It’s August, and back-to-school sales are everywhere I look. I can’t help but get goosebumps at perfect pink erasers, brand new notebooks and oh! those pristine crayons!
There are so many details to consider as teachers of writing. There are tables to set up, materials to organize, conferring materials to gather. My head swims with the rituals, processes and routines I want to build into our writing community. My guess is many of you are right along with me.
For me, though, the excitement of new supplies and classroom set-up only takes me so far. I need to dream and stretch. It’s only when I envision what I want for students that I feel my feet on the ground as a teacher. I’d like to share my big-picture process and my commitments for this year’s instruction. Hopefully, you’ll be encouraged to dream for yourself.
The Big Picture
Each fall I spend time reflecting on the past year. Armed with a spiral notebook and Flair pens, I map out what went well and what didn’t. Every time I do, it leads me back to the central tenets and foundations of my teaching.
Last year brought surprising gifts: closer relationships with my students than I’ve enjoyed in a long while, and remarkable progress in writing. For the first time, my students trusted themselves as writers. They saw talent within themselves and their peers. How did that happen? I have a theory.
Gone was the power structure that always presents a teacher as knowing and strong. Gone were the distractions, the extra bells and whistles, the “fluff.” Gone were the expectations, structures and pressures of a typical year. And I don’t want to bring a single one of them back.
My dream for this coming year is to preserve and protect what my students and I built. That means placing student growth and well-being at the center of each classroom experience. I want students to see writing as an avenue of self-expression, to recognize their voices as unique and important, and to appreciate the value of improving their craft. These big ideas, these roots, will keep me grounded as I begin the year.
One of my major constraints is time. I only see my students in limited hours through a pull-out program. The bigger difficulty, however, stems from attempting a constructivist approach to writing within a school culture of challenge and achievement.
Don’t get me wrong – our primary mission as teachers is to support growth in all forms. Kids need to learn new things, and they need to demonstrate that learning. That’s the job we do. It’s especially critical for the gifted population I serve. But in the past several years, I have seen an increasing demand for curriculum coverage that pressures us to teach in ways that don’t align with our teaching ideals. Perhaps you see it in your schools, too. The optimist in me believes sound pedagogy and academic rigor do not have to be mutually exclusive. I have to believe that, guided by our own moral compass, we can satisfy the optics of student growth on our own terms.
This year, I commit to promoting student growth through developmentally sound, student-centered instruction and assessment.
In order to achieve that ideal as a writing teacher, I need to commit myself further. This year, I will:
Celebrate students as they are.
Level the playing field: we are ALL learners, with power and agency.
Develop young authors’ trust in their own vision, experience, and skill.
My Structures and Supports
Now, it’s one thing to dream. It’s also easy to let the phrase “centering student experience” sparkle and fade like so many education buzzwords. The commitments I make require action to make them happen. While it’s true that I want writing instruction to rely heavily on student choice and freedom, I can still bring a structured approach to instruction and assessment:
Get to know my students as people and as writers. I will first ask for a writing sample to use as a pre-assessment.
Once students complete their writing sample, I want to know what they perceive to be their own strengths and areas for growth. I’ll have them fill out a survey (linked here if you’d like to use it) for more guidance on the direction they’d like to take their learning. We’ll have similar checkpoints throughout the year.
Scaffold student instruction around their interests and needs. I have a stack of guides and resources to help lend structure to our writing workshop. Books like Jennifer Serravallo’s The Writing Strategies Book is often my first go-to when it comes to targeted writing instruction. Her small-group instruction guide (reviewed here) also gives effective structures for writing workshop.
Rely on my community. The Slice of Life community has been an invaluable source of support for writing workshop. Engaging in the practice of writing allows me to remember and respect the challenges that my student writers face. Blog posts and comments from fellow Slicers not only provide me with mentor text to use, it gives my students a clear model for how to interact with one another as writers. Simply put, I love the community we’ve built here. I want the same for my students.
The beginning of the year is always a time that brings me equal parts excitement and anxiety. Sketching out my “big picture” and thinking about how I might get there always makes me feel more grounded and ready.
How about you? As you take time to dream about the coming year, what excites you? What successes do you wish to build upon? What do you wish to reclaim? What are the commitments that guide your practice? Leave a comment and share your vision!