Principals can be literacy coaches too! Teaching writing is one of my favorite things to do, so I make it a priority to be a lead teacher as well as the administrator. Each September, I help my third – fifth grade teachers kick off their writing workshop and introduce students to my writer’s notebook (actually ALL of my many, many, many writer’s notebooks). They get a kick out of seeing me haul in my big boxy bag and unpack notebook after notebook of writing. I also show them the 10 volumes of Slice of Life Story Challenge books I’ve created – that hold over 310 pieces of writing from over the years. I want them to know that I am truly a writer – not just an educator who talks about writing.
With each visit, I have a similar agenda:
- Show them that I’m a writer too – for real reasons, many reasons and that I authentically use notebooks and my computer to capture my stories. And, that notebooks are MESSY! With cut and paste and cross outs and entries that are half-written – and that’s all okay!
- Acknowledge that writing can be both hard and easy – depending on your topic, audience and genre. And it’s okay for sometimes it to feel both HARD and easy! Writers feel that way ALL of the time!
- Share some strategies with them. Sometimes I’ll do a brainstorming activity with them, other times I’ll read them some of my stories and have them feed off of that topic. My favorite tip: WRITE what you know about. I tell them, “If you write about things that you are an expert on and are passionate about, your writing will always be good!”
- Inspire them to use their notebooks not “perfectly” but “productively.” Notebooks are a place to play with ideas.
- Leave them with a poem. Each year, I write a new poem, just for them. I ask them to put it in their notebooks and hope that it inspires them throughout the year.
As an added bonus, my visits give me an early opportunity to get to meet my new students and greet my returning students. It’s a way for me to connect with them early and authentically. In addition, I love for my staff to see that I am not afraid to teach, model (succeed or fail) and put my passion out there. As I visit these classrooms I get a better sense of students whose names come across my desk and am more able to appreciate the work that the teacher has before them. And finally, for my new teachers, I am able to do some short lesson modeling and classroom management for them, while also letting them know I’m there to help!
After my initial visits are done, I’ll offer to be a weekly literacy buddy for my staff. This is an opportunity for them to pick one to two students who I can work with weekly for 15-20 minutes each week on reading or writing. My role is simply to come to the classroom at that time and support these students with whatever classroom task they are working on or any other activity that the teacher would like me to do with them. Usually they are students who are on the cusp and who just need a little extra attention. Sometimes this means just reading with them. Sometimes it means conferring with them. Sometimes it means playing a rhyming game with them. Whatever it is…I’m in. Once this gives me an opportunity to schedule moments in my day and week that fuel my educator soul and also work to support my staff and my students. If it’s on my calendar, I’m there – well usually, because… things do happen! But I try to make these visits a priority and have found over the years they are well worth the time in the outcomes in my relationships with students and their academic support.
I also LOVE attending publishing parties and writing individual notes to students about their writing. My attendance at these celebrations is an example of my authentic interest in both the process and product of the efforts that have been demonstrated by my staff and students. I hope that offering them compliments about their writing helps them feel noticed and valued. And because they’ve seen me in the beginning of the year and throughout the year coming into their classroom to work with students, they know that I’m genuinely interested in the work.
Each fall when I enter the classrooms I leave them with a poem of inspiration – something to help them launch their writers notebooks. Every year, it’s a new poem that I write, just for them. A new poem, for new writers, for a new year.
Feel free to use them with your writers too. Or, be inspired to write your own, go into classrooms to model lessons or share your own stories. Make your passion a priority and pencil it in!
Dr. Jodi Mahoney is the Principal of Greenbrook Elementary School in South Brunswick. As a former teacher and literacy staff developer, she loves to TEACH as much as she can and modeling lessons for teachers is one of her favorite things to do! You can find Jodi on Twitter @jodi_mahoney.