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The Power of Silent Teachers: Helping Writers Increase Productivity and Build Independence Through Interdependence with Tools in the Classroom

We’ve all been there, we finish the lesson, say “off you go,” and writers get started. If we’re lucky, students start writing and we are able to start conferring or pulling small groups. Sooner rather than later, independent writers start to struggle just a little bit, drop their pens and find the adult in the room. Within minutes our independent writing time has turned into dependent writing time and our hopes of differentiating instruction through small groups and conferences is thrown out the window.

This all-to-familiar cycle of dependence to independence right back to dependence is one that is hard to break. Whether it’s learned behavior, fear of struggle, or lack of clarity, we owe our students direct instruction around how to break this cycle, engage in more independent practice and embrace the fabulous struggle without having to retreat to a teacher at the first thought of, “what next?”

The missing piece to the cycle above is interdependence, the reliance on something besides the teacher for motivation and next steps. We show and give students many cueing systems: anchor charts, checklists, mentor texts, mini-charts, word lists, alphabet charts, etc., yet they are not using these tools when they could help most. Teaching students to ask themselves, “What am I working on?” and “What do I have that could help?” will help them learn the power of being interdependent with one of many silent teachers provided.

A cycle of dependence, interdependence and independence.

So how do we do it?

You might start by having students generate a list of all the things in the classroom that help them write, besides an adult. Have writers look around the classroom, open folders, talk to partners, etc. As students are talking, you can chart responses. Each time I’ve done this, students have been shocked at the endless supply of support shoved in their writing folder and posted around the room. The student-generated chart of silent teachers will be a nice reminder when asking themselves, “What am I working on?” and “What do I have that could help?” and a way for you to silently redirect them when they start to swarm.

Two questions that we want students asking themselves every day.

Below is a list generated with one third grade classroom, your chart will look similar but should be a version that resonates with your writers. Resist the urge to create the list ahead of time and show them all the silent teachers you already know they have. Having them help generate this list is part of the process!

The start of a list of “silent teachers” created by one third grade classroom.

Checklists, mentor texts, and anchor charts are some of the always-present silent teachers in writing workshop classrooms. Below are ideas of how we can teach writers to tap into their power to help.


In many units, the roll-out of a checklist comes once the writing process is underway. In the second or third week of a unit, writers are given checklists for self-assessment. This often results in several check marks indicating the writer is “done”, but are they really? We can have writers using the checklist from the very start of a unit, looking at it as a list of things to work on instead of a list of things to finish. We want students to know the checklist is not just an assessment tool but is one of their best tools for interdependence throughout the writing process. Teaching a protocol for how to use the checklist is one more way to help students use it with independence. Below is one protocol I’ve used successfully in a handful of classrooms. Just having this cueing system out will give students a plethora of things to work on when they feel the urge to find the teacher.

A chart teaching a replicable process for using parts of the checklist.

Mentor Texts

We’ve likely all given writers examples of writing to strive towards, maybe a traditional mentor text written by a published author or a student exemplar. Students have copies of these samples and might look at them to get an idea of a strong lead or ending, but what about everything else? Teaching students to look toward these mentors when they are stuck will go a long way. We can teach students to reread the mentor for inspiration, look for one thing the mentor author did that they want to try, study the text with a partner and try something out together, or use the mentor text in conjunction with the checklist, turning it into its own version of a checklist. Instead of handing it out or making it a teacher-lead activity, teach writers to use mentors with independence and help them tap into one of the silent teachers that they’ll use for the rest of their lives.

In a fourth grade class, this student turned her mentor text into a checklist to use when writing.
Third grade partners look at a student sample of writing together.

Anchor Charts

Most of us have anchor charts beautifully displayed around our classroom. This said, are students looking at them without our reminder and when they need them most? You might pull the easel close to students’ tables and desks, have students identify which chart they will use that day before the “off you go, ”or maybe even suggest students sit near a chart when they feel stuck. Let’s remind students that the anchor charts are for them and one of their greatest tools for interdependence.

In his 2010 blog post, “What is Transference?” Grant Wiggins stressed the importance of students’ ability to “self-cue”. He said, “the research is clear, many students do not self-prompt, in the absence of explicit direction. ‘You didn’t say to use it!’ is a common comment.” Let’s break that cycle, celebrate students approximation around the use of the silent teachers they are surrounded by, teach them that self-cueing and interdependence mixed with independence should ultimately be the goal of learning. After all, their not-so-silent teachers won’t go with them though the summer, into the next school year or ultimately through life. Try it and let me know how it goes!

Meghan Hargrave is a passionate educator with a love for all things teaching and learning. She recently moved back to the Midwest and started her own education consulting and coaching business after many years working with Teachers College Reading and Writing Project as a Senior Staff Developer. You can follow her on Instagram: @letmeknowhowitgoes and on Twitter: @mmhargrave.


  •  What is transfer? by Grant Wiggins March 27, 2010

4 thoughts on “The Power of Silent Teachers: Helping Writers Increase Productivity and Build Independence Through Interdependence with Tools in the Classroom

  1. Silent teachers! I love it! As a special educator, I find that a lot of times my students have enough skills to get along on, but they lack the confidence to believe that this is so. I am excited to generate a Silent Teacher list in my room to buoy their self reliance.
    Thank you!


  2. Meghan,
    I love that the Checklist Protocol does NOT end with the Yes or No response and instead adds the “Could I do it better?” or “Where could I use it?” to move the student to action. Always love learning from you!


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