What I learned when I did the work I gave my students

It was Friday afternoon, our first week with students completed. It was a great week, but I was exhausted and ready to go home. As I was tidying up and trying to figure out what I needed to take home with me, I kept thinking about our memoir unit. Something was bothering me. I walked down the hall to Laura’s room. We 2015-08-11 11.46.10debriefed for a moment about a narrative mapping brainstorm activity she had learned at our district’s Teacher’s College (TC) Home Grown this year. The activity turned out really well, but I shared with her that I wasn’t sure my students were finding those significant moments.

She responded: When we were at Home Grown this summer, the thing that really lifted our level of writing was that Carla (TC Staff Developer, follow her on Twitter) had a powerful memoir of her own to share.

Laura’s response stayed with me.

Just the day before, Elizabeth had shared a powerful tweet from TC Staff Developer Katy (follow her on Twitter and her and her colleague’s blog) :


Both these moments reminded me of a question another TC Staff Developer,  Cornelius (follow him on Twitter and his blog), asked me. I had told him I was struggling with what skills were needed, how to articulate those skills, and when to teach those skills.

He responded: Christie, have your written the essay? It’s really powerful to do the work we want our students to do. How do we know what to teach without knowing what it takes to master the standard or skill ourselves?

Then, there was the part in one of my favorite books, Cris Tovani’s So What Do They Really Know?

“Most kids want to be successful, so when they aren’t, it’s my job to find out why. I ask these questions:  Have I done the assignment myself? What hurdles did I face that my students might be experiencing?  Have I modeled how to negotiate the hurdles? …”  (2011, p. 142).

I realized maybe what I needed was to stop, look at what I had sketched out for my students to do the following week, and do it myself. So I did. And here is what I learned.

What I planned: On Friday, we had spent time doing the narrative map and closed by writing for a few minutes on one small moment from their map. For Monday, I had planned to have them write about two more small moments, giving them the opportunity to “try on” a few more ideas before beginning a draft.

When I did it: I did the narrative map with my students on Friday. I chose to do the Ely Market from when I lived in England. Although there were lots of small moments from my trips to the Ely Market, there wasn’t really three moments that I wanted to write about. I felt a bit frustrated with having to make three ideas work.

What I changed: I decided I wanted to give my students a few more opportunities to brainstorm in different ways. I pulled out my writer’s notebook from Home Grown 2014. TC Staff Developer Gerrit (follow him on Twitter)  had given five different ways to brainstorm, whereas I 2015-08-11 11.56.41had only given my students one. So we will spent time thinking of important people in our lives, doing a personal timeline, and listing turning points in our lives. Also, I asked students to “write in the air” about several ideas. I think talking out their idea with a partner who has purposeful questions to ask helped them think through their ideas before we start flash drafting. (Side note:  I teach six classes, so I made the brainstorming charts once and then used sticky notes to model each class period.)

What I planned: I wanted students to get their ideas out on paper, and I wanted to work on writing stamina. At this point, I wasn’t really concerned about how it sounded or looked. To get them to do this, I was going to have them write without stopping in two different segments with pointed instructions to talk to a partner in-between writing session.2015-08-11 11.58.31

When I did it: I knew I needed to write the memoir myself all day, but I kept putting it off.  I planned out what I needed for another class, checked my email, cooked dinner, and washed dishes instead.  As I placed the last plate in the dishwasher, an idea on how to start my memoir came to me.  I realized I had been putting off (I mean seriously, I was doing dishes) the writing because I didn’t know how I wanted to start.  I set my timer for 8 minutes and began to write.  When the time was up, I wanted to keep going.  I did not want to stop and talk about it yet.  I continued to time myself, writing in another 9-minute and then 10-minute increment.  After I was done I called my sister to get feedback.

What I changed:  I began the class by sharing my memoir I had written the night before and some of my struggles.  I think it made students feel safe because I too was a writer who had to work through struggles, it gave students a model of writing and expectations, and it made us all a part of the community of writers, not just them.  Instead of having students immediately begin writing, I gave them 5-minutes to get ready to write.  This meant looking through their brainstorming pages, browsing pictures they brought, trying out first sentences, or finding a place to spread out.  No matter the process, they were ready to write after the five-minutes.  I still had them write in increments (8, 9, and 10 minutes), but I didn’t have them share and talk until the end.  I liked breaking it up because it made them feel more successful as we were building stamina.  The 30-second stretch breaks betw2015-08-11 12.52.17een writing was all they needed to keep writing.  After the last writing increment, I gave them the choice to keep writing or to meet in the middle to share and get feedback about their writing.

Bonus Read:  This week I am absolutely loving Katy’s blog post, “How I Joined the World of Whitewater Rafters and Learned that We’re All Just Between Swims.” I’ve been working on my dissertation which focuses on disciplinary literacy and the vocabulary of experts.  Katy’s post is exactly what the research says, in a more organic, practical, and fun way.  I love that she gives examples and tips on how to work expert language into our instruction.  I’m definitely going to work on the intentional use of expert language in my classroom.