I am a literacy coach. That means I spend my days supporting teachers: teaching mini-lessons, co-planning, developing (hopefully) high-quality PD. I adore my job, though sometimes a little voice niggles in the back of my mind, a voice leftover from my classroom days, the teacher voice that’s always a little skeptical of anyone who’s not currently in a classroom:
Do these ideas (still) really work?
Yeah, but you’re not in a classroom anymore…
This sounds great … but what about kids who [insert reality here].
When a long-term sub position opened up for the last three weeks of school, teaching freshman English in a district where I had been coaching, I jumped. I was excited, energized, eager to get in there. Sure, I’d be spending my days with 140 freshman. For the last 21 days of school. I got this. I felt like I could get some answers for that niggling voice.
Plus, I can do anything for three weeks, right?
The first day was hard. Like, haaaaarrrrrdddd. I texted my husband, a 20-year veteran high school math teacher.
It was so good for me to be back with students, to spend even just three weeks in the shoes of a teacher. I think it’s something folks who support teachers should carve time out for on a regular basis.
Day two was much better (read: I instituted seating charts — rookie mistake! And used my “deep voice” as needed.). We spent the last days of the school year immersed in a writing unit using writing workshop principles to structure our time. (We studied multigenre writing, which you can read more about here and here and here.)
One of the best parts of those three weeks was that I left affirmed in the work we do as writing workshop teachers. While I was reminded how challenging teaching is, it also confirmed how powerful it is when we carve space for students to explore their thinking. Students grew as writers in those three weeks. It didn’t happen by magic, though. There are intentional choices that workshop teachers make along the way.
Belief 1: Community (before curriculum)
Many of us are great at building communities within our classrooms. We start the year with narrative writing, or getting to know you writing, poems about our lives. We fill the space with student writing and take time to really get to know our students. We all have fresh notebooks and sharpened pencils.
How many of us, though, have been guilty of still having those early products hanging up at Thanksgiving break? If you’re like me, by the time January rolls around, the idea of community building is a distant memory as you begin to feel the pressure of testing season roll around.
It doesn’t have to be that way. In workshop, community is the catalyst for success, and building that community is never finished. In my time with students, I was reminded that before I can move into teaching the curriculum, I need to make sure that students feel safe and seen. We do that in lots of ways. Our favorite was using quickwrites (check out Linda Rief’s new book The Quickwrite Handbook) to launch workshop time. Then we’d share, sometimes with partners, sometimes whole group, sometimes just a line from our own writing. I noticed a community growing (in some cases one had already been in place, but in other classes not). From there, kids were more willing to take risks.
They wrote about brave and honest topics. One student wrote about his childhood spent playing in the woods. Another girl wrote about coming out and how she felt like nobody believed her. Other students wrote about church camp, horse camp, and The Office. Some kids designed google sites, others published in booklet form. They were brave because they felt like they were part of a community of writers and they had something to say.
Belief 2: Choice is crucial
We know from our own experiences how powerful it can be to make choices as writers, especially beyond choosing a topic. Writers make choices about all kinds of things — length, genre, tone, craft, font. We know, though, that often giving kids choice leaves them feeling paralyzed, crippled with self-doubt (or lack of motivation). I remembered that kids need to be taught how to make choices.
I started small. I was amazed at how powerful it was to let them choose how to store their pesky phones. They resisted turning them into me, but had no argument when I let them charge them at a makeshift charging station. I noticed too that when I let kids decide where to sit, even if just on the floor by the window, they were more willing to dig into the writing.
This led us to be able to have discussions about their most often asked questions, like how long? am I done? is that what you wanted? It’s tempting to just give them the checklist, to create a template and let them fill in the blanks (I’ve done it, okay? It was awful for all of us!). Instead, though, we worked towards empowerment so students could make choices that made their writing their own.
Belief 3: Teacher is the heart
If students are the life blood of a writing workshop classroom, then the teacher is the heart, pumping, motivating, breathing life into the space. That’s not to say we’re at the center, of course. But we are busy making sure we do our share so that all the other systems can keep working.
I noticed that when I wrote right in front of kids, they leaned in. They referenced my writing. I noticed that when I conferenced with them, they were more willing to share later. I noticed that when I asked them questions, they would think about their responses. Conversely, I noticed when I sat at my desk and tried to get caught up on grading or emails, well, they tuned out too. I set the tempo.
Writers need us in the background, nudging, nurturing (sometimes nagging). They need our steadiness.
This is not to say that every kid dug in. There were several who chose to spend the last three weeks with their heads down. A few showed up every single day yet still ended the year with a staggering 25%. Writing workshop isn’t magical, after all. We invite students, show them the possibilities. They choose what to do next. But every day, we invite them. I’d say to one student, “I’m happy to see you today.” To another I might whisper, “you’re always invited to the writing table.” Out of the 15 or so kids across the day who refused to work, I was thrilled when one of them, Will, finally decided it was easier to write than to sit there every day. I’ll take it.
I am energized after my three weeks with students (6 weeks of summer has helped with that). I’m more committed than ever to the principles of writing workshop and to supporting teachers as we carve out space in our curriculum for students to grow as writers. I know that my time was short, but look at all they accomplished in just three weeks! If we can make this happen in just 1/12 of a school year, think of all we can do throughout a year!
Angela Faulhaber is a literacy coach in the Cincinnati area. She’s currently trying to get through the stack of books she hoped to read this summer, while also squeezing in pool days with her three kids, and maybe a nap or two before school starts.