Our Job: Noticers-in-Chief

I watched as my daughter’s delicate 8 year-old fingers flipped over the small, laminated blue square, revealing an artistic rendering of a lemur. Quietly now, she drew her brows together, hand suspended above the 23 other blue tiles laid out on the old green carpet between us. Suddenly, her hand shot toward a corner of the rows of tiles. As she quickly turned it over, a smile burst onto her face as we simultaneously discovered the picture: “Lemur!” she exclaimed. “That’s a match!” “But,” I began in shock, “how did you know?” Fixing her green eyes upon mine she said, “I noticed it two turns ago. That’s why this game’s called ‘Memory’, Papa.”
As we make our way into a new school year, undoubtedly many of us are excited. And, with everything it takes to begin a new year, there are also a number of us who are likely feeling overwhelmed. There are classrooms to set up, meetings to attend, goals to set, materials to organize, IEPs to review– phew! And the list goes on! But whether or not you have started school already or, like me, you are taking those final deep breaths before your first day, let us remember one thing that sets us writing workshop teachers apart from other methodologies, curricula, programs, and/or approaches to teaching writing: we NOTICE.
Growing the Eyes to See
I remember feeling so impressed with my daughter during our game of “Memory”– how had she noticed that lemur when I hadn’t? I wondered. Perhaps it was because she had focused her full attention on the object of the game– to notice where different tiles lay so that when the opportunity to make a match presented itself, she was ready. As workshop teachers, I would argue that our mission is similar. Although many things vie for our attention at the start of a new year, we want to, above all else, view ourselves as “noticers-in-chief”; it is essential we work diligently to view the students in our classrooms in such a way that we are noticing what is important about each of them. After all, it is the writers in our classrooms we aim to teach, not curriculum.
Lucy Calkins once wrote about how such work can be made more doable when we consider categories. Categories can help our brains to organize important information we are attempting to take in, making it more likely that we can learn from that information. Here are a few categories to consider when embarking on beginning-of-the-year noticing work:
  • Engagement and/or Volume: When that first (or early) day of writing arrives, what can we notice? Are there some students who dive right in, begin easily? Are there some students who seem befuddled, or perhaps reluctant to begin? Taking the time to make these early observations through a lens of a coach can pay huge dividends for planning early conferences and small groups. I recommend avoiding labels like “lazy” or “a behavior issue”; remember, these early writing behaviors are key to helping us know where to begin our teaching year. They are data to inform our instruction. And, like any good coach, an effective teacher works to meet a writer where he or she is now and plots a path toward future improvement. This might mean planning for a variety of possible early interventions:
    • Who needs a small group or conference on ways writers can get started?
    • Who needs an encouraging pep talk, or perhaps a goal-setting conference?
    • Who needs a compliment conference to raise energy levels?

Noticing engagement and/or volume levels early on is a worthy lens, and showing students early that we see them and care tremendously about them as writers can help launch writing workshop on a positive footing.

  • Skill levels: In addition to noticing the engagement levels of our students, we might also consider doing a bit of early research on skills. Who is using paragraphs effectively out of the gate? Who seems to already possess strong elaboration skills? Which students are approximating which language conventions? I always encourage teachers to try to view student writers through a lens of strengths- what can they do already that you might be able to build upon as their writing teacher this year? Avoiding classroom stereotypes and generalities like, “These kids can’t write” or “This class is full of writers” can help us differentiate our observations and likely help to create a mental teaching space for really seeing and noticing each student’s strengths and needs.
  • Interests, Passions, and Life Situations: Although I realize there are arguments against it, I have always loved beginning a school year with a bit of narrative writing. When it comes to noticing, I love learning– early on!– about kids’ interests and passions. Who are the athletes, the actors, the cyclists, the artists, the scouts? Who are the musicians, the video gamers, the hunters, the techies? And also, who shuffles between two homes across the week, who is introverted, who lives with grandma, and who is getting over the recent loss of a relative? Noticing what matters to our students is a paramount duty to the writing (and reading) workshop teacher, as we work to develop a curriculum that embraces the critical issues that shape our kids’ lives.
In the popular TV series, “The Americans”, there is a scene in which one of the main characters Elizabeth, a Russian spy, is beginning to train her daughter Paige in the spy trade. “Who just left the cafe and what was she wearing?” asks Elizabeth. “You have to learn to notice everything, Paige, everything.” While this is perhaps a bit over the top for us as teachers of writing, I would argue that growing the eyes to really see our students is important and worthwhile work for all of us.
Needless to say, I lost the ‘Memory’ game to my daughter that day. But since then, I have worked to grow my awareness and my noticing skills. Like anything, we get better with practice.