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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.)
  • For a chance to win this copy of The Unstoppable Writing Teacher, please leave a comment about this or any blog post in this blog series by Sunday, November 5th at 7:00 p.m. EDT. Melanie Meehan will use a random number generator to pick the winner’s commenter number. His/her name will be announced in the ICYMI blog post for this series on Monday, November 6th.
  • Please leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment so Melanie can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win.  From there, our contact at Heinemann will ship the book to you.  (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.)
  • If you are the winner of the book, Melanie will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – UNSTOPPABLE WRITING TEACHER BOOK. Please respond to her e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. Unfortunately, a new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.

Lanny Ball View All

For more than 25 years, Lanny has taught, coached, presented, staff developed, and consulted within the exciting and enigmatic world of literacy. With unyielding passion and belief in the possibility of workshop teaching, Lanny has worked to support students, teachers, and school administrators around the country in outgrowing themselves as both writers and readers. Working first as a classroom teacher, then as a coach and TCRWP Staff Developer, Lanny is now a literacy specialist, working and living in the great state of Connecticut. Outside of literacy, he enjoys raising his three ambitious young daughters with his wife, and playing the piano. Find him on this blog, as well as on Twitter @LannyBall. Lanny is also a co-author of a blog dedicated to supporting teachers and coaches that maintain classroom writing workshops, twowritingteachers.org.

26 thoughts on “Fitting It All In: Solving Predictable Problems Leave a comment

  1. Thank you so much for this- I’m going to use the Tools for Agency folder tip immediately! I also like the reminder that if both we and the Ss know where things are, it’s so much more efficient.

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  2. So timely as always! Fitting it all in has always come up as the number one concern. I love your practical advice. Will be sharing with my teachers.

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  3. Lanny, as always, your post offers life-saving tips for successful workshop (writing AND reading!). Some of the tips you mentioned are strategies I’ve tried in my classroom (i.e. using chart during the Link as a goal setting tool for independent work), and they have saved precious transition time! Thank you!
    cedelajo@gmail.com

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  4. I think the refusal to call on kids is an important one for elementary school too, especially when starting out with writing workshop. I was trained back in the day that the only time kids’ voices were heard during the minilesson was during the active engagement (debrief). I know things have changed — a lot — as far as that’s concerned after reading the newest Up the Ladder Book on Information Writing. I see the benefit to having some student-talk during the connection and the teach, but I worry that this can open the floodgates and turn minilessons into maxi-lessons quickly. What do you think, Lanny?

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    • I do indeed agree there is benefit to student talk across different points of a minilesson, Stacey. During the connection, the active involvement (of course!), and perhaps even the link, it is certainly beneficial to ask kids to share with a partner or triad. Problems arise, however, when a teacher opens up a discussion point to the class, sometimes using language like, “Who wants to share?” At that point, the entire dynamic of engagement shifts from 100% engagement (partners talking), to one child talking into the air while the rest of the class is either: (a) listening (best case scenario); (b) tuning out; (c) rehearsing in their mind what they wish to say to the class; or (d) resorting to off-task behavior (worst-case scenario). Furthermore, if we do not know what is to come out of a child’s mouth, we have now removed the predictability of the lesson structure, as well as add more time to it. Calling on kids, while it does allow for a few kids to have their voices heard, can soak up precious minutes that could be better used as independent writing and conferring time.

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  5. We do so much esoteric thinking about our teaching and our lessons; it was refreshing to have some practical suggestions for making it work in a real classroom setting.

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  6. I will be sharing this article with my teachers! It sums up everything I’ve been trying to tell them about time management in workshop structure! Thanks for sharing!

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  7. I love these tips! The pace of the workshop is critical and students need work time! Using these tips can and will help teachers really decrease teacher time and increase student time. It is so important to empower the students.

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  8. Great suggestions. I’m a primary teaching teaching 6th grade for the first time. Thought implementation would be easier than it has been😩

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  9. Fabul
    ous tips. One step at a time. And oh, yes, after the Halloween sugar, definitely reboot! It seems counterintuitive, but a quick poster at MWI – “reflect for a minute, Dear Writers, what is going well for you in Writing Workshop?” . . . because sometimes our “internal” gloom and doom message is not the student perception.

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  10. Such great tips for making all of the pieces fit. Planning is so important and you outline many great strategies (thanks Tim!) for teachers to deliver quality workshop instruction in 40 minutes.

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  11. Ugh! I want to implement reading and writing workshops in my 10th grade classroom. I know it will be a good use of our 50 minutes. I’ve been teaching for 22 years and have never done it. I’ve never had any training or help or encouragement. Please. Help me, Obi Wan Kenobi!

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