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Getting the Most Out of Small Groups
by Lee Danesco
Small-group discussions and activities can suggest all the features of a catechist's worst nightmare: lots of conversations going on in the room at the same time, furniture being moved around, mayhem lurking everywhere. So how is it that some catechists frequently use small-group discussions and activities with great success?
Small-group discussions and activities can suggest all the features of a catechist’s worst nightmare: lots of conversations going on in the room at the same time, furniture being moved around, mayhem lurking everywhere. So how is it that some catechists frequently use small-group discussions and activities with great success?

They recognize the advantages and opportunities that small groups make possible.

Small-group discussions and activities get everyone involved. Well-structured small-group experiences encourage student participation. Unlike larger settings, small groups offer students no camouflage and no place to hide from faith-sharing experiences with their peers. Immersed in small comfort zones formed by peers, students are gently coaxed to get involved. By putting a relaxed spin on religious education, small-group discussions and activities can help you deliver an inviting change in mood, pace, and participation.

Small-group discussions and activities use “talking” as a tool. Small-group discussions and activities give you the unique opportunity to turn a favorite student activity—talking to friends—into a productive teaching tool. By inserting focused exchanges and constructive interaction in small-group projects, you can direct the power of student conversation to meet lesson objectives. Student chatter, constructively framed by small-group activities, can be transformed into the inspiring sound of students learning.

Small-group discussions and activities provide alternative learning opportunities. Small-group activities provide the atmosphere that encourages learners to engage fully. The artistic, dramatic, mechanical, sensitive, or demonstrative responses of students come to life. Buoyed by small-group camaraderie, learners have the opportunity to apply their special abilities to faith-centered activities.

Small-group discussions and activities offer learners the chance to practice Christian behaviors. Small-group discussions and activities often double as mini-workshops for the practice of Christian behaviors. Working together in small groups to complete the lesson’s objective brings students face to face with real-life opportunities to practice Christian tolerance, patience, and respect.

Small Groups Done Right

Using small-group discussions and activities successfully and effectively depends on planning and management. In the example below, review the simple steps to see how you can use small groups effectively. 

Know your objective. Effective small-group discussions and activities promote your teaching objective. For example, if your objective is to encourage learners to model their lives based on the lives of the saints, dividing the class into small groups and providing an activity like “What It Means to Be a Saint” is an effective approach (see “What It Means to Be a Saint” at end of article; adjust the activity to meet the needs of your learners and the size of your class).  

Develop an outline.
The outline should detail the activity for small groups of no more than 4 or 5 students. Each group should select or be assigned a “leader” and a “recorder” if necessary. You might want to give each small group a copy of the outline.

Organize students and space to suit the activity.
Use your knowledge of class chemistry to create pre-arranged groups and to assign leaders and recorders. Visualizing the activity in advance will help you anticipate how the activity might proceed, what materials you will need, and how you will need to arrange your learning space—including any special visuals you might want or need, such as posters, statues, books, etc.

Be available.
Your role during small-group discussions and activities is that of “roving facilitator.” Slowly move throughout the learning space, from group to group, and offer clarification, encouragement, and suggestions as needed. Students may need your help staying on topic, involving everyone, and reaching conclusions. At the same time, do not offer too much assistance; small groups need to be able to take ownership of their results.

Share and summarize. The results of a small-group discussion or activity are not complete until the small group shares with the large group. This is when all ideas come together to form a broad experience of creative possibilities for students to consider and from which they learn.

As small groups share with the large group, listen carefully. You need to be ready to put your own finishing touch on the experience with a simple summary and generous affirmation of the students’ insights.

For Effective Small-Group Experiences
… let students see your enthusiasm for the topic or the activity.
… be patient and display your patience as the process unfolds.
… be alert to what is happening in each small group to be sure the experience remains focused on the discussion/activity.
… applaud student creativity, insight, wisdom, and faith.
… expect success and trust in God’s grace.

Lee Danesco holds a master of arts in teaching from Brown University. She has served as a DRE and a pastoral associate, and is a published author. Her first book, Planning a Youth Service Week, was published by Twenty-third Publications in 2001. The Confident Catechist was published by Saint Mary’s Press in 2007.

What It Means to Be a Saint 
Objective: To discover saintly qualities we can live in our own lives
Materials: 15 file cards and 1 marker for each small group
Procedure: 1. Group leader uses a question to spark discussion about qualities found in the lives of saints. (“Name a special quality that describes a person who is a saint, something the person did, or an attitude the person had.”) 2. The recorder prints each suggested quality on a file card until the group has named 15 qualities (15 “Quality Cards”). 3. The recorder then places the Quality Cards on the table for all in the small group to see. 4. The group discusses the importance of each quality and the leader arranges the cards in a column, with the most important Quality Card at the top of the column. 5. Small groups share their discussions with the large group.

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