One thing I love so much about being an educator is the cyclical nature of the school year. The beginning of the year brings promise, renewed energy, and a certain mania. The middle of the year brings familiarity, routine, and structure. The end of the year brings a slower pace, stepping back, reflection.
There is so little time to reflect on what is going well in our writing instruction when we are in the thick of things. Teaching writing is, after all, just one part of what we do. And there are so many components of writing workshop instruction. Figuring out the trajectory of minilessons and keeping them short and tight is already a big job. Then there is the conferring, the managing of the notebooks, the keeping of charts fresh and in use. Often, when we put a great deal of attention on one component, others slip. But that is just fine. One thing that is so wonderful about teachers is that we are constantly refining, honing, crafting, aiming to get better. So if our conferring slipped a little here and there because we were so intent on making sure all students were writing with high volume, that’s okay. What’s less important is that we are perfect always and what’s more important is that we keep striving to get better. Another thing that is so wonderful about teachers is that we act as supports for one another, reflecting and honing right alongside each other and putting our heads together about what we can do better next time.
The following reflection is one way that teachers can come together as a group to celebrate areas of success in their teaching and to pinpoint specific ways to get even better. Line graphs are a way to track growth and to compare fixed points. This reflection contains line graphs that each represent a different component of writing workshop. For each component, teachers can place a dot on the line to represent whether that particular component is an area that needs work or is an area of strength for them. A dot placed toward the left end of the line represents an area that needs attention. A dot placed toward the right represents an area of strength.
After placing a dot on each line, teachers can share their reflections, either anonymously or not, with one person who compiles all of the responses on one chart. The result is fascinating. Patterns emerge, communal areas of strength are revealed as are ones that need a bit more attention. Conversations ensue, ones about why the patterns exist and what the group can do to keep strong areas strong and shore up weaker areas.
Possible writing workshop components on which teachers can reflect include:
- Independent Writing 30 – 40 mins at least four times per week
- Minilessons that support the unit of study
- Individualized Instruction: Conferring and Small Groups
- Writing Partnerships
- Evidence that writers draw on a repertoire of strategies
- Strategy charts that demonstrate the teaching going on in the unit
- Demonstration Writing: Teacher writing at a level that matches most of the class
- Mentor Texts: using published writing or strong student writing
The following reflection was produced by a group of fourth grade teachers.
Here are some of the conversations that resulted from this exercise:
- Minilessons and independent writing are going strong across the board. Teachers have placed a great deal of emphasis on these things and have been working hard to get them right. Many team meetings are focused on planning minilessons and scheduling to ensure long blocks of writing time.
- Teachers have been working so hard to make sure that they get minilessons right, that they at times feel they don’t have as much time or energy to put into getting conferring right.
- Teachers felt they were doing well at creating and emphasizing charts to support their instruction and encourage strategy use, but these strategies weren’t always reflected in kids’ work. Perhaps this was because although teachers displayed charts and referred to them during minilessons, they didn’t always refer to the charts during conferences or other times in the workshop.
- Volume and partnerships were both in the middle. Perhaps this was because teachers didn’t make these focal points in planning or instruction. Teachers realized that they could emphasize these components simultaneously. Students could set goals with partners for how much they were going to write during independent writing time and at home.
Based on the reflection, here are some of the goals that teachers set as a group for the next year:
- Increased emphasis on conferring, starting with more time in team meetings allotted to discussion of best practices for conferring
- More mention of strategy charts during all parts of writing workshop, not just the minilesson
- Increased instruction time to support partnerships
- Increased emphasis on volume, perhaps by channeling partners to set volume goals together
Certainly, this kind of reflection is one that works very well at the end of a school year, but of course, it can be done at any time. A wonderful time to try this reflection is at the end of a writing unit before launching the next unit. Some units lend themselves particularly well to certain components. For example, during the first unit of the year, when teachers are busy settling students into routines, getting conferring going strong can be difficult. But this first unit can lend itself well to volume if students are writing personal narratives and are writing workshop veterans. It can be difficult to do all of these components well in every single unit, so stopping and reflecting before jumping into a new unit can help teachers make plans to increase emphasis on areas that might have fallen a bit by the wayside.
Posted below is a teacher reflection sheet. Please feel free to download and use it. And keep us posted on the conversations that ensue!
Anna is a staff developer, literacy coach, and writer, based in New York City. She taught internationally in places such as Sydney, Australia; San Pedro Sula, Honduras, and Auckland, New Zealand in addition to New York before becoming a staff developer for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University (TCRWP). She has been an adjunct instructor in the Literacy Specialist Program at Teachers College, and teaches at TCRWP where she helps participants bring strong literacy instruction into their classrooms. Anna recently co-wrote Bringing History to Life with Lucy Calkins, part of the 2013 series Units of Study in Opinion, Information, and Narrative Writing (Heinemann). She has been a researcher for Lucy Calkins, contributing especially to Pathways to the Common Core (Heinemann, 2012) and Navigating Nonfiction (Heinemann, 2010).