A seat at your small group table should be a coveted place in your classroom. My goal is to make learning math with me something to look forward to. The students who are called to small group are usually those who struggle the most in a particular subject, and often they can be reluctant to do even more of that subject. When my students come to a mini-lesson at my table they have learned to expect 3 things: to have fun, to be challenged, and to leave feeling successful. When we engage our students in a fun activity, we lower their affective filter and heighten their ability to learn. Some of my best small group lessons ever have been playing a game with my students.
Games are enticing and engaging for students. They are an automatic hook. When I play against my small group I always go first and think aloud through my turn. I use my turn to model strategies and critical thinking. During my group’s turn, they work out their solutions on whiteboards so that I can see exactly where each of them are at. I always give at least one student the opportunity to share their work while thinking aloud for us. On my next turn I can repeat the same strategy I modeled in my first turn or push my students to use mental math or a more efficient strategy if they seemed to have mastered their first round. As we take turns playing the game I get to use my turns as mini-lessons to steer my group, while their turns are an opportunity for me to peek inside their minds.
Repetitive games are also a perfect way to practice vocabulary with your students. In a geometry game I may use the phrase, “the attributes of my quadrilateral are…” repeatedly in the game, and then expect my students to use the same phrase when it is their turn. Our students learn vocabulary by using it and practicing it consistently. Students are more willing to take risks and explain their thinking using targeted vocabulary in the relaxed atmosphere of game-play.
Game selection is key. It is important to use games that focus on a single topic or standard, just as a small group lesson would. Just as important as coherent focus is rigorous content in the games you use. Games that practice a skill in isolation, without being in the context of a problem situation, will not take your students where you need them to go.
When you are planning your next small group lesson, consider using a game for a fun and engaging way to practice the content students need to master. Make the seats at your small group students’ favorite seats in your classroom!