiple weeks in a row.  Otherwise they may miss the first part of, say, math one week and the second part of math the next week.  Of course, sometimes this is unavoidable due to limitations of scheduling combined groups when standardized testing wipes out a few slots and then there's an assembly at the end of the day, but I do my best to keep the schedule rotating evenly.  Skipping a couple of spots also creates more variety for the students with regard to having morning or afternoon small groups rather than staying stuck on morning times for an entire month.

Things to include:
  • School/Grade level (name of ensemble)
  • Month
  • Upcoming concert dates and other important events
  • The table itself
  • Small group assignments (by letter and instrument)--list students' first names and homeroom teacher
  • Disclaimer that the schedule is subject to change and that students and teachers will be notified

I've also started including a picture of a composer whose birthday falls during the given month just as a way to visually differentiate between the old- and new-month's schedules and as another exposure for my students to composers.  I had been using clip art for each month, but I like the composer pictures for now.

I also color code each orchestra's schedule for easy identification by students and myself.  I teach two grade levels at two schools, and all my schedules, attendance sheets, and grade sheets are all color-coded by ensemble.  They are posted outside the orchestra room and at a designated location in each of the classrooms, which just takes a few minutes to change at the end of each month.  These are also posted on my school website as PDFs so families can access them from home, if desired.

Here is a totally generic sample small-group schedule that can be modified to match your teaching schedule:


Elementary orchestra sample small group instruction rotation schedule

Elementary orchestra sample small group instruction rotation schedule

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