Over the past few weeks, I’ve been attending a professional development training for (another) new writing curriculum that our district is planning on rolling out next year. While our school has books in the closet, we're not formally being trained on this curriculum as a whole team. Another school in our district was chosen to pilot the program this year, while teachers from other schools were given the option to attend, learn, and become teacher ambassadors for next year.
At a certain point in the training, the curriculum coach referred to teaching a particular writing skill, such as sentence building, and stated that once progress is seen with such a specific skill, it’s tempting to keep doing more of it—a veritable high for a teacher. "It's a nice place to visit, but don't linger too long," was how she phrased it. In her view, there are so many other skills to teach and learn, and so at some point one must move on to the next skill; however, keeping the momentum of freshly-learned skills is the ongoing challenge not fully addressed.
This is all too often the scenario that plays out in my classroom as a new teacher—not ENOUGH explicit instruction of basic skills. I suppose I could look for reasons as to why this is the case: lack of experience, lack of instructive guides in how to break down and teach specific skills, lack of uniformity and efficiency of teaching sequence in the district, lack of TIME and foresight. Lack, lack, lack. I think all are worth investigating, but not without pointed solutions.
So what’s a teacher to do with this realization, that certain basic skillsets have been glossed over, halfway through the school year? Chastising one's self is the easy and sad thing, but it won't help students. Pride aside, when professional intuition kicks in, the wiser voice within speaks:
- Do take a few steps back and survey the scene. Take a breath. Assess.
- What do my students know how to do already - what are their strengths in writing? How can I build on these strengths i.e. find what is already working as a reference?
- Where are the gaps, starting with the most basic? Keeping in mind that these will vary by student - some may need to use transition words or build compound sentences; some may still be mastering capitalization and punctuation - is there a general gap across students that needs to be targeted first?
- Once those gaps are identified, target a specific skill area. Is the gap at the level of sentence construction or does it fall within the paragraph structure i.e. stringing together sentences using different strategies (transition words, for example) for various purposes/effects?
- Make a proactive plan. This will take some extra time and effort, which mid-year can seem a precious sacrifice, but he resulting rest of the year will be more than worth the effort. Take a Saturday or Sunday. Look at where you're headed. Use backwards design. Maybe it is necessary to take 3 out of the 5 days over the next few weeks to explicitly teach writing skills within other ELA content. If so, set up a schedule and a road-map for the next few weeks. Where are you starting, and what's the objective for students at the end of that 3 weeks? Use best practices in teaching (modeling, scaffolding, releasing) and pace yourself.
- Make sure there's incentive for students. How can students apply and be proud of what they're learning? Is there an engaging project that will be introduced later or presented as motivation to reach a certain point? I had planned to have my students use KidBlog to type up and share their best opinion pieces with the class and their friends and families. That idea hasn't blossomed yet; better start planting the seeds now.
- Think about ways to take advantage of skills practice during the day. For example, my students have daily morning work. Sometimes I do a math assessment, sometimes grammar, sometimes a word sort. Why not focus on a repeated activity that aligns with the focus skill for 3 or 4 days out of the week? Not only does this provide more practice and familiarity - making compound out of simple sentences, for example - but it actually increases ease in managing this work.
- We as adults might tire of too much repetition, and we can sometimes lapse into assumption that a skill has been learned. But just because we overlay our own perception mastery on top of students' doesn't mean students have really learned. It's worth reminding (and repeating) ourselves that REPETITION is key for grasping and learning any new skill. Continuous assessment is KEY and a necessary effort if we are to truly steer students to real learning.
- Set a time on the calendar - actually schedule it into that Google calendar - and check back in with the original objective and compare to progress over the past few weeks. Reflect and re-assess.
Any craft is not without it's imperfections and misdirections. Go back to the drawing board. Follow instinct. Recreate. Just don't turn a blind eye.