How are you all doing? For many of us, this school year is somehow even more challenging than last year. For a long list of reasons, your schedules are even more unpredictable, student attendance is unpredictable, there’s a shortage of subs, and you might need to switch to virtual at any moment… and many of your students are still not vaccinated. As an educator entering my 22nd year, I can say with confidence that I have never seen another year quite like this.
There are many things we cannot control. But there are few that we can, and one of those things is our curriculum planning. Whether you are fortunate enough to have a structure to collaborate with others on your grade-level team, or if you are planning solo, there is a lot you can do to streamline your plans, and prioritize high-leverage skills and strategies. Here are three steps you can take.
Step 1: Not all minilessons are created equal.
If you are using a published program, please know that some minilessons are going to get you more “bang for your buck” than others. Workshop teaching has always meant that you need to select what to teach according to your students needs, but the pandemic makes that even more apparent. In writing workshop you simply cannot just teach all the minilessons in the unit, just because that is what is published in the book. One thing you can do is comb through a unit’s table of contents for the writing process that the unit follows. Note that there are many ways a writing process might go. Here’s one typical way a unit might follow a writing process:
Now, with a pencil, circle one lesson for each step of the process – pick the one that resonates with you. Perhaps it’s a lesson you’ve taught in the past and saw success with your students. Perhaps you are new to the unit, but it’s the lesson that’s the easiest to understand and put into practice. Maybe you choose the lesson that directly addresses something you have seen your students do (or not do).
You’ve now prioritized six lessons, one for each step of the writing process. It’s not possible to skip a step in the process, but it is possible to teach students how to do it using only your best, favorite, most effective minilessons.
If you are skeptical whether six lessons is really enough, please keep in mind that you can and should teach, reteach, and re-reteach the strategy using different mentor texts, different demonstration pieces, different student examples, student self-assessment, and with various ways of engaging students over a few days. Cutting down the number of different strategies may help YOU feel like you can keep up with planning each day, and may help STUDENTS get the multiple days of practice and support they need.
Of course, in some units, there may be steps in the writing process that overlap. For example, in the younger grades we often teach students to generate an idea, plan it across their fingers, and then start sketching and drafting it all in one lesson. That’s okay too! Something like that could be the one prioritized lesson for the three steps of the process.
Step 2: Identify the overarching student goal for each week of instruction.
Let’s just say each step in the writing process is one week of instruction. It doesn’t need to be, but for simplicity’s sake let’s just go with that.
If you are using the writing process as your guide, this makes identifying whole-class student goals very easy.
Here’s just one example:
Week 1: Students will generate many ideas for stories to write
Week 2: Students will create a plan for several possible stories
Week3: Students will draft several stories (or a single story depending on the age and level of experience of the writers)
Week 4: Students will make major revisions to a story to lift the level of detail and craft.
Week 5: Students will edit their own writing for spelling, punctuation, spacing and other mechanics.
Week 6: Students will independently “publish” their own writing in an age-appropriate way by sharing it publicly with a meaningful audience.
Of course, you might not need an entire week for some steps of the writing process, or you may plan to stretch out a step for longer than one week. In any case, you are on your way to creating priorities for each week of instruction.
Next, layer in grade-level expectations for each goal using your standards or grade-level learning progressions. For example, in kindergarten, a goal might look like:
Week 1: Students will generate many ideas for stories (or essays, informational texts) by drawing a picture for each story idea in a small notebook, and talking about their ideas out loud to a partner.
But for fifth grade, the goal might look like:
Week 1: Students will generate many ideas for stories (or essays, informational texts) by generating multiple, short, small-moment entries in their writing notebooks that will later become lengthier, more developed stories.
Once you’ve identified the goal for the week, you can focus your demonstration and modeling, mid-workshop interruptions, examples, and whole class sharing and reflection on the goal. You can let go of other things temporarily, knowing that the next stage in the writing process will provide opportunities for different things. And, because of the nature of units of study, each step of the writing process will be taught and re-taught in every unit. If your students still have work to do in a particular stage of the process, you can confidently continue on in your unit, knowing that you’ll be coming back again and again.
Step 3: Don’t give up on conferring or small group work or individual writing goals.
Steps 1 and 2 have to do with whole-class instruction and planning, but in order for your students to grow as writers, they each need to get what they individually need. During your first few weeks of school, as you were getting to know each student, you most likely discovered one area that stands out to you as a strength and a next step for each one of your students.
Find a system that works for you for keeping track of one big strength and one big next step for each student. You might add a section to your conferring notes, like this:
Or you might tape something to their writing folder, or have a chart celebrating writing goals somewhere in the room. Perhaps you have a “GLOW” and “GROW” chart in each student’s writing folder like the one that the teachers in my school district developed. Perhaps, if you teach older students, or have a LOT of students, you’ll start by asking students to self-assess and name one big strength and next step.
When you can keep track of each student’s strengths and next steps, it makes your conferring and small group work much more focused. It helps you prioritize. You don’t need to rigidly adhere to only one next step at a time, but it certainly makes sense to focus most of your conferring with a student on the one big thing that is their biggest goal.
Last but not least…
Take things one day at a time. By now you’ve probably seen this visual in one form or another, but I think of it often as I navigate the unpredictability of this particular school year.
Perhaps you’ll take a moment to reflect on your classroom.
What are the things happening in your classroom or school that are beyond your control?
What are the things happening in your classroom or school that are within your control?
Right now, I’m focusing on the things I can control, and prioritizing so that I can spend time on the things that will make the biggest impact.