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Beginning a Year of Teaching Writing with Reflection

The new year, fresh like a shiny penny, brimming with possibility and promise. Perhaps  you are opening your classroom door to a class full of students who are new to you (or new to school altogether), or you  are looping with your class, or you teach in a multi-age classroom where you will welcome many familiar faces. Regardless, your students are different from when they left their classrooms in June. They are once again filled with absolute potential, all their old baggage and labels erased.

And as teachers, we are different from how we were in June. Perhaps you spent the summer attending institutes, reading professional texts with learning communities (a shout out to my nonfiction book club, thank you, I learned so much!), or working and planning in your classroom. Perhaps (equally as important!) you spent the summer resting and rejuvenating for the taxing work ahead. However you spent the summer, you are different from how you were in June. You have fresh ideas, a fresh outlook, a fresh wardrobe. This is the perfect opportunity to channel that energy into deciding how this year will be different from all the rest. What will you do differently as a teacher of writing that will lift the level of your instruction and your students’ work? Here are some ideas.

This is the year I will…

  • Use my students’ work to plan. Likely you have attended planning meetings with your team. Unit dates are chosen, resources (lists of teaching points, unit write-ups) are identified. Approach those plans as guides, not as edicts. The minute you see your students need more help with one thing or another, don’t be afraid to make huge changes to those best-laid plans.
  • Confer with as many students as possible as they write independently. Do this when workshop is not going so well, and when it is. When we finally get out students to the place where  it is quiet in the classroom during writing time and they are all writing, it feels amazing. Take a minute to step back and reflect. But then get going. Don’t do any of the things that are so tempting to do when kids are independently engaged – catch up on grading, chat with a co-teacher, check your phone. I know, I’ve done them. Even if you’re not sure how to start, pull up alongside a writer and say, how’s it going? Even if you worry you won’t know what to teach, just get in there.
  • Try [insert new thing] in my writing instruction. Last year, I talked a lot about technology. I followed around tech coordinators at schools I visited and asked a bunch of questions. I read wonderful posts on the topic (many on this blog) and felt super-inspired. But that’s as far as I got. This year, I vow to incorporate Evernote into my demonstrations on note-taking. I vow to show writers how to use google docs to organize and  study their previous drafts. I will attempt to incorporate iBooks in my research writing units. I will go easy on myself if I do these things slowly. But I will do them.
  • Prioritize independence. Always. It’s so easy to feel overwhelmed by all of the moving parts in a writing workshop. There is so much to consider: the pacing of the instruction, the students’ final products, whether we are meeting the standards. It’s quite liberating to remember that the only thing that really,really matters in the end is independence. When things get tough, we can think to ourselves: Am I supporting my students in making decisions about their writing? Is their repertoire of skills growing? If we can say yes to these, we’re doing just fine.
  • Meet kids where they are, regardless of external pressures. Carol Dweck, author of the much buzzed-about book, Mindset, explains that true success comes from a desire to learn, not from a desire to look smart or be better than the rest. Even though our students (and our teaching) are constantly being evaluated quantitatively and comparatively, we can remind ourselves that the true indicator of success is whether our students are engaged in the learning process – setting goals for themselves, trying new things, celebrating small steps toward those goals.
  • Laugh often. This one is perhaps the most important of all. Enough said.

As teachers, we often feel we have to be good at everything. We talk about the importance of the learning process, yet being open about our own learning is difficult. We feel very sensitive about areas in which we feel deficient. Often, when someone takes the first step by admitting they are struggling with something, others follow suit. The relief is palpable when everyone realizes they are not alone. Why not take that first step? Share your goals, preferably with another teacher who will do the same. Write them down, and make a plan to check in with each other by a certain date to see how you both are progressing. Talk through tricky spots and obstacles. Laugh often.

Share with us!
What are other goals you have for yourself as a teacher of writing this year?

Anna Gratz Cockerille View All

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).

12 thoughts on “Beginning a Year of Teaching Writing with Reflection Leave a comment

  1. I especially like the suggestions to use students’ work to plan and to meet them where they are.

    One of the great things about beginning a new semester is that with each new group of students, there is fresh potential… but we may not realize it if we rigidly stick to a plan. I will be making a point this semester of keeping this in mind, tailoring lessons and even assignments to meet the needs (and tastes, where possible) of my students.

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    • Thanks so much for your comment, Christine. I’m going to try to do the same thing! It gets hard to really watch our students closely and follow their lead when we are in the midst of all the demands placed on us during the year. But I know we can do it!

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  2. This is great, Anna. I’m still trying to form my goal as literacy coach. I have ideas but can’t seem to form a cohesive goal. Your list will be very helpful for teachers -will share!

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  3. One of my favorites on this list is the first one… use student’s work to plan. You’ve heard of the term over achiever… I wonder if there’s such a thing as an over planner… I do need direction and goals but sometimes I just need to stop, observe and listen to the children in my class. Thanks for reminding me that even though we have standards to cover and hoops to jump through, to just stop, adjust, reflect and reevaluate. Great post!

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