The Truth Hurts
I have to preface this post with a disclaimer: I teach 4th grade writing in the state of Texas and, like many others, am always thinking about how to improve our expository compositions. I realized this week though, after attending a writing workshop with Katherine Bomer, that I may have failed my students because of that initiative. We began introducing expository compositions (AKA essays) months ago thinking that we needed to get a head start on essays so that students were well-prepared for the state-mandated writing test in the spring. And, sadly, we've been rather disappointed with what they've produced. However it is no fault of theirs. We just haven't set them up for success. The really sad part is that WE KNEW BETTER! That darned test looming over our heads can get the better part of us at times.
I knew from the moment Katherine Bomer started speaking about writing that we hadn't allowed the students enough opportunity to simply write without all the "rules". That fact was further solidified when one of my students, after I shared that there were "no rules" for an "I wonder" piece, said, "I don't think I can write without any rules". Yikes!! That should be SO far from the truth. Yes, you can and SHOULD write without the rules of how long it should be, or how it should sound, or what type of format to use. Writing workshop should never be a time for teachers to sculpt little writing robots.
So we came back from this workshop with the great Katherine Bomer with plans to hone our focus, improve our stamina, and broaden our expectations in writing workshop. The results have been inspiring! And the best part is that it has taken very little from us, the teachers...
Enter: The Intense Writing workshop
Like I said, this intense writing workshop took little effort on my part. I simply had to set the stage for students. I wanted them to have an arsenal of tools and materials at their disposal so that they were prepared for writing intensely. These were things I gathered:
This is a day by day synopsis of how I got my students hooked on writing intensely:
And so it will continue...
I should have been working with students like this all year, taking a week every so often to have an intense writing workshop with no writing "rules". They have the potential to become true artists of the written word with the simple stroke of a pencil and just the write setting. And so we will continue in this manner every now and then. Next week we will take what we've done this week and apply it to an expository composition piece. I'm so interested to see what success this week brings my students! Please share your writing workshop successes!
In 2003, a show called "Mythbusters" started airing on the Discovery Channel. Two scientists were out to "bust" myths about science. There were many myths they busted, and some ended up being legit. I'm sure there are many myths about a variety of things that could be busted. Among them would be myths about teachers and the teaching profession. Some of those teacher myths are believed by onlookers- non-educators. And then many, unfortunately, are believed by those of us in the thick of education. So what are the myths we, as educators, believe about teachers? There are three myths that I think many, if not most, teachers believe about other teachers...
Myth Buster #1: There exists a Perfect Teacher
You probably know as well as the next person that there is no such thing as a "perfect" teacher. This is the easiest myth-buster of them all. Somehow, though, we tend to set whole-heartedly believe this myth. While these teachers may seem "perfect", they likely are just really great at "faking it 'til they make it". I'm also willing to bet that these teachers that seem perfect have a very small number of colleagues or friends to which they vent instead of spraying their strong feelings to a vast audience. And more times than not, these teachers are positive about PD and work continuously to improve in areas where growth is needed, acknowledging that growth will always be necessary.
Such should be the habits of all teachers. But many of us are quick to vent and, more than that, quick to vent to a wide audience that isn't always appropriate. Many of us also tend to search for the negative aspects of PD or staff meetings, to which others (for some unknown reason) find easier to agree with than dispute. So, yes, while the "perfect teacher" doesn't exactly exist, professional teachers do exist. It should be our daily goal to perfect our professionalism while also realizing that there is always room for learning and growth.
Myth Buster #2: Cuteness=Greatness
MYth Buster #3: It can all be done
Because there is no perfect teacher, then obviously there is no teacher that is truly able to get it ALL done. Teaching is hard and cumbersome. In fact, there will never be a "to-do list" we create that will have a final item. My "to-do lists" are filled with stars to designate the most pressing items to complete. It is also covered in pen scratchings and little side notes. That will never change. While many teachers have posted ideas for systems that "work", each of us may need to adjust those systems to meet our needs. Teaching is also cyclical in successes. In other words, we will always cycle through things that we do really well and things that take a backseat. I may get a kick-ass start (excuse the language, but I feel strongly about this myth) to grading papers and it may last a good, long while. But at the same time, something else is likely suffering because of my focus on a new system that works for me. AND THAT IS OKAY! It is the nature of education. If we expect any different, we are setting ourselves up for misery and the ultimate feeling of failure. It is important that we embrace the idea that we can never get it all "done" and do it all "well". We can rest in the fact, though, that we are not alone in this AND that others are gaining from our systems that have worked wonders and those that have failed.
What are other myths we could bust about teaching? Comment below!
The Popcorn Thinking Lesson
Imagine those nights that you wake up with an idea and say to yourself, "Self, don't forget this tomorrow!" Inevitably, you go back to sleep and wake up having NO IDEA what that idea was, but you know it was a good one! If only you had jotted it down in the middle of the night!! That is exactly what happens with our students sometimes... but during the day... in our classrooms...
Last week my students planned new essays with "boxes and bullets", as they usually do. Our prompt was very closely related to our science standards (historic scientists as contributors) and reading standards (biographies). They were prompted to write about scientists and inventors and explain why they are so important. After creating their plans, students moved into drafting and were encouraged to think about the content we had studied both in science and reading workshop. While conferring, I noticed SO many students thinking about interesting ideas for their essay. This is great, and all, but there was a BIG problem!
THEY DIDN'T WRITE THESE IDEAS DOWN!!!
I just couldn't let that happen!! My initial reaction was to jump up and shout out, "NOOOO!!! Don't let it go!!! Write it down!!!" Of course, I didn't do that. But I DID pause students after a moment to have a mid-workshop mini-lesson. The first thought that came to mind was that ideas had "POPPED" into their minds, much like popcorn. It reminds me of those late night ideas we get in the middle of the night that we SHOULD have jotted down. I wanted to be sure that students didn't let go of those ideas, but instead jotted them down quickly in their original plan.
Because I wanted a tangible, concrete connection to this concept, I immediately thought about using popcorn. I was really and truly so passionate about this popcorn idea that I started searching my cabinets for popcorn, as though I would right then and there have a mini-lesson with actual popcorn. But, alas, I had no popcorn. So I ended up using yellow and white pop cubes as a brief substitute. It was fine for the purposes of this lesson, but I started thinking about other parts of our day where this lesson (with actual, buttery popcorn) might prove beneficial.
"Readers, just like writers, often have ideas that pop into our minds. Sometimes we may not even notice what our brains are naturally doing. Today I want to teach you how to notice those ideas and, more importantly, how to hold tight to them. In front of you are a few piece of popcorn. As I read aloud, you will listen to your inner voice. When you have an idea "POP" into your mind, you'll gently toss a piece of popcorn to the middle of the rug. For every piece of popcorn you toss, you'll jot about your idea. What expectations should we remember?"
If your students are anything like mine, they often get in a habit of writing in a certain style, where their writing almost becomes formulaic. Or perhaps you have students that may have some great ideas for the body of their essay, but the introduction or conclusion are lacking a certain "je ne sais quoi". Enter stage left: 'Grab a quote' lesson!
This lesson stemmed from a few different resources and clashing of ideas that constantly pop around in my brain. We are always looking for ways to help our students write engaging, interesting essays that readers simply don't want to put down. We also want to give our students a plethora of strategies and crafts to use so that they can put into place what works for their topic, their essay, and their style as an author. As is often said, "to each his own". (Get what I did there?? Hehe.)
So, as can be seen in this super quick and easy flow chart I created via lucidchart, there were multiple factors involved in my brainstorming session. I'll give the detailed version of the steps taken that I believe made this lesson successful, as well as ways that I will adjust in the future.
Because I'm a "boxes and bullets" kind of gal, that's how I'll take you through the steps of this lesson.
Set Students Up for Success
Take a Load Off!
Obviously it is time consuming to filter through student work to find what you think shows students strengths and areas needing improvement. It is even more time consuming to brainstorm and note all the things you plan to bring up at each conference. While you should still have a few ideas of important things you'd like to be addressed as a teacher, why not put some of this workload on the students? It is their work, their grades, and their behavior being discussed. Allowing students to lead their own conferences requires them to reflect on their grades and the work samples that reflect those grades. Chances are that the student will end up noticing and bringing up most, if not all, the significant points you had planned to discuss anyway. This eliminates the need for teachers to spend excessive amounts of time preparing for conferences that only last about 15 minutes each.
Hold Students Accountable
What better way to hold students accountable for their growth and success as learners than to put them in charge of their own conference? Last year was the first year I implemented Student-Led Conferences. Before trying it out, I had always led parent conferences on my own without the child present. The problem is that the child never really knew exactly what the parent and I discussed. Where is the accountability in that? The parent cannot be held solely responsible for the student's improvement. In addition, how are students to feel valued and respected as a learner if they cannot share about themselves in a reflective and honest way? After trying out this new method, I found that students took ownership of their learning, were more aware of their academic strengths and weaknesses, and became more thoughtful about their actions and attitudes in school.
Build Stronger Relationships
As aforementioned, students deserve the opportunity to feel valued and respected as learners in the classroom. Student-led conferences can bring about a level of maturity and responsibility that might not be noticed on a day to day basis.
How to Implement Student-Led Conferences
Leave your thoughts below!
Have you tried student-led conferences? Are there other things you've tried that you'd like to share? Let us know!
Welcome! I am Casey Watts- teacher, mentor, leader, mother, and wife aspiring to be much more!