Putting the Large Stones In First: A September Check-In

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Nervously lowering myself into a chair, I scooted myself closer to the table.  Around me sat three new colleagues.  My new 7th grade teaching team.  Having moved from my familiar home in small-town Oregon to a strange and exciting new land called New England, I wasn’t sure quite what to expect.  Our team leader, a veteran math teacher who was beginning her 24th year at the middle school, calmly began the meeting with some wisdom: “Let’s remember one thing this year,” she stated, folding her hands and laying them on the table before her.  “There’s only so much space in the jar.  So we always want to begin by putting the big stones in first.  Then all the other things– the smaller stones, the sand, and all the rest of life- will fit around those large ones.  But the big ones must go in first.”

Seventeen years later, I have never forgotten this wise metaphor from my cherished colleague.  For it rings so true. In increasingly complex environments of teaching and learning, we must be sure the large stones go into the jar first.  But in a writing workshop, what might those ‘large stones’ be?  Consider that large stones are the ones that may jostle a little when shaken, but will not be coming out.  Therefore, the choice of what constitutes a “large stone” must be selected with careful deliberation.  With that in mind, here are a few suggestions for taking stock on our progress in setting up writing workshops for success this year:

Partnerships

Developing a strong relationship with another writer is important for so many reasons.  First, when two or three writers work as either partners or in a triad for a period of time, it helps create the safe and supportive space needed for a successful writing workshop.  As I’ve written about before, creating a community of writers supports risk-taking and experimentation.  Partnerships are essential to supporting a feeling of community.  For a partner functions as an audience for works in progress, as well as a sounding board to provide critical feedback, suggestions, and even moral support.

Partners are also valuable arrangements that help teach toward independence.  Once a writing relationship forms, partners can learn to rely on one another.  As Lucy Calkins notes in The Guide to the Common Core Writing Workshop (Heinemann, 2014),”…[ your students] will be going on to high school and college with their peers, not you. So it will serve them well to learn to help each other” (p. 54).

Finally, in writing workshop, we strive to foster a culture of social learning. Leveraging the medium of discourse only makes sense, especially when it comes to teaching middle school students- they love to talk!  So it’s vital to facilitate the formation of partnerships.  It is also to important to explicitly teach into the purpose of them.  Why have a partner, anyway? A chart like this can help:

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As the end of September approaches, check in with yourself:  Have you been considering formal writing partnerships but are have worried they’re not worth the effort?  Have you launched partnerships, but perhaps your writers aren’t sure why, or what the purpose is behind them?  Take heart knowing that partnerships have enormous potential as a both a support system and as a vehicle for nurturing and facilitating growth in your students’ writing.

Writer’s Notebooks

Ralph Fletcher once said, “I think of my writer’s notebook as a true friend, a great listener, someone who will accept me whatever I write…My writer’s notebook never judges me.  It understands that becoming a writer takes a long time, and we might as well have a little fun along the way” (2005).  To me, a writer’s relationship with his or her notebook has everything to do with how invested they are in their writing, and by proxy, our writing workshops.  If a young writer you know sees the notebook only as a “school thing” or a “journal I have to write in at school” (or perhaps some other less-than-enthusiastic conception indicative of disengagement), we must treat this as a desperate situation.  A small checklist of items to lean on might be:

  • Did he personalize it with images and phrases that feed his writing life?
  • Does she believe her life is worth writing about?
  • Does he understand that good stories happen to people who can tell them?
  • Does she write at home and at school?
  • Does he know you can see him improving already?
  • Can he feel how much you care that he cares?

Some teachers have gone so far as to stand before their students, pull their own notebooks physically close to their bodies, and say, “This thing matters so much to me.  I can’t wait until you can say the same.”  For the writer’s notebook truly is the practice field on which our writers will become stronger.  Know that how we communicate its importance has everything to do with us and how genuine and unabashedly enthusiastic we can demonstrate that.

A Culture of Conferring

Most of us writing workshop teachers understand the value of setting up structures and routines very early in the year.  We teach students what to expect from us, and this pays great dividends.  Another large stone we want to be sure makes it into our metaphorical jar is creating a culture in which conferring and small group work is the norm.  Writers need to know that at various intervals during independent writing time, we will be pulling up next to them to ask, “How’s it going?”  And at other times, they will sit with a couple of other writers in close proximity to us, either in a table conference or strategy group.  Remember, it’s not important that every conference and small group be perfect– it is most important that we actually do them!  This develops a sense of expectation supportive of growth.  If I know my coach/ teacher will be working with me soon, I understand there is an expectation that I am working to improve.  And that’s what my teacher is here to help me do!

Most of us have likely settled into a routine, but are likely also feeling a bit shellshocked at the enormity of tasks, concerns, meetings, schedules, systems, etc. that have converged upon us.  Perhaps you might try to carve out a moment or two and ask, “Do I have the big stones in the jar yet?”  This early reflection, along with a little investment of time and energy, could be well worth it as our year unfolds.  What will be your big stones?

Happy September!