Kids Take the Lead: Flipping Small Group Work, Putting Students’ Learning Front and Center

Kids Take the Lead: Flipping Small Group Work, Putting Students’ Learning Front and Center

by Peter Gangi, Literacy Coach and guest contributor, with Maggie Beattie Roberts, The Educator Collaborative Network Member

Register to watch Maggie Beattie Roberts and guest young adult author, Karuna Riazi,’s 2018-2019 Study Series Session, “Writing Characters You Wish Existed,” live on March 6 or later on-demand through June 30, 2019.



Kids Take the Lead: Flipping Small Group Work, Putting Students’ Learning Front and Center

During her 2015 Literacy for All Conference opening Keynote Address, Meenoo Rami inspired her audience to BE the next big breakthrough in education.  She described the traditional research report her department had always done. (You know the one—epically long and drawn out, kind of boring, unsure if kids were even learning that much.) Amidst the chuckles in the audience and the head nods, she then described how she flipped the project on its head.

She worked to reimagine, reinvent and re-inspire the lifeless cycle of assignment that produced more compliance than agency. This project drained the energy and motivation from her classroom. She and the kids needed change. They needed a breakthrough.

So, she launched a classroom magazine.  Suddenly, students were engaged and enthralled.  Students were planning, reading, researching, interviewing, revising, editing, using media to compose and create. It was, in her words, a “renaissance explosion.” She challenged the audience to take one thing in our teaching and classrooms—preferably one thing not working that well—and flip it on its head.  

I loved the invitation.  I believe that teachers must have what Tony Stead calls a “pioneer spirit” in the classroom. We, as teachers, should study our students and feel the freedom to reinvent or flip our teaching to meet their actual needs. Now, this is hard. When we are bogged down with deadlines and mandates, when our resources are cut and schedules unpredictable, it is really hard to be innovative in the classroom. Having a pioneer spirit takes a reserve of energy and creativity. There are days that we are near empty on that reserve in our classrooms.

However, Maggie and I argue that the needs of your students can be your the fuel to light (and keep lit) your pioneer teaching spirit. Meenoo reminded all of us of this beautiful way to view teaching. When we find the energy to reimagine our beliefs and teaching practice, when we find the courage to break tradition and reinvent, we open up space for kids to step in and take the reins of their learning.

I carried Meenoo’s invitation into a year-long study group I attended with Maggie Beattie Roberts and Kate Roberts through The Educator Collaborative. Their Virtual Think Tank, DIY Teaching Tools to Support Learning, focused on teacher-created tools to differentiate instruction and foster deeper, sustained learning. We spent the year reflecting on our teaching, specifically small group teaching, and created a variety of tools that personalized instruction for small groups of kids inside a whole class unit of study.

I wanted to flip my small group instruction on its head. My small group instruction had fallen into a rut—it felt like I was doing all of the work, and my kids were just along for the ride, nodding enthusiastically, but not really carrying the work beyond our small group. I wanted students to take on designing and creating tools within my cycles of small group work. In this way, students would own the learning, making decisions based on what they feel would be most helpful for them.    

This flip felt risky. Instead of me always coming into a small group with a teaching tool made to invite kids in on the work of the day, I wanted to position my students to be makers of tools that would help them carry my teaching into their independent practice. If I could do that, my ultimate hope was for students to lead small group lessons for their peers.

My colleague, Erika Muccio, and I jumped in. We identified a group of students struggling to figure out multiple main ideas when reading nonfiction. We gathered the group, took the lead, and taught students using a teaching tool we made.

Figure 1: Teacher-Made Teaching Tool

We continued working with this group on tackling the big work of finding multiple main ideas inside one text. But each time we gathered as a group, in addition to offering more strategies to do this work, we began inviting students to make teaching tools that captured the strategies that were working the best for them. We made sure, as Debbie Miller suggests, that we had a lot less “I do” in our gradual release teaching, involving the students early and often.    

As kids took the role of tool-maker, we couldn’t believe the level of metacognition and quality of the students’ responses. We asked kids to share their tools. More importantly, we asked kids to share the thinking behind their tools.

Figure 2: Student-Made Teaching Tool

Figure 3: Student-Made Teaching Tool

Figure 4: Student-Made Teaching Tool

Upon sharing, they said things like:

“It has really helped me to think about when the main idea shifts in a text, and to think about a few main ideas, and not just one.” Derek, third-grader

“(My tool has) examples, but not strategies!” Brooke, third-grader

We realized the kids were working harder than us. They were engaged. They had agency over their learning. We had flipped the dynamic of our small group work. By taking this risk, embracing our pioneer spirit, we positioned students front and center in their learning. This flip sent the message, “We are all teachers here. We are all learners here. And each one of us is in charge of our own learning.”

As you linger in your summer, we invite you to hear Meenoo’s invitation in your mind. What can you change? What can you flip? What’s not working? Not sure where to start? Try asking, how could kids take the lead? We have found that the more we do this, the more deep-rooted and enduring the students’ learning is. We’d love to hear from you! Happy flipping:)

For more on Pete’s work, including brief lesson plans from this small group work cycle, you can reach him follow him on twitter @petelitcoach and email him at