curriculum planning · process · writing workshop

Three Ways To Increase Instructional Clarity

I enjoy cooking more than baking. There’s a freedom to tinker and deviate when I cook, while baking demands precision. I know some people enjoy leveling flour with a knife and special measuring cups; I prefer to wonder what happens if there’s a little more or a touch less flour than that cookie recipe calls for. All that being said, when I first make a recipe, whether it’s a cake, soup, or a roast, I stick close to the recipe. I usually have to read it several times as I go through the process, checking and double checking that I’m doing it right. It’s only after I’m comfortable with the recipe that I become comfortable with tweaking the recipe.

In many ways, this is similar to teaching a new unit, but there are a few ways to maybe get to the point of being ready to tweak a little more quickly. 

  1. Know about what the finished product will look like. Even with a new recipe, I almost always have a picture of what it should like. What should students know and be able to do by the end of your unit of study? Keep that in mind! If you are teaching a narrative writing unit, the ultimate goal is that students write a story. They should know how to think of an idea, plan, draft, revise, and use conventions, but ultimately, the big understanding is that they write a story.

Kelsey and I have been working together on tools, one of which we have designed to keep the big ideas of a unit on hand and in mind. Knowing these elements, as well as the time frame and assessments that will guide instructional decisions will help maintain clarity for both teachers and students.

Overall Trajectory of a Unit

 I emphasize knowing and understanding the overall trajectory because I’ve watched teachers, both new and old ones, get caught up in having students create a perfect plan (or a perfect character description or a perfect editing job…), but students are not able to work through the process themselves…which leads into my next piece of advice, trash or treasure.

2. Value the process more– if not as much– as the product. Sometimes students benefit from seeing their work all the way through to a finished piece of standards meeting product, but a lot of the time, they benefit when we do more skill isolating. One piece might be for guided practice on using transition words. Another piece may be for trying out elaboration strategies. Maybe another is focused on using conventions as we draft. These pieces aren’t meant to be perfect. Instead they are opportunities for practice and approximation on a continuum toward mastery. If students feel that every piece has to be perfect, a lot of the time engagement diminishes and productivity slumps. It’s more exciting to have specific and attainable goals for any given piece. 

Maybe the following chart will help you recognize when you’re teaching toward process and when you’re teaching toward product:

You might be teaching toward product if:You are probably teaching toward process when:
You expect that each piece a student writes should reflect and demonstrate all of the grade level standards. 

Students are spending a long time– longer than you think they should– on their writing piece. Therefore, there never seems to be enough writing. 

You are finding yourself teaching more than one thing to a student at a time.

Your input is making the piece of writing better, but only if you’re there providing that input.  

Your student needs you to tell them what to do next.

You are planning to display it and you’re worried that viewers will be critical of mistakes and/or messiness.

Students are using a checklist, but using the same checklist throughout the entire unit.

In older grades, more than one workshop is devoted to making the writing look perfect.

In older grades, significant/important amounts of writing are assigned to be done outside of class as “homework.”

In younger grades, students devote any time at all copying over writing that they’ve already worked hard on revising and editing.
You are giving your student one or two strategies to work on at a time.

Students know what they are working on and can state their goal not just for the one piece, but also for themselves as writers. 

You can see growth between the current piece and a previous piece, including the volume a writer is creating. 

The bulk of process writing is completed in class during independent work time while you, the teacher, are providing calibrated feedback through conferring and small groups across the writing process.

Students finish pieces, and you don’t always feel like they have to go back and fix everything or add much more to it. 

Students have a choice of strategies for a particular goal, and not everyone is using the same one. 

Your student is able to work on the piece independently. 

Students are using a checklist, and the checklist is changing throughout the unit because students are growing as writers. 

You are planning to display all of their work, including the cross-outs and changes, with explanations of what the student has been working on.

This chart was made with the input of several of us here at Two Writing Teachers.

3. Recognize scaffolds within the process and nudge yourself to have plans for their removal. A scaffold is anything that a student hasn’t made or created themselves. Some examples include but aren’t limited to graphic organizers, questions that have to be answered, paper with specific lines or set-ups… I could go on. Just as it’s more effective for survival to teach someone to fish than to give that person a fish, it’s more effective to teach students to make and create the tools they will need. Therefore the more complicated the scaffold, the harder it is to remove, and the more it inhibits ultimate independence. When you create or use a scaffold, consider challenging yourself to think about or fill in the following chart:

ScaffoldPlan for Removal

Returning to the recipe analogy and offering full disclosure: there are times when I tweak a recipe, and we all wish I had left well enough alone. Teaching is an art, and sometimes tweaks don’t work as we hope or envision. However, I hope that these three ideas do increase the clarity of instruction in ways that help all students learn to be independent confident writers.