Intentional Practice In Our Writing Classrooms

My daughter’s soccer team has been having a great season so far, but they’ve had a scoring drought over the last few games. When I spoke to her, she described the drills and strategies they were going over to try to register more goals.

By the middle of fall, soccer seasons are underway, and Julia’s coaches have a deep understanding of the team’s strengths and shortcomings. During games, they shout from the sidelines, reminding players of coverage, strategies, and scoring opportunities. During practices, they isolate skills and develop plays; they may even study film.

Intentional practice leads to better performance.

Writing instruction follows a similar pattern, and by about six weeks into the year, teachers know their students. Just like soccer coaches, teachers can start to develop some responsive instruction, both from the figurative sidelines, as well as through direct instruction.

Coaching Writers From the Sidelines

In a workshop, we have several teaching opportunities. We have the minilesson, the mid-workshop interruption, and the ending share. We also have small group work, as well as individual conferences. All that being said, I’ve been doing more coaching from the sidelines with just quick reminders—and I mean quick!

  • Writers: eyes on me. Here’s a quick reminder that capital letters happen when you’re in the drafting phase! Try to remember to be using them at the beginning of sentences, names, and for any other reason you know! Get back to work!
  • Writers: eyes on me. We’ve been learning to write beginnings that introduce characters and setting. Make sure that yours does and consider giving it a quick revision if it doesn’t. Get back to work!
  • Writers: eyes on me. Many of you are working on inner thinking as a development strategy. Make sure you’re trying that out as you’re drafting. Get back to work.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Think of how a soccer coach– or any sports coach– calls out directions on a game day, and translate that practice into the writing classroom.

More Intentional Practice

While I’m sure that soccer coaches have their go-to drills that they get from books or other resources, I would argue that the best drills are going to be the ones designed by the coach specifically tailored for the players in front of them. This past week, I watched three second-grade teachers create materials with specific students and lessons in mind.

Paper Power

Second-grade teacher Hayley Brown recognized that she has several students who need their visuals close by. Therefore, she designed paper with reminders at the bottom of it. This way her students have their goals literally right under their noses as they are writing!

The bottom part of this paper includes the goals for students. Students can individualize their tricky words.

The really cool thing about Hayley’s paper is that she can adjust and differentiate the goals at the bottom depending on what students are working on. While the visual reminders are a scaffold (and we should always have a plan for removing scaffolds!), it’s easy to envision how they can grow in complexity or even become ones that students create themselves!

Strategic Writing Samples

Jill VanVoorhis, another second-grade teacher, knew that some of her students are over-using dialogue. #secondgradewriters… Therefore, she created a short piece of her own writing that overuses dialogue, a strategic writing piece. Students can use that piece for intentional practice of breaking up dialogue with action, description, or inner thinking. Just as soccer players need to work on give-and-go passes in a non-game environment before they can implement those strategies on game day, so do writers!

Jill’s ping-pong dialogue is a strategic writing piece that can be used for a small group lesson or even an independent practice station by reminding students that writers blend talk, action, description, and inner thinking in order to bring stories to life.

Students will almost always respond more when teachers use their own writing and their own characters. Jill’s writing comes from a baking adventure that her characters had together, and students will recognize them.

Writing Progressions

Progressions are one of my favorite tools to use with students so that writers can find their entry point and nudge themselves incrementally along a growth line. When I showed another grade 2 colleague, Nancy Montemerlo, the progressions I’ve created for a narrative ending, she recognized right away that my second-grade starting point was a little too high. “I want to make my own,” she said. With the standards in front of her, and using her demonstration story about a baseball and window mishap, she created her own progression for narrative endings, beginning with one that some of her students would be able to emulate.

Nancy’s ending progression shows students how, with just slight revisions, their endings could get better and better.

I love that Nancy’s students will recognize not only her handwriting, but also her story. The authenticity of this tool will make it that much more effective when she uses it to teach students.

I’m on my way to my daughter’s soccer game today. Hopefully, their practice will result in more goals. And, if it doesn’t, the conversation inspired me as a writing teacher!

Addendum: Julia’s team won 5-0— their next game happened in between the writing and publishing of this post. Hopefully, all writing tools work just as well! Intentional practice gets results!