A mentor once told me, “Always work to outgrow yourself. It’s what makes life interesting.” Starting up my car a few mornings ago, I decided to take one small action in service of this sage advice. I grabbed my white earbuds, carefully inserted them into my ears, and in place of my usual news podcast I listen to each morning, I instead pushed play on Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History. “Perhaps there will be something here to help me,” I remember thinking to myself. After all, Malcolm Gladwell’s work has served me well in the past. Not too far into the trailer podcast for season two (I will admit, I am a season behind), I heard the following words: “You can’t step into the same river twice, because each time you step in the river you step into different water.” The words were spoken by Philosophy Professor Emeritus, Marc Cohen from the University of Washington. I quickly pressed pause on my phone. I thought about this statement, and how true these words resonated in a metaphorical sense; how we, as teachers, step into a “new river” each year. For most of us, the location of our river is the same, but the “water,” in this case the students, are different each year (or every few years). And knowing that, many of us toward the end of the year begin thinking about future ways we hope to navigate the topsy turvy journey that is teaching. For even though the water is not the same, we are often the kinds of people who want to find new and better ways of river travel.
While working as a staff developer at the Teachers College Reading & Writing Project, I, along with the rest of the staff, spent a lot of time at the end of the year helping teachers and principals think ahead to the following academic year. We termed this work “June Planning.” Beth Moore wrote an excellent post about this work a few years ago, which I highly recommend reading! During these meetings, we reflected on what went well, as well as what could make next year even better. Having worked with many different teachers through this process, allow me to offer the following suggestions as lenses through which teachers and principals might think through for next year:
- Resources – Across a school year, teachers are typically introduced and exposed to many different resources for teaching writing. As a classroom teacher, I remember taking advantage of what resources I felt I had the “bandwidth” for amidst the busy teaching schedule, while storing others away for “later.” Perhaps you do the same. Many writing workshop teachers are using the Calkins Writing Units of Study series as curriculum support and know full well there are many resources in that series they have not been able to fully access yet. In the coming days and weeks, you might ask yourself,
- What resources did I access this year that I want to continue to use? Which ones made a difference for my students?
- What resources do I want to add to my teaching repertoire for next year?
Perhaps you want to look beyond the minilesson narrative to the suggested mid-workshop interruptions? Or maybe try out some of the small group and conferring ideas provided in those sections? Maybe you will look at adding some of the teaching shares (because, well, you didn’t have time this year)? Some teachers are looking at the digital resources and picking a few things to focus on for next year. Was there something a colleague used or told you about? Whatever resource you want to add in for next year, it is important to create a concrete goal and a structure for existence: for example, if your goal is to make charts more useful, you might create or take a picture of one this year and add it as an attachment to your calendar for next fall. I often find that just saying I will try out something new is not enough- I must create a temporal placeholder to make it happen!
- Assessment Practices – As workshop teachers, most of us return to two core questions throughout our school year: Are students becoming stronger writers? And how do I know? In her post, Beth makes some great suggestions about what to reflect on (i.e., student writing samples) when thinking about and planning for next year– student writing, notebooks, portfolios, etc. I would add that I have been working with teachers recently on thinking about ways we can formatively assess more frequently next year. We are considering an assessment suite that might be comprised of such things as:
- writer’s notebook entries
- end-of-bend drafts
- pre writing on-demands
- post writing on-demands
By pushing ourselves to look more frequently at our middle school writers (a tall order, yes!), we are hoping and planning to perhaps normalize more meaningful and/or helpful assessment practices in our middle school writing workshops. The value of doing this, of course, is in service of treating student work as feedback for our teaching. Your assessment practices may be an interesting place to reflect when making plans for next year’s journey.
- Teaching Tools – When thinking about next year, many of us know that one place to look is our teacher toolkits. For those of us that use them, it feels like these toolkits can be a constant work in progress (which is not a bad thing!). This is a great time of year to begin thinking about:
- What tool do I wish we would’ve had for my writing conferences this year?
- Can I create some of those tools now, or maybe this summer?
Perhaps you found yourself longing for a great demonstration text? (Beth wrote a post about ways to think about creating demonstration texts) Or maybe you never got around to creating that micro-progression you knew your writers would benefit greatly from studying? (Dana Murphy reviewed DIY Literacy, by Kate Roberts and Maggie Beattie-Roberts) Perhaps a colleague mentioned a great mentor text she used, but you never got a copy? See if you can get one before the year ends! Before this year is ended, consider setting a goal to create some tools to make next year amazing.
- Physical Environment – It has been said that what can be found in a teacher’s classroom reflects what he or she values. Perhaps a place to look for next year is your physical environment. Does it do the important job of powerfully supporting your teaching? Can students easily find and use your most relevant anchor charts? Is there an easily accessible location for mentor texts, either in the room and/or in a digital space (e.g., Google classroom)? Do you have teacher tools available for students? Teachers College Staff Developer Tim Steffens recommends making tools available in the room, perhaps like this:
(mentor texts, student mentor texts, teacher mentor writing, tips for leads, tips for examples, planning, editing & grammar tools, learning progressions, student dictionary, etc.)
Some middle school teachers I work with have set a goal of trying out a meeting area next year, which will involve mapping out a new environment.
Whatever you are inspired to change because (a) it didn’t work well enough this year, or (b) you’ve been wanting to try it because you know your students would benefit, think about what you can do now to make the change a reality for next year. It might be helpful to set aside some time for this work! Because next year, the water in the river will be different. And you’ll want to be ready. How do you prepare to outgrow yourself as a teacher of writing? We’d love to hear from you!
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.