Fitting It All In: Solving Predictable Problems

#TWTBLOG November 2017 Blog Series

Taking the small, brightly-colored gift-wrapped box from my mom’s hand, I looked quizzically at her.  “What is it?”  I asked.  “Open it,” she excitedly responded.  I pulled back the paper and examined the exquisite wooden-crafted gift in my hand.  “A ‘tangram’?” I asked.  “What’s a tangram?”  “They’re puzzles.  Your kids will love them!” my mom replied. “But they do take time to learn.” For those of you unfamiliar with a tangram, it is essentially a shape puzzle that looks like this:

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Across the next few weeks, I found myself trying to solve the mysterious tangram (how hard can it be? I over-confidently wondered.  All I have to do is fit the pieces back into the square).  Over and over again, I worked to try to fit the various wooden pieces of the puzzle into the square provided.  To no avail.  Until one day… I can remember it well, the day I finally accomplished what felt like a monumental feat.  The pieces all fit!  Finally!  Following that day, I took the tangram apart and tried again; but to my dismay, I had to start all over again!  Well, almost.

For many of us, especially in middle school, trying to fit all the pieces of writing workshop into, say, a 41-minute schedule, can feel daunting.  How can we teach a minilesson, get our kids working, confer with individuals and small groups, provide a mid-workshop interruption, and facilitate a teaching share…all in 41 quick minutes?

A few Saturdays ago, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project’s 93rd Saturday Reunion.  That day, I attended Staff Developer Tim Steffens’s morning workshop. Tim clearly brought with him a breadth of middle school experience.  Listening to him describe the way time sort of slips through the hourglass at a breathtaking pace definitely brought me back to my many years teaching in 7th and 8th grade classrooms.  I remember well the days of looking up at the clock and thinking, “How can it be 25 minutes into class and I’m still teaching my minilesson?!”  Or hearing the bell ring as I’m voicing over instructions for the teaching share, thinking, “Wait, already?!”  Many of us can identify.  Like solving the tangram, we begin to wonder how all these pieces can possibly fit.

Tim began his workshop by assuring us that we CAN teach writing workshop within a crazy school schedule.  But it’s not going to just happen.  No, rather there are some intentional actions we as teachers ought to consider taking in order to make all the pieces fit:

 1. Rely on built-in workshop routines.  In a writing workshop, routine is key. One thing we do not do is ask kids to figure out what to learn and how to learn on the same day. Rather, we arrange time and space in a way that is simple and predictable. This increases the likelihood that students will learn what it is we hope to teach them about becoming stronger writers.  But in order for us to be able to fit everything in across a single writing workshop, routines must be set early.  Some helpful routines suggested by Tim are:

  • Train students to come into the room quickly.  This small but important step can save precious seconds.  Let students know that the transition from hallway to meeting area will be no more than two minutes.  
  • Enroll workshop assistants.  Consider enlisting eager and responsible students in helping you pass out notebooks, preparing tables, taking attendance, etc.  Again, this can save valuable teaching and learning time.
  • Use music to aid in transition. Students respond to cues, once they become accustomed to the meaning of those cues.  Playing music and fading it when it’s time to meet can provide a pleasant transition into instructional time.  Tim suggests we consider language like, “Once the music fades, please be in your spots! I will be starting without you…”
  • Employ a timer or enlist a timekeeper.  This can help us keep our minilessons short- again, a possible huge time-saver!
  • Reboot routines if necessary.  Let’s face it, one-and-done does not always make the grade.  If routines have slipped or gotten away from you and your students, reboot!  There’s no shame in a quick routine boot camp if necessary.

2. Keep minilessons predictable.  Another related tip for making sure we have time for everything is to hold ourselves accountable for short, targeted instruction (more to follow on this point).  Tim suggests creating a chart that displays the architecture of a minilesson for all to view- great idea!  When kids are able to see how writing lessons will go each day, a sense of predictability begins to take hold, which can be a natural time-saver.

3. Use charts that anchor the link to independent writing.  Creating anchor charts that list, for example, the strategies we’ve taught across a week or unit, can provide the visuals necessary for quick and efficient student planning and goal-setting.  Before sending students off to write independently, we can ask them to craft a quick plan for the work they will do for the next 20 or so minutes.  We might say, “Writers, let’s take a quick look at the strategies we’ve learned so far.”  Point to the anchor chart, then continue, “Which one will you try today?  Remember, we’ll have around 21 minutes to write, so let’s be sure to create ambitious writing plans for ourselves!”  This step accomplishes two important things: it fosters agency and meaningful choice, both huge factors when it comes to engagement; and secondly, it can solve the huge time-absorbing problem of assisting some students in getting started.  Here’s a narrative revision chart I’ve used in the past:

Strategies for Revising Narrative Writing CHART.1.1

4. Be judicious with mid-workshop interruptions.  Although mid-workshop interruptions can be an excellent break for some writers, consider the following:  1. Use them for a quick refocus or goal-setting break (30 seconds).  Sometimes I’ll say, “Writers, we’ve got about 9 minutes left; how far down the page do you think you’ll write in that amount of time?  Let’s set a quick volume goal!”  2.  Use the mid-workshop interruption to remind writers of something, like how writers keep themselves going, lean on their partners, or refer to charts to spark ideas (again, 30 seconds).  3.  Sometimes skip it.  When trying to fit the important pieces in, sometimes foregoing the mid-workshop interruption is the right move.

5.  Don’t worry about overdoing the share. The share is important, but it doesn’t need to be five to ten minutes!  It can definitely be shortened- quite a bit.  However, although we may be tempted to skip the share altogether, try to allow at least a little time for students to receive some recognition for what they’ve done across the period- even if it’s quick and with their partners.  This allows student voices to be heard.  It can be as simple as sharing with their partners what they found challenging or feel proud of accomplishing that day.

In addition, Tim provided some additional tips, specifically around the minilesson and independent writing time.  For the minilesson, he suggests “trimming the fat” by:

  • Cutting down the connection and the link.  Connections and links don’t need to be long, ornate, or drawn-out.  Quick reminders can function well, too.
  • Refusing to call on kids!  This can be one of our biggest time-savers. During the connection, active involvement, and/or link is not the time to call on students.  Instead, try listening into a few partnerships and sharing out some of what you hear yourself.  And if you don’t hear what you want, pretend you did! A great strategy is to say to students at the end of the lesson, “If anyone has questions, stick around and I’ll  answer them. Otherwise the rest of you can get to work.”
  • Choosing shorter examples.  This is self-explanatory.
  • Making anchor texts (reading workshop) also function as mentor texts (writing workshop).  If we’ve used a wonderful read aloud in reading workshop, why not harness it for writing workshop, too?
  • Organizing materials.  If our students and we know where things are, we save time.
  • Using big post-its for the same chart (if you teach multiple sections in middle school, create the points for your chart ahead of time during planning sessions).  Rather than writing and re-writing bullet points on charts, we can pre-make them ahead of time.

For independent work time, Tim suggests:

  • Keep your conference notes in hand. This helps when trying to recall what was discussed in the last conference or small group.
  • Create differentiated ‘tools for agency’ in folders available to students and teach how to access and use the tools.  If students have questions or need help, point or direct them to a place in the room that houses important tools they can reference.  These might include:
    • Short stories that are marked up to show certain craft or organizational elements
    • Tips for leads
    • Tips for endings
    • Editing/Grammar tools
    • Generating ideas
    • Dialogue tips
    • Elaboration strategies

Over time, I was able to improve my ability to solve the tangram.  But like anything, it took practice.  For those of us struggling with fitting all of the pieces into writing workshop, you might begin by trying to institute just one or two tips above.  Strong teaching requires effort, as we all know.  But I like to think doing the right work is worth the effort.

* A huge thank you to Tim Steffens for the inspiration for this blog post.

  • This giveaway is for a copy of The Unstoppable Writing Teacher: Real Strategies for the Real Classroom (Link to: http://www.heinemann.com/products/e06248.aspx). Thanks to Heinemann Publishers (Link to: http://www.heinemann.com) for donating a copy for one reader. (You must have a U.S. mailing address to enter this giveaway.)
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