Making instruments in a small group

Small-Groups and the Broader Impact

David Jacobson
9 min readAug 19, 2014


(Boston K1DS at the East Boston YMCA #3)

The Birth through Third Grade Learning Hub

I introduced the East Boston YMCA’s experience with the BPS Opening the World of Learning (OWL)/Building Blocks curriculum in the first post in this series. In the second, I discussed the impact of longer, more structured units, multiple and multi-purpose read-alouds of stories, and a robust math curriculum. In this final post of the series I describe the use of small-group activities and independent centers as well as changes in classroom management, teacher confidence, and the development of oral language and thinking skills.

Small-Group Activities

Before the introduction of the OWL/Building Blocks curriculum, Katie and Gloria used independent centers (called “areas”) in their class chiefly to do arts and crafts activities. One teacher would work at one table while the other would roam the room helping out in the other centers. The BPS curriculum has brought about two changes regarding small-group activities. First, center activities are more varied and are more explicitly tied to the unit theme and to specific books. Second, OWL also includes a time for small-group activities. The approximately 20 minute slot for small groups is somewhat more guided and “instructional” than the time for centers.

One teacher provides “high support” for one activity (e.g., writing), the other “medium-support” at a second activity (e.g., math), and the other three groups do activities they can do independently like coloring or cutting shapes. The students rotate across the five activities doing a different one each day throughout each week. Thus each teacher has an opportunity to work with each group over the course of the week, and each student participates in two types of teacher-directed work as well as in independent activities.

My Planet

In one of the small-group times that I observed, Katie sat with a group in the writing area supporting the children as they invented their own planets. She went around the table as each child came up with a name for his or her planet and its characteristics. Katie helped each child write the name of the planet and begin drawing it. One child included the word “Earth” in its name, so Katie invited all the children sing the Earth song they had been singing recently, sung to the tune of B-I-N-G-O, to help the child spell the word.

While Katie was in the writing area, Gloria played a math game with another group. Each child had a picture of a rocket with circles on it where the child could place a little plastic disk. Using the conceit of a loose story, Gloria had the students add a specific number of disks to the picture and then either add or subtract disks. To build suspense, Gloria would wait, all eyes on her, and then blurt out the number. “Place five on the rocket. Add 2. Subtract 2. Add 5. Add four more. What number is that?” Several students quickly said 14. I spent time with the children in the “low-support” groups as well, and it was clear that the children were used to working independently in groups.

Individual Attention and Independent Learning

When I asked Katie about the small-group portions of the day, she said that this has become the time she perhaps enjoys most as she is able to give the children more individual attention. While the activities tend to be more literacy- or math-based, it is also a time to work with the children on working as a team or social problem-solving. Gloria agrees and notes that giving the children more independent time without a roaming teacher in the room has been good for the children as they have learned to be on their own more, and in her words, “learn to solve problems and work together.”

East Boston YMCA preschool director Karen Clauson has been so impressed with the OWL/Building Blocks small-group activities that she has worked with her other teachers to implement them in all the preschool classrooms. Karen has been amazed at how much the children enjoy the time and expect to have it, and how they will press to make sure small group and centers are part of each day even on shortened days. Coming back from a trip to the beach recently, the students clamored for small groups and centers on the way back, “calling us on it” to make sure Karen and the teachers were going to fit them in. Further, Karen particularly appreciates how the small group structure creates a specific time in which teachers can have closer interactions with children, interactions that can provide the basis for observations to input into the recently-introduced Teaching Strategies Gold assessment system. While her teachers conduct observations throughout the day, the small groups provide a dedicated time to gather observations, especially since each child joins both teachers in a small group each week.

In addition to more structured units and a different approach to small group activities, the BPS curriculum and coaching model has led to changes in classroom management and teacher/student conversations as well.

Management, Confidence, and Thinking Skills

“I Feel More Confident as a Teacher”

During the professional development that BPS provided for the 14 community-based classrooms at the beginning of the Boston K1DS initiative, the teachers and directors requested support for classroom management. The BPS coaches provided some specific classroom management techniques, but they also made the point that the structures and routines of the curriculum, coupled with the rich learning content, would support improved student behavior and classroom management. Katie and Gloria have found both the structure of the day as well as the specific techniques they have learned from coach Abby Morales to be helpful.

One simple yet helpful classroom management technique has been using SWPL (Songs, Word Play, and Letters) activities during transitions. The songs and rhymes are fun and engage the children. In addition, director Karen Clauson sees evidence of the impact of the overall structure and routines (including the daily schedule). In her view the children “know what they are doing at different times of the day” and “own” the different components, especially small-groups and centers, leading to “less fighting and messing around.”

From their external perspectives as director and coach, Karen and Abby independently make the point that the classroom tone and teacher presence in the Lions classroom has changed as Katie and Gloria have become comfortable implementing the structures and routines of the new curriculum. Katie and Gloria themselves agree and think that classroom management and their teaching has improved. Katie says outright, “I feel more confident as a teacher.”

Questioning and Thinking

Another thrust of the BPS curriculum and coaching model, and for that matter all of the literacy-related professional development and coaching we see in the EEC Birth-Third Alignment Partnerships, is extending conversations and developing oral language skills. Katie and Gloria say that the children’s vocabularies have grown as a result of this past year’s curriculum and teaching practices, and preschool director Karen says the children are responding in full sentences more than ever before. She sees Katie and Gloria using open-ended questions more frequently to extend conversations and make them “richer, ” and recounts a time when she observed Katie and few children on the playground in an animated on-and-off discussion of a spider web over 25 minutes. As Gloria says,

We let them talk about their ideas more. We give them the opportunity to explain their ideas. We ask, “What does this mean?” We ask them questions so they can use their critical thinking. We motivate them to want to talk, to explain.

Developmentally Appropriate Practice *and* a “Formalized” Curriculum?

For many early childhood educators, a critical issue, perhaps the critical issue, is the extent to which the BPS OWL/Building Blocks curriculum is developmentally appropriate, and specifically, the extent to which it promotes children’s play. I will not pretend to address this question fully in these three posts on the experience of the East Boston YMCA. Suffice it say that Katie and Gloria feel that their children are “learning through play” and that the children enjoy the curriculum. Moreover, as mentioned in the first post on the East Boston YMCA’s experience, preschool director Karen Clausen was initially quite worried that the children would lose time for play as a result of the new “formalized” curriculum. She is now reassured that the children still have significant time for free play in the morning and the afternoon. The play in the centers is sometimes more guided, sometimes more free. The net impact, in her view, is that children are enjoying the their classroom experience this year and having a good balance of free play, guided play, and teacher-directed learning experiences.

With this balance in mind and the other benefits the new curriculum has brought, especially the shift in planning time from the “what” to the “how” and the individual observational opportunities the small-group structure affords, Karen has become an advocate within the Boston metro YMCA for the adoption of a formal curriculum.

“What Changes When It Works”

As I mentioned in the first post in this series, it is important to keep in mind that the East Boston YMCA was suggested by BPS coach Abby Morales to explore “what changes when it works.” Skeptics will justifiably point out that Gloria, Katie, Karen, and Abby may be seeing what they want to see in the children’s responses, especially after putting in all this hard work and perhaps having become enamored with the curriculum. In this regard we are thus very fortunate that in this case Monica Yudron of Harvard is conducting a rigorous evaluation that is assessing the impact of the Boston K1DS initiative across the participating preschool classrooms. My objective in these three posts have been to describe the changes in practice which resulted from the Boston K1DS project in the eyes of two teachers, their director, and their coach. These perceptions are a key source of “early evidence of change.”

Early Evidence of Change

An important concept in any continuous improvement effort is the idea of monitoring “early evidence of change.” (Click on the small “1" to the right of this paragraph to see a note.) Are we seeing evidence of any change, and in particular, are we seeing the intervention’s intended changes? If not, what adjustments need to be made to the program or initiative in question? Katie, Gloria, Karen, and Abby encountered challenges early in the change process and made many adjustments as they implemented the new curricular model. At this point, they cite evidence of improved vocabulary, longer sentences, extended conversations, more knowledge related to themes, much more facility with mathematics, and fewer behavior problems among their students. Their impressions and analysis represent positive early evidence of change. In time, these perceptions will be factored into a broader assessment, beginning with a report Monica Yudron will soon issue that will characterize how classrooms have changed across the Boston K1DS initiative and whether there is a link between classroom changes and child learning.

Leveraging District Capacity

The Birth-Third movement is premised both on the idea that districts and community-based organizations need to create respectful, two-way learning partnerships that serve all children and that there are opportunities to leverage the larger size, infrastructure, and in some cases capacity of school districts to the benefit of community-based providers. Boston K1DS is a highly unusual case nationally for two reasons. First, it is based on a curriculum and coaching model that has demonstrated such robust results. Second, with the support of former Boston mayor Thomas Menino and the district, the BPS Early Childhood department has built a respected team of early childhood coaches, capacity that was integral to the success of the model in district classrooms. In line with the ambitions of the Birth-Third movement, this capacity, supported in part by external funding, is now being tapped and deployed in community-based classrooms through the Boston K1DS pilot initiative, a further step towards ensuring that all children enter school ready to learn and succeed. Boston K1DS thus shows a potential role districts can play within the mixed delivery system. This role, however, requires that districts deliberately invest in and build the capacity to deliver high-quality early childhood education.

This post was completed as part of a contract between the MA Department of Early Education and Care and Cambridge Education (where David Jacobson worked at the time). Contract # CT EEC 0900 FY13SRF130109CAMBRID.

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