Since the beginning of our school year, our schedule has changed more times than I could count on one hand. Students have come back from virtual learning, some have moved in and out of at-home learning for set periods of time, and the rest have remained in the physical classroom. Our environment is in a constant state of change and interruption. We continue to adjust and move forward, regardless of the changes that surround us.
It is important to also keep in mind that students are affected by their experiences and these experiences find ways to stifle their learning process―trauma, diet, sleep, stress, and fear are just a few. There are many ways that students express the impact of their experiences, some of which is their behavior in the classroom.
We are still in the midst of a pandemic and cultivating positive behaviors in a writing workshop may require a bit more of our careful attention. The challenges of our changing environments may be impacting how students respond in the classroom. This year, we seem to have greater needs and a few more times to hear myself say things like,
When there is a greater need in the classroom and the outside world seems to seep in from every corner, it is best to keep the end in mind and honor what is most important for writers right now―the freedom to use writing to communicate, connect, and begin to heal.
At the end of October, we had our first classroom publishing event. It was no easy feat, but some things must remain nonnegotiable. The constant need for adjusting to the world outside, inside, and online forced me to focus on what I know to be important—authentic writing experiences. Experiences like these are important for much more than growing writers. We are growing humans and these experiences are much too important to push aside, even in the midst of a pandemic.
We set the date three weeks in advance, shared the date with parents, established clear expectations, and then prepared to publish our many stories. The decision was made and it became our goal for every person in our class to publish. We discussed trust, fears, what-ifs, and determined ourselves to move forward. Our fears became excitement and we had something magnificent to look forward to doing. It was, for one day, something that felt greater than a pandemic. Even students who were quarantined at home published. Publishing to an audience shined new light on the purpose of writing and the meaning of process, and our process included working carefully through uninvited classroom behaviors.
It is the “dealing seriously and swiftly with those who try to disrupt the work…” part that has reached a new level of hard. It is a moving target we must catch without completely crushing it in our hands. Outside of a pandemic, it is hard to accomplish. Inside a pandemic, it is a careful dance between the teacher, students, and trauma. This year is especially difficult and it is important we keep that in mind as we work through behaviors that call on our attention.
There are three primary behaviors we have worked to problem-solve this year:
- Students who are not writing.
- Students who often call on our attention during independent writing time.
- Students who decline to engage in a lesson.
Most of the time, an unwanted behavior in our writing workshop could be eliminated with one serious, direct, and targeted request to “cut it out” or “stop.” Other times, it requires a bit more. It is the “bit more” part that is most important and delicate. These are the moments of individualized responses to the needs of the individual humans in our classrooms. There is no space for “we don’t have time for that right now.” If we want students to learn and move forward, we must make time.
What do we do when students are not writing?
It is important to know we cannot force a student to write, but there are some nonnegotiable in our writing workshop. Wait time and space for illustrating is good, but it is important to nudge a student into writing words. I have had my share of students declare, “I’m finished!” for all to hear after only five minutes of writing. There really is no such thing as being finished in a writing workshop, and there are ways to tweak these unwanted behaviors.
Have one-on-one conversations with students to:
1. Clarify expectations
2. Notice the positive and name it when they do engage in writing
4. Invite the student to help problem solve and let them share how they work best
These conversations help nudge students to continue moving forward. Our presence in the classroom must be strong, yet kind.
If students are not writing, even after one-on-one conferences, there is probably a greater need to be uncovered. It is important for teachers to do more research.
What do we do when students call on our attention during independent writing?
This can occur in a variety of ways. As new students continue to return to the physical classroom environment, we have had a need for reviewing, revisiting, and practicing expectations. More importantly, it has been critical that students feel safe and a part of our classroom writing community. We are working with humans and every human is different, but almost every unwanted behavior can be improved with one-on-one conversations.
Most students will let you know when they are feeling stuck. Sometimes they use words and sometimes they do not use words to communicate. We must be intentional to discover what they may not notice about themselves, in order to help them move forward.
There is great complexity in our work, especially in these uncertain times, so building relationships through nurturing conversations is imperative.
What do we do when students are not engaging in the lesson?
I would be lying if I said I’ve never experienced boredom from time to time in a session or two. Not all speakers are gifted with the ability to engage their audience. There are some simple strategies to avoid this boredom trap for students, even within a seven minute minilesson. Besides making sure expectations are clearly laid out for students, there are some quick strategies we can work into our lessons to help students interact with each other and the lesson:
Strategy 1 – Turning and talking is a naturally engaging strategy that can be accomplished in the classroom, through masks, at a distance, and in Zoom breakout rooms.
Strategy 2 – Invite active participation. One way to do this is to ask students to hold their thumbs up, if they agree, thumbs down, if they don’t, or sideways if they are unsure. These non-oral responses can be welcomed invitations for students learning English as an additional language.
Strategy 3 – Responding to simple questions every few minutes are quick ways to shift engagement. Students can respond to questions that may begin with: How many of you…? Have you ever…?
How we lead and how we respond to students in a writing workshop can shift behaviors, both negative and positive. It is important to remember that teachers hold a strong presence in the classroom. What we value shines through to our students, whether it is through learning to work within a time of uncertainty or working towards a time to celebrate published works of writing. When we work to create space for students to feel loved and valued, they feel it, but we are humans. The work we do is imperfect. Strategies are critical. We will have good days and we will have bad days, but we will be better each day we work to move forward.
- This giveaway is for a copy of ONE of the following books (winner’s choice): A Teacher’s Guide to Writing Workshop Essentials: Time, Choice, Response by Katherine Bomer and Corinne Arens, Every Kid a Writer: Strategies That Get Every Kid Writing by Kelly Boswell, or Joy Write: Cultivating High-Impact, Low-Stakes Writing by Ralph Fletcher. Thanks to Heinemann (Link to: https://www.heinemann.com) for donating one of these to the winner of this giveaway. (You must have a U.S.A. mailing address — Sorry, no FPOs — to win a print copy of the book of your choosing. If you have an international mailing address, then you will receive an electronic copy.)
- For a chance to win this copy of one of these books, please leave a comment about this or any blog post in this blog series by Sunday, November 8th at 6:00 p.m. EST. Marina Rodriguez 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 9th.
- Please leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment so Marina can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win. From there, our contact at Heinemann 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, Marina will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – MEET WRITERS. Please respond to her e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.