This might sound obvious, but in order to make space for student work time within the workshop, it is necessary to keep teaching time short. As Samantha Bennett reminds us, whoever is doing the talking, reading, and writing is the one doing the thinking. This is why the “work time” within any workshop is so crucial. Writers need time to practice what they are learning in the context of their own writing projects. This is where growth happens.
During the unit planning process, it is essential for teachers and teams to clarify what it is that writers will need to learn in the upcoming unit. Which specific skills and processes will be taught (and assessed)? What will it look like when writers at a specific grade level are successful? Can both teachers and students name those essential learnings? Do they have a shared vision for what it looks like when they “have it?”
This up-front work is necessary in order for teachers to be strategic in planning for the whole group minilessons within a unit. There isn’t time to teach everything, and it can be easy to fall into the trap of trying to teach too much—leaving far too little time for writers to write every day.
A pattern I sometimes notice when planning with teachers is the tendency to treat each new unit as if it is the first time students have ever encountered it. There is almost a sense of overwhelm, as if the amount that needs teaching in the amount of time we actually have is impossible from the start.
My positive presupposition is that this comes from a genuine valuing of the content at each respective grade level—how important it is, how complex it is to teach, how seriously we all take our individual responsibility for the growth of writers.
I get it.
And. . . we could open up worlds of time by getting over this.
Below are three planning strategies that streamline whole group teaching time, thereby maximizing student writing time.
Planning Strategy #1: Pre-Assess (a.k.a. Know Your Writers)
All children—whatever their age—have prior experiences and specialized knowledge that they bring with them from and into their communities. As teachers, it is our job to tap into and leverage this valuable background knowledge. Being intentional about connecting new learning to what students already understand is a timesaver. It also values learners as humans in a world where learning all the time is what we do. Colleagues as well as families are partners in this work.
Rather than assuming that writers are entering our workshops as blank slates, how might we open up time for writing by being proactive about learning what writers already understand—based on both their own oral language/writing as well as the instructional focus of previous grade levels?
Where might there be opportunities to leverage transfer of writing skills and processes across genre/unit in our own grade levels? For example, an introduction and a sense of closure are attributes of all types of writing. Once a writer has internalized this concept, getting into the nuance of writing beginnings and endings for a different genre is like getting a running start. As we are pre-assessing, are we looking for evidence of what writers are doing successfully in one genre that will transfer to another—either directly or indirectly with that running start?
Most importantly, do writers recognize and seek connections between different types and purposes for writing across the school year (and across years), or do they see each unit as starting over with something new? Being transparent with writers about the strengths in their writing that they are bringing to the table in a new unit is both motivating and a timesaver—bonus!
Making space for writing time requires strategic streamlining of whole group teaching time. The number of potential minilessons within any one unit is limited. Choosing the highest leverage teaching points is key. How often do teachers find themselves teaching a minilesson because it has become routine during a unit rather than because they have evidence to suggest that writers need it? Do we sometimes make assumptions about what x graders in y unit need, rather than finding out in advance whether that is true or not? Investing time in advance of a unit gathering data about where writers are and what they need is a huge time-saver when it comes time to unit plan.
As we get into the unit, do we have structures for continuing to gather formative data, so that we can be responsive as needed to either add or remove minilessons based on what students need? (This recent post has tips for this process.)
We can trust in writers when we know them deeply. Consistently offering large chunks of work time happens when writers have big work to do and the agency to do it. When we trust that those minutes will be well spent because we have planned thoughtfully for the specific writers in our workshops, it is easier to make space for those minutes.
Planning Strategy #2: Unpack the Standards Vertically
Writing standards are written to intentionally spiral and build. We are not teaching for and expecting mastery of every element of [insert genre here] writing at any one grade level. This is pressure teachers sometimes place on themselves, measuring student learning (and their own effectiveness) against that “perfect” end product. Reread your state standards (and your curriculum) to clarify which critical attributes are specifically emphasized and assessed at your grade level. I promise—it isn’t everything.
Writers will have opportunities every year they are in school to strengthen their skills and processes as writers of narrative, informational, and persuasive text. By clarifying the focus at your individual grade level, you will prioritize the most important, highest leverage skills and processes. It’s okay if writers are approximating other skills that have not been prioritized. With this level of clarity, the number of minilessons and small group times you actually have will more closely match what is necessary for writers to learn those prioritized skills. As a result, minilessons will stay mini—leaving the bulk of workshop time for work time.
In addition to knowing your own grade-level standards, familiarize yourself with the standards in the grade levels above and below yours. Talk to your colleagues in those grade levels. Get clear on the skills and processes that your students invested time and energy learning in previous grade levels. Begin planning your new unit with the positive presupposition that most writers are proficient (or at least grounded) in these areas rather than the assumption that they are not. Trust your colleagues at previous grade levels the way that you would like colleagues in future grade levels to trust you.
How might that shift change the way you plan and allocate time? How might it positively impact writers to hold positive presuppositions rather than falling into a deficit model? Writers will live into our high expectations.
On the other end, notice where the standards define learning that will happen in subsequent grade levels. It’s important to know where those skill distinctions are when making decisions about precious whole group minilesson time. The same is true when conferring with writers and making decisions about teaching points.
As teachers of writers, we can more strategically prioritize when we have clarity around how the standards grow over grade levels. And while we can (and should) differentiate to support writers who are ready for advanced skills, this is teaching that can happen in small groups and individual conferences when it is only a subset of writers ready for that instruction.
Planning Strategy #3: Be Strategic With Small Group Instruction
The co-authors at TWT Blog recently did a series on the power of small group instruction, so I won’t go into great detail here. However, all too often, instruction is delivered to the whole group, rationalized as “a good refresher for everyone,” when it is only necessary for a subset of writers. Using student work as a guide for decision making and offering small group instruction in those situations opens up space for higher impact whole group minilessons.
Planning for small group instruction reduces the impulse to keep writers gathered on the carpet for “just one more quick thing” that could more effectively be taught to a select few rather than cutting into everyone’s writing time.
Actually doing the work of writers is where writers strengthen their skills—and this takes at least two thirds of the total minutes in any workshop. The more clear we can be while unit planning, the more strategic our instructional time will be, leaving more time for writers to write.
- This giveaway is for a copy of Above and Beyond the Writing Workshop by Shelley Harwayne. Many thanks to Stenhouse Publishers for donating a copy for one reader.
- For a chance to win this copy of Above and Beyond the Writing Workshop, please leave a comment about this post by Friday, January 28th at 11:59 a.m. EST. Stacey will use a random number generator to pick the winner, whose name she will announce in a post recapping this blog series on January 30th. Eligible to be shipped to the USA and Canada.
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Reader, writer, and instructional coach. Always thinking. Collaborating to innovate the learning experience for students and educators.