Communication, Collaboration, and Clarity: Reaching Your Writers

One of my favorite years of teaching was my third year back in the classroom (after a ten-year hiatus for daughter-raising) when I worked as a special education teacher with Melanie Swider, who was then teaching fifth grade. We were intense about our practice and committed to the learning of every child in her classroom. The students were ours, regardless of whether they had an IEP or not, and we worked hard to develop systems to communicate and collaborate that were efficient and effective. While I’m sure part of our success with our students was because of our friendship and constant reflection on walks, at coffee shops, and with glasses of wine; part of our students’ success was also due to the clarity our charts provided both us and them, the knowledge we had of each other’s conferring work, and the commitment we made to let each other know when schedules had to change. 

When I think about the work Mel and I did together, there were a few key practices we took on which I am sharing now.

  1. Create Systems for Making Charts Accessible

Anyone who knows me and my work knows what a proponent I am of charts, and I would venture to say that Melanie Swider is an even bigger chart fan. We’ve faced questions about whether students really use charts. The answer is yes, especially when the charts enumerate the learning targets that have happened throughout a unit. Universal design for learning (UDL) “is a framework to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how humans learn” (CAST, 2008). A key principle of UDL involves providing multiple means of representation, and charts do just that. We can think about digital charts, individual charts… Here are a couple of quick ideas for ensuring that charts get into the hands of special educators, paras, and students. 

Create small versions of the charts by taking pictures and printing them. That way they can be handed out both to educators and to students.

Students and other adults can (and do!) help themselves to charts and resources that hang in bags and are attached to the closet doors in this second-grade classroom.
Students and adults are welcome to the charts from this bulletin boards which are added as lessons are taught throughout the narrative writing unit.

Sometimes I shrink charts down so that four fit on to a single piece of cardstock and then I cut them up so students can take them from interactive bulletin boards or keep them on keyrings. 

Take pictures of charts and upload them so that they can be shared on Google Classroom or another digital platform you may be using. Classroom teachers and specialized educators can share albums or folders with photos of charts that support the lessons and the work that is happening within the writing classroom. 

Quick tip about charts: consider making what I would call a progression of charts. No one is able to access information when it’s far beyond the functioning level, but if we simplify charts, we increase access, optimizing relevance, value, and authenticity, core elements of the UDL principle that involves engagement. In order to make a chart progression, I get the standards in front of me and I translate those standards into kid-friendly language using “I can” statements. 

2. Establish a Conferring System That Documents and Tracks All Educators’ Conferring Work With Students

So often when I am working in classrooms, I find myself conferring with a student and then finding out that the classroom teacher engaged in a similar conference with that same child, and I have no doubt this happens between classroom teachers and special education teachers/ paraprofessionals. When this duplication of efforts happens, we might teach the same learning target differently and inadvertently cause confusion. Furthermore, students don’t always let us know they’ve just had that lesson, and we are also wasting valuable instructional minutes and their independent writing time. I loved the line, “Students are over-taught and under-practiced” which was said at a recent Teachers College Reading and Writing Project conference, and this is a perfect example of that problem. 

Melanie and I tried a few different systems for conference collaboration and shared record-keeping. We were just starting to use iPads and iPhones in the classroom (it was 2011!), so we weren’t thinking too much about high-tech solutions. Our favorite and lasting system involved mailing labels. We had a 3-ring binder with sections for content areas and tabs for each students. Yes, that took a while to set up, but the time investment was worth it. We both kept sheets of mailing labels on clipboards, and whenever either of us conferred with a student, we wrote our notes on the label. When we had time, we transferred the labels into the binder. It was a quick and visual way to assess who we were spending time with, what we were both teaching, and how we could follow up effectively. 

I’m relatively sure that if Mel and I were working together now, we would be using Google Forms. I have written posts about Google Forms here and here. We can create a form with specific goals, learning targets, and standards.  Multiple people can use the same link and populate a shared spreadsheet. I would simply add a section to the beginning of the form indicating who is conferring with the student. I could envision this system leading to special educators and paraprofessionals being inspired to work with more than just students on their caseload, which, I would argue, is a good thing. 

  1. Share Calendars and Lesson Plans

There are many platforms for both calendars and lesson plans. In addition to sharing charts and conferring, I would also emphasize the importance of sharing calendars and lesson plans whenever possible. There are so many challenges and detours in our schedules that schedule swaps and deviations happen. More and more, classrooms and instruction involve and include a variety of instructional specialists including special education teachers, English as an additional language teachers, speech and language teachers, paraprofessionals, and others. It’s frustrating when an educator walks into a classroom expecting one subject and a different one is happening. If we want our support staff to be prepared, they have to know what to prepare for. That’s where a shared calendar could help, especially if you commit to updating it as much as possible. 

Better yet are shared lesson plans so that everyone who is working with specific students knows what the goals are for those students. Google Docs are one platform to use in order to share lesson plans, and there are plenty of other digital platforms to use as well. The more these are shared, the more clarity there is around instruction for everyone– including students. And that is better for students!

Final Thoughts

In addition to these three ways for communication and collaboration, it’s also critical to nudge and facilitate the adults who work with specific students to back away from those students whenever possible. We don’t want those adults to believe students can’t do their work without their presence and support. I wish this was an easier thing to explain to everyone who works with students; even proximity is a support. We don’t want students to learn that they can’t do their work unless there’s an adult there. On the contrary, we want students to learn that they can do their work when an adult isn’t there. A para/one-one is there to prevent total frustration, not to pave the way. Kids need practice with problem-solving and independence! Adults working with students are scaffolds, and just as construction workers plan to remove them from buildings, we need to plan to remove scaffolds from students. (I say this whenever I can!)

No matter what, we want to find entry points where students can access the work and do it without an adult guiding, managing, and directing every step. 

The more we can communicate, collaborate, and empower the people we work with, both adults and students, so that they know and understand the learning that should be happening in our writing classrooms, the more we will see that learning happen. When we all know what we’re working on and we have the tools and systems to support our pathways, great things happen!

Giveaway Information

  • This giveaway is for a copy of Every Child Can Write by Melanie  Meehan. Thanks to Corwin Publishers for donating a copy of each of these books — one book for a primary educator and one book for a secondary educator. (You must have a U.S. mailing address to win a print copy of this book.)
  • For a chance to win this copy of  Every Child Can Write, please leave a comment about this or any blog post in this blog series by Sunday, November 17th at 6:00 p.m. EST. Melanie Meehan will use a random number generator to pick the winner’s commenter number. Their name will be announced in the ICYMI blog post for this series on Monday, November 18.
  • Please leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment so Betsy can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win.  From there, our contact at Stenhouse will ship the book to you. (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.)
  • If you are the winner of the book, Melanie will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – EVERY CHILD CAN WRITE  within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.