What’s in a Strategy?

Strategy defined: A plan of action designed to achieve a long-term or overall aim. 

Strategies are supposed to work. If they don’t, then they aren’t a true strategy. However, just because they are not a strategy for one individual doesn’t mean they can’t be for someone else.

Where am I going with this? 

In a recent conversation with my eight-year-old third graders (they would want me to mention that some of them are eight and a half, nine, or close to it) I asked, “Why do we use strategies?” To which I heard a few students share reading strategy names they had heard before. I heard responses like “Chunky monkey.” I also heard students say things like, “You should use your finger under words so you can read them better.” 

When I started this conversation, it was genuinely an open-ended question, it was not aimed at getting any specific response. I was interested in knowing what my students thought strategies were for, and I quickly found out.

I then changed my question. 

“Are strategies only for reading? Is there any other time we could use a strategy?”

*Crickets*

It became clear, even if my students had once learned what strategies were and why they were helpful they couldn’t remember. They associated the word “strategy” with names or descriptions of strategies, not an understanding of why a strategy could be purposeful. 

“Okay, what if I wanted to have a cleaner closet. Let’s say my closet is really disorganized. I have clothes everywhere, hangers on the floor, and missing shoes. I decide I want to tidy it up. I could use a strategy, for instance, setting a timer for five minutes every day, and I could work on cleaning up small sections at a time. The timer would be part of my strategy. My goal would be to have a cleaner and more organized closet.” 

This opened up a swarm of conversation about strategies we use across our lives for different goals we might have. There are so many connections students can begin to make when we link ideas to real life. Asking our writers to think about their lives and where goals and strategies live helps make goals and strategies seem a little less daunting when it comes to writing. This is work they are already doing. The difference is, maybe they haven’t really thought about how they were already using strategies to reach goals as writers. 

Today I’m going to share three ideas for “beginning of the year” goals and potential strategies that could help your writers. As you get to know your students, you will start to decide what needs are the biggest priority and what strategies are going to work best to move forward. I think opening this conversation with the purpose that goals and strategies serve, even with our littlest writers, can grow into a powerful conversation. One that lives beyond the year you spend together.  

Goal One: Generating Ideas

What is it?

Generating an idea is when we can create a space for a topic to grow and change through the writing process. 

Why do we want it?

We want to be able to generate ideas so we can write about multiple things and make decisions about what we think is most important within those ideas. 

Two starter strategies:

  • Talk it Out–When we aren’t sure what to write about, talking through ideas with a partner can help bring hidden stories or curiosities to the surface. Talking with a partner about interests can help a writer determine what opinions they may have, hidden stories, or questions they may want to answer. Writing down these discoveries helps a writer uncover hidden topics. 
  • Break it Down–Sometimes we have big ideas! When we start to think about the smaller parts of one idea, it can help us find the manageable pieces. For instance, taking the topic pets, and breaking it down to reptiles, aquatic animals, and mammals. Then further down to specific animals within those categories. 

We know the strategy is working if we can choose a topic and write about it within different parts of the writing process.

Goal Two: Stamina

What is it?

Stamina is the ability to sustain or attend to something for a length of time.

Why do we want it?

Having stamina as a writer means we can spend a long time writing and thinking about one topic or idea.

Two starter strategies:

  • Set a Timer–A timer can help us keep track of how long we are writing or thinking about writing. When we keep track, we can watch as our stamina grows into longer tspans of time. We can also see our writing getting longer and growing as we write for longer spans of time. 
  • Accountability Partner–An accountability partner can help us keep track of our progress. When we know we are meeting with someone to share how much progress we have made on a piece of writing, they are able to watch it grow. An accountability partner can encourage us, read our writing, and give us new ideas. 

We know the strategy is working if we are writing for longer periods of time in one sitting. 

Goal Three: Organization

What is it?

Organization is essentially how we arrange something so it can be understood. 

Why do we want it?

As a writer, we want to organize our ideas so a reader can understand our message, information, or opinion. 

Two starter strategies:

  • Sticky Note Placeholders–As we begin to process each part of an idea, we can break it into parts. Sticky notes are tangible pieces that can hold bits (i.e., sketches, words, or phrases) of those parts. When we put these notes across pages, it helps us to see how our writing can stretch. 
  • Cut it Apart–After we have drafted a piece of writing, cutting apart the sections can help us define the bits and pieces we intended to write. We can begin to see what parts we spent more time writing and what parts might need more of our attention. 

We know the strategy is working if each part of writing is about one thing and all those parts connect to our main idea. 

The beginning of the year presents unique challenges. As we strive to help students develop as writers, we are also introducing every element of our day, working to create a community, as well as valuing content that is essential to a learning progression. It’s a busy time of setting the stage for writers to take on big goals and make big moves. As you begin to set goals with students and talk about strategies, remember to talk about how and why a strategy can work. Also, validate when a strategy is not working and seek to find one that will. When we know where we are going, it’s a lot easier to get to our destination.