Why “Never Let ‘Em See You Sweat” Doesn’t Work For Writing Teachers

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There is nothing quite like a teacher’s collection of mentor texts. As I run my fingers over the fraying spines of mine, lines rush at me like a flood.  From Jane Yolen’s Owl Moon“Somewhere behind us a train whistle blew, long and low, like a sad, sad, song.”  Then, Cynthia Rylant’s Fireflies “The moonlight and the fireflies swam in my tears, but I could feel myself smiling.”  I let the words wash over me, appreciating how each book has left a mark on me as both a teacher and a writer.  

These books and any we use as mentor texts can allow us to see new possibilities in how to lay out thoughts, invite readers into our self-created worlds, and play with language. And yet… something I’ve come to realize is that the mentor texts that matter most to my students  are not those beloved and perfect books.  Instead, the most meaningful are the flawed pieces that flow from my fingers each day, because they are crafted in front of my students. My young writers can see the messy thinking and clunky wording that are a part of drafting, and see that prose doesn’t begin with the high polish of published, literary jewels—it gets there. It gets to a brighter shine through work and revision.

The most valuable work of a writing teacher is to show students the process, decision making, and quest for honesty that writers go through in order to make their words have emotive power and sheen. In doing this we are vulnerable and real in front of our students, powerful states of being to model for children. To do this is to be a writer as well as a teacher, because we can not teach what we do not do. When Donald Graves was asked by an interviewer in the late 1990s, what is the one thing teachers need to do when teaching writing, he answered:

Write yourself. Invite children to do something you’re already doing. If you’re not doing it, Hey, the kids say, I can’t wait to grow up and not have to write, like you. They know. And for the short term and the long term, you’ll be doing yourself a favor by writing. All of us need it as a survival tool in a very complex world. The wonderful thing about writing is that it separates the meaningless and the trivial from what is really important. So we need it for ourselves and we need to invite children to do what we are doing. You can’t ask someone to sing a duet with you until you know the tune yourself (Instructor magazine)

The tune of which Don Graves speaks isn’t always easy. Writing in front of your students is hard, like trying to master the oboe. And what I’d add to Graves’ insight is that writing with your students has profound power, because it brings you closer to learners. You and your students live in a place of sameness, which allows you to have writer-to-writer conversations that let students know, I work at this too.  Not one of us would want to take feedback or advice on our dieting from someone who’s been a size two their whole life.  To be all in with someone, we need to live the struggle ourselves, and share the secret that in writing all of us write awful drafts, all of us have moments when the words won’t come, and all of us feel that twinge of discomfort laying ourselves out on the page for others to see.

So, for those of you who are still leaning into the comfort of those well-loved favorites mentor texts,  think of this as an invitation to finally dare to write in front of students. Here are a few tips to get you going:

Tip 1: Zoom in on little bits of your work with one focus.  Yes, using our own pieces to model is key, but that doesn’t mean we are always drafting the whole piece at one time. The best way to keep students in tune with a strategy we’re sharing is to model that strategy only with just a bit of the piece.

Tip 2:  Show that the struggle is real.  When we’ve planned and rehearsed our lesson, it is easy to make the writing we’re doing seem effortless, when in reality that’s not the case.  Even when you have an idea of what you’re going to write, be sure to tuck some thinking pauses into your work. That will show students that writing doesn’t always flow.  We all need time and space to decide which words will actually land on our pages.

Tip 3:  Talk to make your thinking visible. Using our own writing to model how writers plan and then bring those thoughts to the page requires us to do more than just move the pen in front of our learners. It requires us to open our minds and name out what we are thinking through each step. As you write, make your process clear by sharing the how and why of each writing move you make. This sounds a lot like, “Hmmm… First let me think about…  I’m thinking… Maybe I can… Now I’m thinking… Next let me… I can try…”

Tip 4: Don’t play it safe.  If we are asking our students to write the real stuff, we have to as well.  Write the story that is hard to tell. Write the essay that taps into your truest beliefs. Write real for them because it is the only way they’ll write real for you. I often model with mom fail moments, the moment my father told me he had cancer, and moments that I’m less than proud of but taught me an important lesson. This type of writing makes me real to the kids, and can hopefully give them permission to share the hard parts for them too.

Be bold and vulnerable.  Plan and be messy. Let them see you sweat.  Write.

Growing Pains: Embracing the Discomfort of Learning

The details of my childhood are fuzzy.  I can’t recall with clarity the colors of the bike I rode around the block, or the face of my first grade teacher.  There are, however, a few memories that remain crystal clear. One is from when I was about seven or eight years old…    

It was late at night, what seemed like hours after my mother had kissed me goodnight- but who knows for sure.  I woke up to darkness and a painful heartbeat in my leg. Clutching my shin, I called out. Part of me cried from the pain.  The other part cried out of fear that there was something truly wrong with me. After a few nights with scenes much like this one, my mom took me to my doctor.

The diagnosis…

                                …growing pains.

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I think about those pains often.  Not because they were unbearable or because they were a significant part of my childhood.  I think about them because whether it is physical growth or professional growth, as my doctor said, “Growing ain’t easy.”

As teachers, we are in the business of learning.  However taking on a professional goal or trying on a new practice can feel clumsy and uncomfortable sometimes.  We’ll probably mess up… a lot. So I thought I might share a few things that I do to embrace the discomfort of learning:  

Forgive yourself.  Remember that mistakes are just steps toward understanding and innovation. We would never expect our students to master a new skill the first time around.  That is just not the way that learning works. But that can be easy to forget when it comes to the standards and expectations we hold for ourselves. We are students, too. We deserve the same amount of patience and care that we would give to our students as we continue on our own learning journeys.

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Take the time to reflect after something didn’t go the way you had hoped.  It’s easy feel embarrassed or ashamed when your teaching didn’t go well. The voice of that little devil on your should may sneak up telling you that you’re not good enough and you should stick to what you know.  Push yourself to put some tape over the his mouth and use the time to think about what parts of the work went well and what you learned from the experience. It is the moments of reflection that help us grow our practice.

Creating a true learning environment means that we must model BEING learners. When we show our students that we are learners too, we have the opportunity to show them that the process isn’t easy and that there are bits of uncertainty and messiness along the way.  Plus, when we model being learners in front of our students, they walk away from our classrooms understanding that learning isn’t something that disappears the moment a degree is handed over.  It shows them that learning is one of the joys of life, and we don’t ever have to stop.

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I’ve heard my friend Patty McGee say, “Be comfortable in the discomfort of trying something new.  That is where your most creative and innovative self lives.” We owe it to our students and to ourselves to continue honing our craft. In the end, isn’t it worth it so that our students have the best possible version of us?  

So as we embark upon a new year, as odd as it sounds, I wish you all a bit messiness and discomfort. In that wish, I hope you all embrace the experience and find beautiful ways to outgrow yourselves.

What do the kids think? Notebook Work Through Student Lenses

Anyone who knows me well knows that I’m a crier.  I’ve never once made through a Hallmark Christmas movie without choking up.  Heck, to be honest, most of the time I can’t even make it through one of those sweet newborn Pampers commercials. But what I never expected was to be sitting alone at my desk, on the last day of school, and sobbing as I stare at a computer screen…

Earlier this year, I wrote a post that was really a plea.  I was pleading with all of my educator friends to make consistent time for students to explore their thoughts in their notebooks.  Luckily, one of my most valued friends and colleagues told me that she was taking this plea to heart. She made a commitment to her students.  A promise that she would spare that golden thing in our school lives called time to let them write. Not just for their unit. Not just for a content area.  She gave them time to write whatever they wanted in their writer’s notebooks. Now the year has come to a close, she asked her students to tell us what they thought about the work they’d done in their writer’s notebooks.  That screen that brought me to tears was full of their responses.

Laid out in their words, here just a few of the things they said…

Choice

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“It felt good to write because I was able to write anything I wanted to and it did not feel like I had to do it as an assignment.  It felt like I wanted to do it.”

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“It helped me express my feelings.  I could write a poem if I wanted. I could write a story.  I could team up with someone else to write something. Choco even wrote a rap!”

– Juliet

My friend, Tom Marshall, often reminds us of the distinction between the words choice and choices.  In our writing workshops we try to offer as much choice as possible. Kids can choose their topic. They can choose which ways they want to rehearse, develop, and play with their writing.  They can choose how they want to publish their work. However, whenever we are in a unit of study, choice is limited. They are still confined to one genre, a time limit, etc… These confines make unit writing feel a bit more like choices.  The one time in their school writing lives that they truly have FREE choice is in their notebooks. And it matters. We heard it loud and clear in EVERY student’s response. Choice matters.

Purpose and Ownership

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“Before, I saw writing in your notebook as an assignment.  Then, when I had a conversation with Mrs. Dunn about it, I realized that it was not about pleasing her, it was about exploring your imagination on a piece of paper.”

– Arabel

“My notebook lets me express myself for who I am.  I enjoyed writing in my writer’s notebook because it let me be me.”

– Zeynep

Teachers are always dreaming up ways to make the writing that happens in their classrooms feel more purposeful.  We mail their letters from our persuasive units and pray for responses. We partner with book stores during review writing so that their work has a real place to live on the wall and can persuade people to buy that book.  We will always do these things because we want our students to know that different types of writing have real power in the world. Yet, I ask, what greater way is there to give students this feeling of ownership and purpose than to allow them to be the one deciding what is important to write and how they will use that writing?  To explore who they are, what they believe, and what purpose they want their writing to have in our world. Notebooks do this.

Joy

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“I really liked writing because it was free, and it was what I think the story should be.”

-Choco

“I felt like notebook writing was a time of happiness and joy.  It made me feel good because sometimes I got to do it with a friend.  It was really fun.”

– Valerie

If there is one goal in the life of a writing teacher, or any teacher for that matter, it is to have his or her classroom feel joyful.  When students describe their classroom experiences as “times of happiness and joy”, and not because it is a movie day or field trip, there is no greater gift.  Notebook writing can bring joy to your classrooms and your students. By simply giving children time to express themselves, explore their thoughts, and see who they are on the page, we can make our classrooms happy places.

Community

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“When I wrote my stories or poems, I was proud of them.  At first, I didn’t want to share them at coffee houses, but then they became better and better so I shared them more and more.”

– Sophie

“I feel great about my writing because my pieces are valued.”

-Matan

Teachers often ask, What does it take to build a community of writers in your classroom?  Part of this answer may simply lay in giving them to time and space to write what matters to them, to write together at times, and then to celebrate.  Mrs. Dunn, that very valued colleague who did this work with her kids, made time for coffee house celebrations regularly. She’d set the scene with some music or a backdrop on the smartboard and let her kids share pieces of themselves from their notebooks.  Different than an end of unit celebration, these students had an experience similar to being on The Moth Radio Hour. They got to really see each other. To know each other’s stories. To appreciate each other’s voices. To value each other.  They built a community.

So, if my plea at the beginning of the year didn’t convince you, I’m hopeful that these messages from our students will convince you now.  

Give them notebooks.  Give them time.  Let them write.

**  A special thank you to Jennifer Dunn and all the other amazing teachers who gave notebooks their own special place in the classroom this year.

When Mentors Go Wrong: The Dos and Don’ts of Using Mentor Texts

Much of what I understand about writing today is thanks to the black ink that resides in the pages of my books.  While it’s true that I have had some incredible mentors, and I am thankful for them each and every day, what I have come to understand about growing as a writer is that sometimes the best teachers are hiding on our bookshelves.  Studying the beauty of one sentence over and over again can uplift, inspire, and open up possibilities that we may not ever have imagined on our own.  But here’s the catch; if we are not careful, a mentor text can stifle instead arouse, and our students will turn something beautiful into a formula.

So here are some Dos and Don’ts for the use of mentor texts in your classroom:

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Do give students lenses to study through.  Try using big, open-ended questions like, What part of this text speaks to you?  What did the author do that made you respond the way you did?  This will allow them to switch modes and read like a writer, focusing their reading on the craft instead of the plot.

Do give copies of mentor texts to each child and invite them to keep those copies close as they write.  Teach them that mentors are our forever writing companions and can help us set goals or intentions, work through a few draft possibilities, or go back into some revision work.

Do highlight that mentor texts can teach us more than just technique.  Reading mentors aloud can help our students experiment with the use of rhythm, punctuation, sentence length, etc…

Do let students borrow a line to get them started.  Sometimes a mentor can provide a word or a phrase that gives them fuel to get their pens moving across the page.

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Don’t let your students think that there is only one way to write well.  Overemphasizing a particular tool or technique that an author used effectively may accidentally send the message that all work must look that way as well.  For example, if students study a beautiful lead, name what the author did that made it so effective, but then start ALL of their pieces that same way, they have missed the point.  There are countless ways to begin a story well.  We don’t want to steal their voices and have our kids turning mentors into formulas.

Do use more than one mentor in your unit.  While many of us have one favorite text that we refer to over and over again in our teaching, limiting our exploration to one text may also limit the different styles and techniques that our students will see.  You may decide to zoom in on one text in your teaching but give students opportunities to study other texts and pick a few favorites during an inquiry day.

Don’t over focus on terminology.  There is a place for knowing the names of literary devices; however, the exploration of a mentor text is not about kids yelling, “I found hyperbole.”  Instead, it is about kids noticing what an author has done and defining for themselves why it is so effective.  Let them name their noticings first and try out what they see.  It’s the writing that matters, not the name.

Don’t always be the one leading them through the text.  A great mentor text can certainly give us loads of fuel for our lesson work, but we want to provide time for our kids to take the lead too.  Let them have time to explore and notice what they can pull from the text on their own.  You’ll see that it’s these noticings that stick the most.

In his book Mentor Authors, Mentor Texts, Ralph Fletcher (2011) says of mentor texts that they allow him to “shed my old writing skin and grow a better new one.”  May the texts you gift to your student allow them all to do the same.

Happy Writing!

 

 

What does this even mean??? Helping kids unpack complex texts

What does this even mean??   This question seems to pop up often in my reading life lately.   You see earlier this year I decided to take the plunge and jump back into university life in pursuit of another masters degree.  I knew that along with the joy of learning, there would be challenges.  I anticipated the late nights and workload that  would add to the already full life of a mom, wife, friend, and educator.  However, what I didn’t anticipate was how being thrown into high level academia once again would help me to support students as they approach the complex texts they’ll see on their standardized tests.

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For the first time in a long while, I found myself reading entire paragraphs and then realizing I had no idea with the author was trying to say.  Sitting on my couch with articles about curriculum theory on my lap, I knew I had to work out some ways to find the meaning in these readings. I had to push myself through extremely complex texts and use strategies to help myself make meaning. This is not unlike the work that our students have to do when they encounter difficult texts in their testing.

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So… here are some strategies that can help students work through the difficult and sometimes dull texts that they’ll experience in their assessments.

  • When you find yourself confused, reread that section aloud or at least mouth the    words. Hearing the phrasing aloud seems to help break the sentences down into manageable sections, and can help the reader make meaning.
  • Pause after paragraphs or sections that were confusing.  Ask yourself, “How does this section relate to the bigger ideas of the text?”
  • Identify parts that make sense within a section that might feel confusing overall.  Then ask yourself, “How does this part that is clear connect to this part (right before or after it) that seems fuzzy?”
  • Take your time.  The pace that you may be used to when your engaged and loving a favorite novel is not the same pace that will work for more complex texts.  You may need to slow your pace and allow thinking time more often to connect the dots.
  • When feeling frustrated, pause to take a few deep, centering breaths.  You may even want to use some positive self-talk like, I can do this.  You can’t let the feelings of challenge get you down.

Hopefully these strategies can help students find success in any text that they encounter. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t end with this last bit of advice for teachers who may be thinking about moving into a test prep unit.  In my grad work, I was reminded of how reading texts that are hard can steal the joy from our reading lives and replace it with feelings of frustration. DO NOT let test prep passages be the only reading kids do during a test prep unit. Preserve time for kids to read texts that they can understand and love.  Keep the joy in their reading.

 

 

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Fighting to Bring the Purpose Back

Boring….

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Is there a more dreaded word in world of education? As teachers, we all want our classrooms to be places full of energy, excitement, and flow.  So when I was working with a group of teachers earlier this year and heard their audible groans when looking at the upcoming unit, we took a time out to ponder the problems they saw coming.

“Literary essay is just so dry,” said one of the teachers.  “I can’t get my kids excited about it.”

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We begin asking ourselves…   Why couldn’t we get our kids pumped up to share their thoughts with the others?  Where did this draining feeling come from?  Why were our kids bored?  When thinking deeply about these questions, we came to a moment of clarity.   We couldn’t get our students excited about sharing their ideas because they didn’t see the purpose behind this work.  Their writing wasn’t talking TO anyone, so they were simply filling in the parts and pieces for US.

Then, out of our discussion a new idea was born.  If the work felt purposeless, we needed to find a way to bring purpose back to the kids.  And what brings more purpose and fire into our work than an argument, right?  So we lit a fire under our kids with the work of debate.

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It may seem like a risky move to begin a unit of study on essay without even mentioning the word essay, but we knew we needed to take a leap of faith.  Our first days revolved around immersing our students in rich short stories, videos, and picture books.  Then, we taught into taking stances and pushing ourselves to argue stances that were given to us.  We helped students to understand the protocols behind debate work, how to lean on those fighting with you, AND how to listen to the arguments of others to build up your writing muscles.  And while sometimes it was loud, and sometimes it felt messy, the fire was back in our classrooms.  Students were filling their notebooks and pouring over the texts they were using to find the perfect bits of evidence to prove their points.  The entries grew longer and longer until it seemed that students were writing naturally flowing essays to prepare for their debates.

 

While our essay work didn’t end there, this unconventional start led us to work that was full of purpose, energy, and life.  There are times in our teaching lives that we must take that leap of faith to bring the fire back.

 

A special thanks to Jen Dunn, Paul Levitan, and Norma Chorlian, who planned and developed this work, and were willing to jump with me.  I’d also like to thank all of the teachers who have been open to trying out this work in their classrooms.  I am grateful to teach and learn alongside you each and every day.  

 

 

 

A Plea From Your Writer’s Notebook

Dear  Writing Teachers,

Alas, the end of September is soon approaching.

Every year, September is my best month.  The month when I am the star of the writing classroom.  All month your students have opened me and I’ve captured their joys and sorrows, wonderings and concerns, noticings and plans.  They’ve filled me with the best parts of them, and I can be the fuel for all the writing yet to be…  Yet I fear as the breeze turns cooler and the leaves begin to turn, my shiny newness and joy may fade, and I will be lost to the dark cavern otherwise known as the back of the desk.   So this is my plea…

Please don’t forget me!

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I realize that as you move into studies of all types of writing and genres that it’s easy to put me away.  Yes, you may use me for a bit as kids come up with ideas or even to fill me with the planning they do for each piece they plan to publish.  You may even make organizers in me for this work.  But remember that while I can hold some of these things, that is NOT my purpose.

I am a place of dreaming.  A place of hopes and ideas and knowledge and play.  I am meant to  hold life, not work.

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So in an effort to save myself, I am offering a few suggestions on how you can keep me close all throughout the year.  While I know every classroom is different, I pray that you take me up on one or two…

1.  Make me part of your morning.  While “Do Now” worksheets may help to make the room a quiet place for lunch counts and morning tasks, I must ask, “Aren’t I more important than yet another worksheet?”  For I can become the seed that helps to grow the next great novel or at least next week’s essay.  Not that I’m a “have to” for everyone, but I’d like to be invited as a option.  Think about it.

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2.  Carve out some time for me, even if you have to steal it.  I know writing time is sacred and we all feel that there’s never enough, but I’m important too!  It’s okay to give yourself permission to steal a few moments from your workshop or shared writing or other parts of your day to fill me up.  I may help out later.

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3.  Send me home.  Not as a assignment, but instead send me home because that is the way that writers live.  Invite kids to bring me places and know that writers fill up their notebooks because they really see the world.

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4.  Help me multiply.  If you’re going to send me home, you might as well send home one of my blank cousins for a mom or dad or family member to write in as well.  I know not all families will take up the invitation, but maybe a few will.  My cousin and I dream of quiet family writing time, where writers fill up our pages at the dining room table.

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5.  Try out peace time.  I’ve seen this beautiful time set aside in a few classrooms.  Picture this… It’s right after lunch and the kids bustle into the classroom with a strange wild energy.  The teacher puts on some music, puts out some yoga mats, and invites kids to use a few moments to settle.  Some may draw.  Others may stretch and relax.  Some may choose me.

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To be honest, how you find the time for me matters little.  Just please do.

With hope and sincerity,

Your Writer’s Notebook

 

Closing the Door on Another Year

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Well Friends, we’ve done it.  We’ve sent another crew of students who we’ve loved, nurtured, taught, and who sometimes sent us home with a headache, through our doors for the last time.  Now, if you’re anything like me, you’re packing up and walking around in circles, getting one bit of a task done until something catches your eye and reminds you of yet another thing on your to-do list.  Of course instead of finishing what you’ve started, you wander over to begin, but not finish, the next thing.  During these crazy, messy, quiet moments, we pack our things away and reflect on the year.  Holding a favorite read aloud brings back special moments with our kiddos… the laughter, the tears and the wishes.  A funny sticky note stuck to the back of a misplaced book brings a chuckle and a lingering wistful smile.  These moments are bittersweet and have us thinking.

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So how can we use these moments of thought and reflection to help us as we prepare to begin again.   A recent conversation with some amazing colleagues (and favorite people) had me thinking about some questions that can guide our reflection into positive actions.  Let’s try a next steps approach, thinking through a positive lens.

  1. What started out really strong but may have gotten lost along the way?  How did it lose steam?  What can I do to make sure it lives on throughout the year next time?

2.  What went really well this year?  What did I do to support it?  How can I lift it even            higher next year?

3.  What do I wish I could have tried this year?  Where can it fit into my teaching?

4.   What is something I truly believe in as an educator?  Do I see that belief align with            my practice?  Can I do more to bring my beliefs and practice together?

5.   Who can I share this journey with?

Wishing everyone a wonderful summer full of fun, sunshine, and lots of reflection!

 

Writing to Teach

 

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Let’s face it.  Teaching writing can feel hard.  It’s this delicate balance of admiration, reflection, feedback, and mentoring, with teachers finding ways to kindly critique work in a way that will move students forward.  We teach from our units or teacher manuals and try to give our kids the support they need to keep growing…  But many of us are not sure exactly what that support looks like or what type of coaching and/or strategies we should share!  When those feelings overwhelm us, many teachers lean heavily on cute and easy to recreate ideas from Pintrest and Teachers Pay Teachers.  While some of these resources can help our students, I often wonder if scrolling through these sites is the best way to reflect on the writing process and think about the moves that may help our kids.

So what are the alternatives?

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One idea is to move back into the role of writer!  While many of us write for the purpose of demonstrating different moves for our lesson work, I wonder… When was the last time we wrote a piece simply to live through the whole process?  When did we last write with the intention of studying our own moves?  A couple of months back, a few teachers and I decided to bring ourselves back into the role of writers, and we set forth on a PD adventure to explore our inner authors, mining the moves we made to bring ourselves all the way from seed to story.  From immersion to publishing, the process I outline below brought us through the journey of writing to teach.

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  1.   Choose a genre.  (Most of us chose the genre of focus in our next unit of study.)
  2.   Find some good mentor texts to study.  Then, read them and notice your thought process as you unpack the writer’s moves.  As you’re reading you’ll want to think,  What questions am I asking?  How am I working through the text to study the author’s craft moves?  How am I finding areas that help me define the genre?  
  3. While you move through the text, WRITE all the questions and strategies you used along the margins of the paper (or on post-its across the pages of a book.)
  4. Now it’s time to move into your notebook and get started.
  5. Begin with generating ideas and fill your pages.
  6. After a bit of writing, pause to mine your process.  Ask yourself, “How did I come up with these ideas?  How did one idea move me to the next?  Was there a pattern to my moves?”  Then, write your strategies in the margins and highlight them.
  7. Repeat the steps of ‘write then mine’ all the way through the writing process.  To mine, continue asking yourself questions that focus on how you moved through the process, how you used mentors to guide you, and how you refined and got to know what you were really trying to say in your piece.

Once your writing is complete, you’ll have filled your back pocket with tons strategies that can support writers as they move through the writing process, AND you’ll have a notebook full of examples to use during your teaching and conferring!  So instead of leaning on internet tools, use your time to mine your own process and lift the level of your teaching.   I hope you decide to give this a try!

Happy Writing!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Power of Why

Grit.  Ownership. Engagement.

These words and ideas have been at the heart of many recent collegial conversations.   As educators, our shared desire is to have classrooms full of students who are resilient and independent thinkers, highly engaged in their learning.  While it is no  secret that we want this for our students the question that remains is… How do we get it?  

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A great first step that many teachers are taking is to focus on readers and writers instead of products, as we know that focusing on teaching strategies that support bigger goals can lead students to that golden place called independence.  However, even when our conferences are goal-centered and focused on supporting students with strategies, we may still find that many of our students are not applying what we teach in the conference!  There are few things more crushing  to the teacher soul than heading back to a student a couple of days after conferring with him/her and asking, “So, how’s it going?  Can you talk to me about what you’re working on?”  only to find that they haven’t tried any of the work!  In those moments we may want to drop to our knees, pull out our hair, and cry out “WHY!” at the top of our lungs.   But instead, we must take a deep cleansing breath and ask ourselves,  “Why do some students seem to apply strategies while we’re with them and then stop the moment we walk away?”  One part of that answer may be pretty simple…

 We forgot the why.

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Understanding the purpose of the work is vital if we want to move people toward independence and engagement.  Think back to a moment in your life when you were asked to complete a task that you felt was meaningless, or worse, felt was a task to prove your understanding.  How engaged were you in the work?  Did you bring this learning into your daily practice without being prompted?  For me, this experience was typical of my high school chemistry class.  Memorizing the periodic table seemed pointless to me without being told how this information might help me understand the world around me.  That table was simply a bunch of random letters that represented things that I didn’t really understand.   I memorized them for the test but quickly forgot them.

So how can we make sure we’re teaching kids how to master skills while making sure they understand why they are learning these skills to begin with?  You may want to try some of these ideas…

Bring samples.  If you have a conferring tool kit along for the ride, be sure to include student work samples with post-its that name what the student was trying to accomplish in the piece.  Then, highlight or draw arrows to places that show how the student tried out the work.  This moves us beyond simply naming the strategy and into showing  how that strategy can lift the level of our work.

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Simply add why to your teaching point.  This doesn’t have to be complicated.  Understanding purpose drives us, so simply name a teaching point with a teaching stem tied to it like, “If you want to… (purpose)  you might try… (strategy)”  Or “When we are trying to… (purpose) something many readers/writers do is… (strategy)” Or even, “When you… (strategy), it can help you to… (purpose). 

Tuck in examples from your work!  Let kids see how you’ve used what you’re teaching in your own reading or writing life.  Show students that what we’re teaching them IS applied to real life situations, for kids and adults alike.  This can help them see that their learning is purposeful.

Finally… The when is important too! Along with telling kids why they might try something out, it is equally important to tell them when they might bring out this new move.  If our intention is to make the learning purposeful for students, then we must make them aware that at different moments of our reading or writing, we pull out different moves to support our thinking and our work.

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Wishing you all classrooms full of engaged and independent learners!