I Love Watching You Write: Research from the World of Sports Applied in the Classroom

In a well-known survey conducted by two longtime coaches, hundreds of college athletes were asked, “What is your worst memory from playing youth and high school sports?”

Their overwhelming response from these competitive athletes was, “The ride home from games with my parents.” These athletes talked about how the ride home was often when parents would pick apart their mistakes, criticize them, or just generally give them a hard time.

Those same college athletes were asked, “What did your parents say that made you feel great, that amplified your joy during and after a ballgame?”

Their overwhelming response was some variation on: “I love watching you play.”

In the this TEDx Talk, I can’t help but swap “teaching” every time I hear “coaching” and “writing” for every time I hear “playing sports.”

Competitive youth sports are a compelling analogy for what can sometimes happen in writing workshop. Sometimes, I find myself so focused on scores, the level of the writing, on setting higher and higher goals for each student, that my feedback and conversations with students — and teachers — also becomes focused on checklists and scores, on picking apart mistakes, and pushing for ever increasing expectations.

I wonder, if kids had the option of quitting reading and writing, would they? If they had the option, would the same 7 out of 10 kids who quit sports also decide they just aren’t cut out for reading and writing?

Sometimes, like the research on coaching suggests, I think I need to remind myself to step back, and “watch the kids play” during writing workshop.

It’s not that I’m unconcerned with student work, or improving the quality of the writing, or setting higher goals. Just like a coach who values success on the field, a teacher values student success and growth in the classroom. But the way to get there is probably not by constantly focusing only on technical, academic strategies. We also have to help kids find the joy in writing–just like finding the joy in a sport.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that I should stop focusing on acheivement, but I do think I also need to focus on engagement and joy.

SUGGESTION: STAND BACK AND OBSERVE ENGAGEMENT & JOY AFTER EVERY MINILESSON

Standing back after every minilesson to observe students has become so engrained as a routine for me that it feels very strange not to do it after all these years. This is a routine that has helped me on so many levels. When I take one or two minutes to just simply watch kids after the minilesson, I:

  1. am able to be proactive about potential management or behavioral issues.
  2. am able to observe kids’ personalities and habits while they work, getting to know them better as learners.
  3. foster independence by “letting” them get started on their own.
  4. identify things like materials, routines, or seating that could be changed to foster more engagement.
  5. simply feel better, less frantic, about my own teaching.

Instead of racing to my first small group or conference, I send kids off to their spots for writing (calmly, quietly, and often slowly to ensure a smooth transition), and then I stand in the middle of the room to observe kids getting started. I consciously make an effort to:

  1. allow kids to problem solve on their own without an adult before I swoop in to assist.
  2. give kids wait time to figure out on their own what they need to be doing.
  3. create an opportunity for kids to remind and coach each other to get started.

During this time, I use an engagement checklist of some kind. I have several that I like to use, depending on the time of year, and the needs of the students I’m working with. I really like Jenn Serravallo’s Engagement Inventory . I also make little checklists of my own, based on my predictable problems I have observed recently. For example, I might look for:

  1. Do kids have all the materials they might need to be successful today? (Pens, paper, post-its, etc)
  2. If they run out of materials, can they easily access more all by themselves?
  3. Are all kids physically comfortable?
  4. Are there any predictable distractions? Watch for
    1. unnecessary materials on the students’ desks/nearby
    2. distracting noises
    3. light that is too bright/dim
  5. Are students seated in a way that conveys the expectation for working right now
    1. sitting together/facing each other is conducive to working together, sitting on your own suggests working independently)

For one to two minutes, this is all I am concerned with. I circulate around the room and observe, make notes, and force myself not to take action right away as much as possible, leaving time for students to problem solve if they can. Then, after two minutes, I jump into action. Coaching students as needed, rearranging seating if necessary, filling up empty baskets of material, and making whatever small adjustments I can to support engagement, and in turn, create joy in our writing workshop.

After my observations, I also use “voice-overs” as a coaching method for the whole class. A voice-over is when you simply call out a gentle reminder as kids are working. Sometimes it’s a suggestion for something to try. Other times it’s a compliment, reinforcing the work students are already doing. Often these voice-overs are like mini-teaching points. They are usually tied to a writing strategy to try. Now I’m working including more voice-overs that have to do with engagement and joy.

“I love watching you write!”

“I’m noticing that you are really excited to write today!”

“I see that so many of you love to write. Nothing could be better than that.”