Taking Stock: Moving Forward

Experience is a great teacher.

Experience is a great teacher.

As a member of the team of staff developers at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, one way I worked to help schools in June was called “June planning.”  This work always included reflecting on the current year (just coming to a close) and planning for adjustments the following school year.  When you think about it, this is a practice that likely anyone who wishes to improve takes on in his or her life.  In this endeavor, we ask ourselves:

  • What did I/we do
  • How can I/we improve on that

Likely, many of you who read this blog have asked your students to reflect on their growth as writers.  Melanie wrote a great post about ways to support such work last year. (you can read that post here).  But what about us as teachers?  How might we reflect on our own practice in a way that could make a difference for our students next year?

One way to approach this work of taking stock is to begin by framing it as: “What happened?” Often we tend to review our past performance as writing teachers through a lens of deficit, i.e., “What I did wrong,” or “My interpretation of what happened.” As you consider the following essentials of writing instruction, I invite you to consider purely what happened. Frame your ‘what happened this year’ by using the most basic, fact-based generalizations as possible.  Once those generalizations, observations, and noticings are established, consider trying to set a few goals for next year’s writing workshop.  Remember, we are all a work in progress! Teaching is not about ‘what we didn’t do right.’  It’s an exercise in making a difference by living the life of a continual learner.  The following list, considered perhaps some of the most essential ingredients to successful writing instruction, comes from Donald Murray, Donald Graves, Mary Ehrenworth, and others.  As you read it, try regarding the information as a lens for goal-setting:

Reflecting on Time

Time – There exists no dispute about how writers write: we use a writing process, and this process takes time.  Therefore, students need protected time to write.  According to Murray, kids need protected time to write at least four times a week.  Otherwise, they cannot remember what they were working on to the level of detail required to be successful.  What can happen in situations where students do not experience this frequent protected time is they can develop a negative relationship with writing.  It is similar to exercise in this way; I know I cannot get on the elliptical in my basement once a week and expect to become stronger or more fit.  If I expect to attain real results, I know I must work out frequently and within uninterrupted intervals.  Otherwise, I do not see growth or improvement in fitness.  In writing workshop, if we are being realistic, we know most kids can probably sustain around 25 to 30 minutes of writing; so this might be a goal to strive for in our teaching.  After all, we know writing is a skill learned in use.

As you reflect on this year, it may be helpful to ask:

  • Did I typically provide enough protected time to write?
  • Did my teaching provide for enough days of writing?
  • Did my teaching allow for enough minutes of writing time?
  • Can adjustments be made to accommodate adequate, protected writing time?

Reflecting on Time (1)

Choice – When it comes to teaching and learning, many or most of you reading this understand the importance of engagement. As my colleague Chris Lehman once said, “Engagement isn’t a thing.  It’s the only thing.”  We know as teachers that allowing for meaningful choice in writing makes a huge difference, and is therefore essential.  With choice comes engagement. With engagement comes volume.  With volume, comes skill.  Many of us in middle school have met the girl who loves to write about penguins- year after year- or the boy who only wants to write about Minecraft.  And perhaps one of our first instincts is to tell them or suggest to them, “Why don’t you write about something else this time?” This can be problematic for young writers for different reasons.  One reason is that it is difficult to write well about something you are (a) not all that interested in, and (b) not very knowledgeable about.  For us as teachers, this can mean we need to let go of what we want them to write about, and instead, allow for some choice.

Choice can also mean allowing writers to set their own goals for independent writing/work time.  In a writing workshop, we may be inclined to turn a minilesson into an assignment: kind of like, “I just taught you this. Now you must go do it.”  Another way to approach sending kids off to independent work time is to encourage them to make meaningful choice around what they want to work on for the day, thus allowing for choice in how they spend their independent time.  Of course, there are times when coaching into these choices is an appropriate teaching move.  But allowing for choice in daily goal-setting goes a long way toward nurturing independent writers.

As you reflect on this year, it may be helpful to ask:

  • Did I typically allow for choice in writing topic?
  • Did I typically allow for choice in daily writing goals?
  • Did my conferring provide for any choice for writers?
  • In my workshop, where are the points at which kids are getting to choose something in a meaningful way?

Reflecting on Choice

Response – A third essential element in writing instruction is response– also known as feedback.  Writers are typically best served when we receive feedback not from an “expert,” but from a co-writer.  In classrooms, this can mean a few things.  First, it can mean a teacher who is going through the writing process alongside the students.  I wrote about this topic of writing alongside our students last August.  As teacher and author Carl Anderson once put it, “Kids don’t need you to be their editor.  They need you to be their teacher.”  The voice of a teacher who is a writer herself or himself tends to carry more authenticity in the listening of a student writer.

Secondly, in classrooms, co-writer feedback can also come from partnerships, partnerships that have been provided tools and training for how writers render feedback to one another.  I wrote about a curriculum for partnerships in this post and this post, hoping to provide support for developing a meaningful partnership curriculum.  When peers are equipped to provide one another useful feedback, perhaps working with tools like checklists, mentor texts, or exemplars, the classroom community flourishes.

Finally, response can come in the form of an authentic audience.  When kids know someone’s going to read their work outside the classroom, they often push themselves to work at a higher level.  Therefore, making a bigger deal of publishing might be a worthwhile goal for next year.  I wrote about this topic in February.

As you reflect on this year, it may be helpful to ask:

  • Did I write alongside my students in order to help my feedback originate from a ‘co-writer’?
  • Did I confer with writers regularly, both individually and in small groups, to provide ongoing feedback to them?
  • Did I teach into partnerships so that kids became stronger at providing feedback to each other?
  • Did my students write for an authentic audience?

 

Experience can indeed be a great teacher.  Perhaps one of the questions above, whether through the lens of time, choice, or response, has sparked an idea for your next year, an idea for making next year better?  If this is true for you, and you are on about the business of setting goals for teaching next year, be sure to write it downResearch shows writing down goals actually does matter!  As the great soccer star Pele was once quoted as saying,

Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice and most of all, love of what you are doing or learning to do.