checklists · community · Reflective Practice

Seeing Problems as Opportunities

When teachers engage in an effective child study, you’ll often notice:

Teachers are excited to study a problem that occurs in the work of many of their students, and they welcome the idea that this problem is a reflection of their teaching. One senses that these teachers feel that pinpointing the problem is a big step toward not only helping their students but also improving their own teaching.

This quote from Lucy Calkins’ Leading Well captures what I believe to be the heart of the work I do as a literacy coach — supporting teachers as we dream up possible solutions to problems that arise during writing workshop.

There is no master playbook for writing workshop. We will never have it all figured out. The true art of teaching is in moments when we recognize a need and then explore ways to find a remedy. Sometimes the fix works and sometimes it doesn’t. More dreaming and experimenting are often required.

A pivotal moment in my life as a teacher of writing came a few years ago. I had my narrative checklist in hand when I stepped into Leigh-ann’s classroom. She had been teaching a unit on small moments and her first graders were eating it up, living like writers and capturing their stories.

I  sat next to a writer and we began to work through the checklist together. “Did you put more and more details on your pages?” I asked, reading straight from the checklist.

 She looked at me, puzzled. Silence. Then, “What’s a detail?”

The question. Her puzzled look stopped me in my tracks. What’s a detail? We had spent a significant amount of time throughout the unit teaching elaboration strategies. How many times had I said to writers, “Add more details.” How many times had I heard other teachers say this to their students? Could it be that the students had no idea what that even meant? A little probing and I know this writer was not alone. It was at this moment that I recognized that this was a problem with our instruction. We were doing the teaching but the children weren’t fully accessing our instruction. There was room to grow in connecting the dots of our teaching. While we had taught several elaboration strategies over the course of the unit, we had failed to be explicit in helping the students to understand why this work mattered. Our words were floating in the air, aimlessly, never landing in a place of understanding for the students. 

Reflection led to a realization. The first-grade team and I knew we had to adjust our teaching. Together, we cracked open the checklist we had been using so that kids could better access and understand. We expanded the section that asked writers to reflect on the details they had added and inserted the actual strategies we had taught. This expansion of the checklist allowed writers to think about the strategies they had been taught and whether or not they had tried them. 

IMAGE: Original Checklist vs. Elaboration Menu

Clever Leigh-ann even began referring to this piece of the checklist as a menu. I can hear her words, “You would never go to a restaurant and order everything on the menu. The same goes with your writing menu. You would probably never use every kind of detail. But, you can use your menu to choose the kinds of details you want to add to your piece.”

The menu soon became a valuable addition to the writing workshop. With the guidance of their teacher, students found new ways to use this tool. Leigh-ann told them, “Just like when you go to a restaurant and always order the same thing. You know it’s good, but maybe you try something else and you find out it’s just as good or even better.” Students began tallying the kinds of details they added across their pieces. They celebrated the work they were trying and reflecting on new strategies they could try. The menu now also supported goal setting and small group instruction.  

Over the years, the use of elaboration menus has continued to evolve, not just in Leigh-ann’s classroom, but across our school. We have created elaboration menus for various genres of writing across the grades. Instead of a tool that is used only for reflection at the end of a unit, these menus have become something that writers reference throughout the writing process. We have also found them helpful as teachers. Used vertically, they inform teachers of what strategies students have learned and can be reminded of, moving from one grade to another.

In that moment, all those years ago, we had a choice when that young writer asked, “what’s a detail?” We could blame the curriculum or even the kid. But instead, we saw this moment as an opportunity to reflect on our instruction and the way kids accessed the strategies available to them. The problem became an opportunity that helped us all to grow…together. 


Calkins, Lucy. 2018. Leading Well. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

6 thoughts on “Seeing Problems as Opportunities

  1. I remember having a similar experience with one of my fourth graders when he told me, “I’m doing show, don’t tell,” but couldn’t explain what that meant. Getting rid of jargon by being more precise with our language definitely helps young writers to make those important moves we want them to make!

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  2. These ideas are SO incredible and helpful. I adore the analogy of the writing menu to that of a restaurant. I had forgotten this powerful connection. Thank you!

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      1. Hello, I teach MS Special Education and utilize many checklists for writing during our workshop time. Many students struggle with elaboration and I truly love this idea of presenting options as a menu! Is there anyway I could also get a copy of your resources?


  3. A story we can all learn from. It raises the importance of listening to children and adjusting our teaching to make learning possible for all. It also celebrates the importance of collaboration and problem solving together. The interconnectedness of both teaching AND learning shine in your story! Bravo!


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