Reinvigorate Your Classroom by Putting Kids First: An Interview with Christine Hertz and Kristi Mraz

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Leave a comment on the bottom of this blog post for a chance to win a copy of this book. (Be sure to read the giveaway information before you leave a comment. Thanks!)

Kathy Brody, one of my instructors from the graduate program in literacy at Teachers College, introduced me to the Responsive Classroom approach. She helped me understand that it wasn’t a way to manage a classroom. Rather, it was an approach to teaching that valued the social-emotional curriculum as much as the academic one. Through my conversations with Kathy, I signed up for a Responsive Classroom summer workshop in 2006. My teaching was transformed as a result of the summer training. That fall, I implemented morning meetings, logical consequences, guided practice, and addressed issues whenever they arose with my students. Suddenly, I had more time to teach since my students’ social and emotional needs were met. In fact, I felt as though I had finally found my sea legs as a teacher!

I felt transformed — again! — as an educator after reading Christine Hertz and Kristi Mraz’s new book, Kids 1st from Day 1: A Teacher’s Guide to Today’s Classroom The guiding principle behind their book is simple: children are the most important people in the classroom! Kids deserve to live and work in classrooms designed with their needs in mind. Kids should be part of a classroom community that helps them learn social skills rather than rewarding with prizes or threatening with consequences. Kids can be engaged in academics with teaching structures responsive to their needs as learners. Finally, all kids should be part of joyful learning communities.

I reached out to Christine and Kristi since I wanted to know how this book could help teachers of writing in ways that went beyond the obvious mentions of writing in the text. (Click here to read an excerpt from the book that explains how to make and use a checklist to help you plan for responsive writing instruction. NOTE: This excerpt was reproduced electronically with permission from Kids 1st from Day 1: A Teacher’s Guide to Today’s Classroom by Christine Hertz and Kristine Mraz. Copyright © 2018 by Christine Hertz and Kristine Mraz. Published by Heinemann, Portsmouth, NH. All rights reserved.) Here are Christine and Kristi’s thoughtful and informative answers to my questions.

Stacey: Before we dive into specific questions I have based on the book, would you provide teachers with five quick tips to make writing workshop more student-centered?

Christine & Kristi:

  • Look at student work before you look at unit plans or resources
  • Use a checklist to help you see the intersection of what you think you need to teach and what children really need to learn
  • Free the markers, crayons, and pens from the art area and trust that children will use them in ways that enhances their communication across the process
  • Reframe your mindset, it is not THE writing process, it is A writing process. Variations within the cycle are expected and valid
  • List every choice you make for kids: seating, paper, utensils, partner, topic, genre, process, and choose 2 to let go of.

Stacey: How do you help students get what they need, in terms of flexible seating, within the context of writing workshop?

Christine & Kristi: There’s flexible seating and then there’s seating free-for all. Instead of just turning our students loose on the first day of writing workshop and crossing our fingers, we spend time talking about all of the possible places in the classroom to write. We carefully introduce every type of seating and space for working and have children try out what it would be like to work there. We aim to be as open-minded as we can  (Under the table? Sure! Kneeling and using a stool for a table? You bet.), but of course, we do set boundaries when it comes to safety. We also like to help children discover if they prefer to work alone or near another writer or with a table full of writers. These preferences might change over the course of the year, as relationships grow, or with the type of writing the class is engaged in. We teach children to pick a spot, gather the tools they need, and settle in. What we’ve found often is that once a child has a spot that works for them, they’ll return to it day after day. Above all, we keep an eye out for engagement over compliance. It’s not unusual for us, as writers, to move from one spot (the kitchen table, say) to another (that comfy chair by the window) over the course of a writing session. But when we find ourselves moving six times and cleaning the fridge in a thirty minute period, we might turn an eye towards our engagement. The same goes for the children we teach. If a writing spot doesn’t work for a child, we problem-solve with the child and make adjustments as we need to.

Stacey: Let’s talk about “willpower depletion” in writing workshop. What are some examples and ways to make time for more unstructured activities in writing workshop?

Christine & Kristi: Willpower depletion occurs whenever we ask someone to do something that goes against what they would prefer to be doing (You can look up Roy Baumeister to read about some of the early studies). Over time we just burn out, and that burn out can look like misbehavior in a classroom. What depletes willpower will be different for every child (and human) because we all have different preferences and desires. Really, the way to keep our day humane and keep ourselves from exhausting our kids is to increase choice in as many ways as possible. We try to use the rule of thumb, for every one decision I make as a teacher, what two choices can I give to kids? Writing paper? Writing utensil? Topic? Genre? Writing spot? Writing partner? Planning process? Sometimes we dictate ALL those choices for kids, and if we do, we can’t be surprised if kids groan when its writing time. It’s exhausting! We advocate to determine importance and let the rest be in kids’ hands. If it is really important to the teacher that everyone write a story, then let go of the rest and let kids have agency in choosing topic and writing in pen and doing the pictures last or first of whatever works for them. That’s not to say there are not boundaries and teaching into the idea making wise decisions, but rather that we trust kids and know the importance of choice in motivation and engagement.

Stacey: In “The Emotional Environment” chapter, you talked about ways to solve problems by empathizing, defining the adult concern, and inviting the child to collaboratively solve a problem. Using those three steps, how might you solve the following problem.

Christine & Kristi: Oh boy! Who hasn’t had this happen at some point? It’s times like this that we want to pull out a mindset of curiosity not criticism. What do we mean by that? It’s easy to want to say, “Oh X is so DISTRACTING to the rest of the class.” as opposed to “I wonder what purpose those noises serve for X?” The noises may be distracting, but our job is not to silence X so others can work, but to help X learn better skills for existing in the world, which by extension will help the community. So in order to empathize we need to try to get at the purpose of the noises. Does X not know what to do and the noises keep them entertained? Does X feel embarrassed because they do not know what to do and the noises keep the focus off that blank paper? Does X need to move their body and in an attempt to keep from roaming the room, the noises take care of some of that motor overflow? Does X need some attention and care and has learned that the fastest way to get that is to become very visible? Books by Ross Greene are a great help in thinking this through.

This is where it helps to break away from traditional behavior systems (stickers, clips, points) and rely on what we know as the teacher about learning in general. How would you teach this child how to elaborate in writing? With demonstrations, conferences, guided practice, goal setting, reflection- all of that. That is the same frame we would use to think about teaching the child skills to manage getting attention in positive way, or managing the need to get attention until a more appropriate time.

So to get to those steps:

Empathize: “Gosh X, it seems like you really would like some attention right now. That can feel so hard, when you wish you could talk to someone and you have to be by yourself.” (Remember a time you have been in that very situation, perhaps you stood to the side of a conversation clearing your throat repeatedly in the hopes that one person would look your way) Is that how you are feeling right now?” (You might aim to inquire: “Do you feel like I am not giving you attention when you need it?”)

Define the Adult Concern: (You can couch the concern in terms of the community, but be wary of making this child feel like their needs do not matter, that might be why they are making noises in the first place) “I’m so sorry to hear that you feel that way. I want to know when you feel like you need attention, but when you make noise it can make other writers feel frustrated, and I know you are the type of person who wants to help the community be its best. I wonder what we can do so that you can let me know when you need a little bit of attention, but also we make sure we help the community work at its best.”

Problem Solving: (Here is the tricky part, this child needs and deserves a little more attention in their life at this moment. That is not to say that we want this child to take all of our attention for the rest of our teaching career, but the goal is to slowly remove that need over time. Our solution has to meet the current need) “Let’s make a plan together. Let’s think of some ways to signal me without making noise. “ (If the child isn’t sure, offer a few and let the child select the one that works best: a silent signal, a red cup on the desk, a certain time you stop by, etc) “Now lets think about some ways I can show you attention that will make you feel okay?” (A shoulder squeeze, a “How are you?”, a quick listen)

Note!

If you make a plan, you have to stick with it until you are ready to scaffold down. (“I believe that you can work longer without me checking in! Let’s make a plan for that!”) This consistency can be the hardest part. Sometimes you pay more attention to one kid because you know over time that attention will fade and you will be able to be more equitable.

Stacey: How can grand conversations be used in writing workshop?

Christine & Kristi: Grand conversations are an excellent teaching structure for many elements of writing workshop. We weave grand conversations in by using them to kickstart an opinion unit with a hot topic (Should fidget spinners be allowed in class?), to talk through a problem a student is having (What can you do if you’re totally stuck?), or to reflect on the growth that has occurred (What did we just learn in that narrative unit that we could carry forward to our informational unit?) Grand conversations can start with a question, a problem, a piece of writing, an audience you’d like to address (check out Kristi’s blog post on writing to Highlights Magazine about how it represents families.) or a situation. Perhaps most importantly, grand conversations take the teacher out of the center of the conversation and refocus it on the students’ voices and ideas.

Stacey: You spoke a lot about scaffolds in the chapter on “Building Curriculum.” Would you talk about some scaffolds you often see teachers put into place in a writing workshop that you feel should be taken away faster?

Christine & Kristi: Scaffolds can be powerful supports for developing writers. Paper choice, assigned writing spots, editing checklists- these are all scaffolds that we may not have even considered! A few that we hang on to that we might want to rethink are:

Sketch First To Plan: Sketching is just one form of planning, others are talking or acting it out, jotting a quick note on the page, or talking with a partner. Instead of feeling frustrated that kids don’t sketch, let’s focus on teaching kids to plan in ways that fit their strengths. We don’t want to overly dictate process, so here are some ways to move away from a one size fits all process:

  • Teach additional planning methods
  • Practice and role play how each planning method might go
  • Have children experiment with different ways to plan and name the one that helped them the most
  • Emphasize making a plan over making a sketch in later lessons

A List of Topics Generated by the Teacher: Sometimes when children are really struggling to come up with writing ideas, we generate a list of topics together. This is a scaffold. It’s tempting, as a teacher, to then keep generating a list of topics for children to write about or to narrow students’ choice to get things going. We might do this to speed things up, because we think we’re being helpful and know what might work for an individual student or a group of students. But the more we try to helpfully narrow things down, the more we’re taking away their agency as a writer and their purpose for writing. Instead you may try:

  • Generate ideas as a whole class and keep them from unit to unit. One person’s idea for a narrative unit could inspire another writer in another narrative unit. Group them into categories: places, passions, people and emphasize that aspect over the actual idea. (“Ahh, so we can think about our passions to generate ideas”)
  • Tap into the purpose of why the students are engaged in this writing. Who is the audience? Add that as another strategy (“Think of who might read this. What might they need/want to know?”)
  • Before starting a unit, immerse yourselves in the genre. You could read picture books, mentor texts, or collect ideas in notebooks. If idea generating is the hardest part, do that work ahead of time so students are ready to launch into the writing work when the unit really takes off. Then, name this as yet another strategy. (“Look at some of the books in our library? Do they inspire you?”)
  • Use these strategies to teach students how to generate a personal list of topics to turn to when stuck. Georgia Heard’s Heart Maps allow students to return to a list and choose a topic independently.

We like to have a plan for not just introducing a scaffold, but also for removing it. This applies to  something as seemingly simple as paper choice (what kind of paper would these informational writers invent on their own?) to the writing units of study themselves (what could a period of independent writing projects look like?) .

Here are some questions we ask ourselves:

  • Before we use a scaffold we ask:
  • Is this absolutely necessary?
  • What would the child do without that scaffold?
  • How will I support the student in using this scaffold independently?
  • Does this feel authentic to a writing process?

As they’re using it we ask:

  • Is it working?
  • How, exactly, is it helping?
  • Is the student outgrowing it?
  • Do we need to modify it?
  • How can they do this task independently?
  • Is there an intermediary scaffold that we should put in place?
  • How can this scaffold become another tool in their writing toolbox?

Stacey: How can teachers make writing workshop more joyful when they are required to finish 7 – 10 units of study during the school year?

Christine & Kristi: It can be really challenging to keep the joy, engagement, and completion of units ALL at a high level across a year. Here are a few tips we keep in mind when we feel ourselves slip away from a joyful writing workshop:

  • Focus on process and skills development over product. Writing workshop isn’t about completing seven to ten polished pieces of writing. It is about growing and evolving as a writer. The more we focus on the skills our students are developing, individually and collectively, the more we can take a deep breath and look at the writers we are developing rather than the curriculum we’re implementing.
  • Be as flexible as you can with your units. See anything that is not about skill and process as a choice- do stories have to be true to learn to elaborate? Try not to assume “must” when you read plans or curriculum (it’s rarely said that way) and start assuming “can.” For example, you can have kids generate a table of contents, but you never have
  • Call on your own playfulness to keep the level of joy high. We have a table on pages 14 and 15 that illustrate Stuart Brown’s eight different play personalities. Are you a storyteller? Incorporate more acting and imagination into your teaching. Do you identify as an explorer? Call on your curiosity and this love for discovery as you engage in inquiry and as you explore new teaching ideas. You could even see which play personalities your students identify with and help them weave them into the writing workshop.
  • Perhaps most importantly, notice when your classroom has that certain hum or spark and when it doesn’t. When you’re noticing the joy start to fade, take small steps to cultivate it again.

Giveaway Information:

  • This giveaway is for a copy of Kids 1st from Day 1: A Teacher’s Guide to Today’s Classroom. Many thanks to Heinemann for donating a copy for one reader.
  • For a chance to win this copy of Kids 1st from Day 1, please leave a comment about something you gleaned from the interview with Christine and Kristi by Monday, April 9th at 11:59 p.m. EDT. I’ll use a random number generator to pick the winners, whose names I will announce at the bottom of this post, by Wednesday, April 11th.You must have a U.S. mailing address to enter this giveaway.
  • Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so I can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win.  From there, my contact at Heinemann will ship your book out 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, I will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – KIDS FIRST. Please respond to my e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.

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Thank you for all of the thoughtful and thought-provoking comments left on this post!

I used a random number generator to select a winner for this post. Jill Zaino’s commenter number came up so she’ll win a copy of Kids First from Day One.