If you’re anything like me, you might be reading this blog post in your pajamas, lamenting the few precious hours left in your winter break. Or perhaps you’re already at work today, getting set up to welcome students back in the next day or two.
You might be wondering, where did the time go? Or even, I’m not ready to be back yet! This might be a familiar feeling coming off the holiday break, or this might be a new, pandemic-related experience. (When in doubt, blame it on the pandemic, right?)
Whatever the reason, we can anticipate that many of our students are having the exact same reaction.
As an educator who loves my job and who strives every day to create the kind of learning environment that inspires kids (and teachers) to love learning, I am determined to push back on the feeling of dread in my stomach this morning.
As I think about returning to school, I want to be excited about the week to come. I want students to feel happy to be back together. Writing workshop is my favorite part of the day, and it’s the perfect place to infuse some intentional joy for all of us. I have a two part plan to do just that.
Part One: Celebrate our Favorite Books
What are your favorite books to read aloud? Which books—year after year—inspire kids to try out different craft elements they notice and adore? (Mo Willems and speech bubbles, anyone?) Which books inspire you to write yourself? What books have you recently discovered that you can’t wait to share and talk about with kids? Excitement for reading translates into excitement for writing—and for being at school to do those things together.
My advice: fill the next week (or two) with read alouds and craft inquiry studies of these remarkable books. Give yourself permission to reread those crowd favorites, even if you’ve already shared them this year. Reflect on what it is that makes these books so exceptional.
Invite students to share their favorites as well. I’m envisioning baskets in a central location, perhaps labeled with sticky notes that point out notable parts. I’m thinking about spaces across the day—those two to five minute windows—that might be available for kids to sign up for book talks.
What kind of positive energy might this create?
Writers read, and communities of writers read and share the books that imprint themselves on their collective and individual aesthetics. And while I would argue that this should be a consistent focus across the year in any classroom, now is the perfect time to commit (or recommit) to celebrating our favorite books.
Part Two: Begin the Year With a Choice Unit of Study
How might it feel for writers if the year began with choice? If the first writing workshop of 2022 were an invitation for each writer to create whatever they need—to feel whatever it is that they need to feel right now—how might that help writers begin the new year with agency and a readiness to be back?
Imagine a workshop humming with writers hard at work on poetry, graphic novels, nonfiction picture books, fantasy narratives, how-to, persuasive speeches, feature articles, realistic fiction, songs. . .
Before interrupting to insist that there is no time for a choice unit in our over-packed curriculums, consider all that we might learn about writers from this detour. First and foremost, we would get an immediate temperature check on where kids are as they begin the second half of the year. What are they thinking about? What might they need? Imagine the conversations this might open while conferring (and as writers share with each other), as we learn writers’ motivations and intent with their chosen projects.
Everyone deserves to feel seen, and a choice unit is a simple way to let kids know that we see them, that we value their experiences and their unique ways of looking at the world.
A hiatus from the curriculum is also an opportunity to see which writing processes and skills have been internalized and are transferring across genre and form. Think of it as an authentic opportunity for formative assessment.
Try making a list of the most important skills and processes that have been a focus so far this year in workshop. How might it support you in teaching forward to know where writers are in applying these skills and processes independently?
Using that list, make yourself a template for documenting conferring notes during this choice unit. For me, this might lean more heavily into processes, since writers will be exploring a variety of genres and forms. I might leave myself more space in the doc for personalized notes based on what kids are writing and the feedback I’m giving. I might begin with more of a skeleton and then add specific skills to document once I see what kinds of projects students have chosen.
Here’s an example of how this might look. In this template, I named writing processes that I would hope students would be gaining independence with across types of writing. In addition, I named two categories of writing skills that I would expect to see evidence of regardless of genre and form (organization and elaboration). I could certainly be more specific, but in the interest of creating an example that could be used across grade levels and offer maximum flexibility, this is what I came up with. Feel free to make a copy and personalize it for your own class and grade level.
This type of note taking doc demonstrates that even within a choice unit of study, teachers can gather valuable data about the strengths and needs of their writers. This data can be used to inform upcoming minilessons as well as small group work within (and beyond) the unit. (If you’re interested in learning more about how I use conferring notes to gather formative data and to plan for small group work, check out this previous blog post.)
I would absolutely be transparent with writers about this being an opportunity for them to show what they are learning by transferring skills and processes to these projects of their choice. Writing is hard work, and it is motivating to see evidence of our own growth. The reason we persevere in practicing hard things is that we can see the purpose. It has to be worth it in some way to the learner. What greater purpose is there than to have the freedom and agency to make our own choices as writers and to see them through?
Making space for choice is a way to energize our writers and our workshops. It is an opportunity for teachers and kids to take stock of all that they have learned so far so that they (and we) can plan for the semester ahead. And, bonus: it’s something new and different that adds a spark of fun to those initial days (or weeks) back.
If we want the return to school to feel like a celebration—for ourselves and for students—then we need to plan for it to be the treat that it is. We are lucky to be part of communities who love to read and write, and I hope we can all find ways to return to spaces that are intentional about appreciating that.
Happy New Year from all of us at Two Writing Teachers Blog!
Reader, writer, and instructional coach. Always thinking. Collaborating to innovate the learning experience for students and educators.