Having an extra pair of hands in the classroom is valuable if you know how to make the most of that person’s presence. This is the third year I’ve been lucky enough to have Lucy, a teaching assistant at our school, join my classroom during writing workshop. She is assigned to our class for one hour, and unlike a paraprofessional, she can work with every student in the class. I believe we are a great team, but it’s taken time to get there! To prepare for this post, I sat down with Lucy to discuss how we’ve grown as a teaching team. Below, I share three tips for collaborating with support staff, as well as an interview with Lucy.
Tip #1: Share Resources
If you teach writing through a workshop model, chances are you’ve had some professional development about writing workshop. You’ve likely even read books or articles about writing instruction. However, most support staff haven’t had that same training. It’s important for every adult in the classroom to understand your philosophy for teaching writing. If they don’t, you might get frustrated when you see practices you disagree with, and kids will get confused! Support teaching assistants and paraprofessionals by sharing resources, but start small! Share a blog post or short article with them to start, and if they’re interested, offer a book chapter or research article. Beth Moore created some awesome handouts to share with support staff in this blog post.
When Lucy and I started working together, I considered the most important things I wanted her to know about writing workshop. I wanted Lucy to understand why I don’t spell for kids, why I limit conferring sessions to five minutes, and why I allow kids topic choice and independence. Your list might be different, but it should reflect your critical beliefs about writing instruction. I could’ve easily told Lucy what I believed, but I also wanted her to understand the why. So, I made a few photocopies from my favorite professional texts that summed up my core beliefs.
Tip #2: Set Up For Conferring Success
As a teacher, it’s challenging to meet my conferring goals each week, so I knew I wanted Lucy to spend most of her time conferring. To help Lucy understand how I confer, I invited her to listen to a few conferring sessions. I showed her my conferring binder, but I didn’t make one for her. Instead, I sent her several different conferring forms and ideas for how she could set up her own conferring binder. Together, we were able to meet more students each day than I was able to see alone.
This year, Lucy and I decided to forgo our individual conferring binders and make a joint one inspired by Melanie Meehan on the Two Writing Teachers podcast episode “Record Keeping: A Digging Deeper Dialogue.” We have one binder with all of our notes, so we can see each other’s observations and teachings with every writer. We each have a clipboard with sticker labels to take our notes on, and at the end of writing workshop, we add the stickers to the notebook! (Sticky notes are a cheaper alternative). This feels more collaborative than separate binders, as we are able to see what the other teacher observed and taught with a writer.
If you have a paraprofessional who only works with a few students rather than the whole class, consider how you might collaborate and share notes about those select students using these ideas.
Tip #3: Find Time to Collaborate Privately
This is tricky, but it’s valuable to look at student work when students aren’t around. This ensures you can speak freely and without distractions. When Lucy and I sit down to discuss students together, she’s able to share her observations about student behavior and skills. I learn her insights from conferring with kids, and she’s able to learn from me, too. In the same way that I refuse to talk about kids in front of kids, I would never correct an adult in front of kids. Collaborating in private gives you the chance to reteach your expectations for support staff if needed.
Interview with Lucy
How have your beliefs about writing instruction changed in the years we’ve worked together?
“Before we worked together, I didn’t know how to talk to kids about their writing without just telling them what to write. Being in your classroom has helped me understand that the kids already know what they’re going to say (even if they don’t realize it yet!). So I’ve learned to guide them in writing what they want to write and not what I want them to write. I thought they needed more help than they did, but if you teach them how to be independent, they can be more successful.”
How have I helped you grow as a writing teacher?
“The conferring materials you shared with me were helpful. I liked that you shared lots of examples but let me choose what worked best for me in terms of organization. It also helped me to just listen to you confer. Hearing your conferences with kids gave me ideas of more effective skills to complement and teach. I’ve learned a lot from you! I used to sit down with a kid and not know what to do if neither of us could think of something to work on. I learned to empower kids by helping them identify what they needed from me.
“You also help me because you know the kids better than I do. I only see them for a short time each day. You can give me tips about students and what they need.”
What do you wish teachers knew about your job?
“A lot of times, I feel like teachers get stressed about being prepared for me. They feel bad if they forget to make small group plans or something for me to do with kids. It’s not a big deal! I can insert myself and help out anyway. I know what I’m supposed to be doing, and if I have questions, I can ask later.”
“I also hope teachers know that I don’t always have to help with academics.” For example, Lucy takes a student in my class for a movement break before writing workshop each day to help get his body ready to learn. This has been so beneficial for that learner and something I’m not able to do myself!
What do you think works well in our writing workshop?
“I like that I can be independent and have my own conferences and meetings with kids, but you and I still work together. We both observe different things and have different perspectives. I might catch something that you missed, and I always share what I notice kids are doing. Two adults are better than one!”
As Lucy stated, it can feel like a lot of pressure when another adult supports your classroom. You might be stressed about finding something for them to do, or you might feel awkward teaching with someone watching! If you spend time educating and supporting your teaching assistant or paraprofessional, writers will reap the benefits.
Throughout the week, we’d love to hear your thoughts. We even have a book giveaway for those of you who share comments!
- This giveaway is for a copy Your Students, My Students, Our Students: Rethinking Equitable and Inclusive Classrooms. Many thanks to ASCD for donating a copy for one reader.
- For a chance to win this copy of Your Students, My Students, Our Students: Rethinking Equitable and Inclusive Classrooms by Lee Ann Jung, Nancy Frey, Douglas Fisher, and Julie Kroener. please leave a comment on any of our blog series posts Sun., November 6th at Noon EST. Sarah Valter will use a random number generator to pick the winner whose name will be announced in the blog series wrap-up post on Mon., Nov. 7th. You must have a U.S. mailing address to enter the giveaway.
- Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so Sarah can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win. From there, our contact at ASCD will ship the book to you.
- If you are the winner of the book, Sarah will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – STRONGER TOGETHER BLOG SERIES. Please respond to her e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. Unfortunately, a new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.