engagement · Jennifer Serravallo · writing workshop · Writing Workshop Fundamentals blog series · writing workshop routines

Teaching Students to Self-Monitor

I know that when I sit down to write, I have a few rituals I need to do. I fill my coffee cup.  I check my email, my twitter notifications, read outstanding comments… I play moves in my Words with Friends. (That one was hard to admit.) Sometimes, I even play a quick game of Freecell. (Slightly harder to admit.) Then I shut everything else down, open up the document, and get to work. I know that from that point on, I am to focus on my writing, and I think a part of my brain understands and cooperates. When I get through my goal for that particular writing block, I reward myself (usually with chocolate) or start over with my rituals.

In our series about the fundamentals of writing workshop, I wrote about the basic structure of the hour (or 45 minutes, depending on how much time you have for teaching writing.) A few of the comments addressed the issue of how to keep students authentically working during independent writing time. How do we teach them to self-monitor and assume responsibility for their own productivity? While we have a lot to teach students in terms of genres, we also need to recognize the importance of teaching about the habits of writers. As we launch a new school year, direct instruction about how to actually do the writing, how to stay on task, and how to self-monitor our own writing lives will propel the productivity of the rest of the year. Here are a few ideas for teaching students to be more in charge of themselves:

  1. Co-create a chart with your students of workshop expectations and responsibilities.

Consider making a T-chart of your responsibilities and their responsibilities. Anna Cockerille shared the following chart in a 2015 post about teaching writers about writing workshop:parts-of-a-ww-chartI would suggest an additional column that includes the role of the teacher, as this reinforces the concept that we are all learners in classrooms, and we are all working to be our best workshop participants. I would also add conferring, small group instruction, and mid-workshop interruptions down the left column.

2. Teach students to “Take inventory”: 

I love this phrase. Every so often, when I am working in a class, I say, “Writers, take inventory.” I teach them that when they hear me say this, they are to freeze and think about what they were doing when I said it. Were they writing? Talking about their writing? Erasing? Sharpening a pencil? Moseying their way back from a drink of water?

I emphasize that they are not in trouble, that I am not looking to catch them. I am looking to help them understand their own work habits as writers. As your writing community develops, if you use this phrase with random intention, I know you will find that most students will take pride in being able to say they were working–really working–when asked to take inventory.

3. Include Engagement Inventories as part of your teaching repertoire

I give Jennifer Serravallo credit for most of how I use engagement inventories, and she has a fabulous explanation about them:

An engagement inventory is essentially a kidwatching tool. Spend time literally watching your students. Record what you see for an entire independent reading period.

A template is available on-line that is adapted Jennifer Serravallo’s book,  Teaching Reading in Small Groups (Heinemann, 2010), and I have linked it here.

engagement inventory

When you are thinking about writing, you may want to create additional codes that cover the task-avoidant behavior we see such as:

  • pencil-sharpening
  • erasing
  • drawing
  • “Thinking of an idea”

As you get to know your class, your list will develop!

When you do an engagement inventory, commit to doing it. Watching students is powerful! You won’t get to all the conferences and small groups you think you should, but you will gain important information about the work habits of your class that you can share with your students. You might have students ask what you’re doing. One of my favorite responses is “I’m taking data.” If they push for more information, I tell them I’m recording how much they are on-task as writers. I know that for me as a writer, I want to look like I’m writing if anyone is checking. I think most students do, too.

While I am not silly enough to think that these three ideas are going to get every student writing all the time, I have seen these strategies work to increase engagement, self-efficacy, and self-monitoring skills.

And now to go fill my coffee cup and maybe have a little chocolate…

7 thoughts on “Teaching Students to Self-Monitor

  1. I love the concept of expectations and responsibilities for both the student and teacher. So often we teachers hold expectations but don’t clearly articulate them to students. We instead assume that they understand, which leaves the door wide open for miscommunication. I think that is a lovely technique for making sure that everyone is on the same page! Thank you for a wonderful post!


  2. Melanie, I love the “take inventory” tip! I especially love how it is not designed to catch or punish students, but to teach them to monitor their own writing lives. So smart. Another Meehan-ism to add to my growing list..


  3. I have found that the anchor chart, with the teacher’s job included, is very beneficial. I have used it since my training by The Two Sisters in Daily 5 and CAFE. Also, the taking inventory, not to “catch” students for punishment, but as a way to develop stamina and accountability, leads to greater, sustained engagement. Thank you for a great (and honest!) post!


  4. I really like the idea of teaching writing habits, and I will definitely infuse this lesson into the beginning of the year and revisit it through out, too. I love “writer’s take inventory”! What a great and simple way for students to take a moment to practice self-reflection and awareness.


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