Writing Instruction When You Aren’t There

I am not at school and won’t be for the next couple of months. Instead, I’m home snuggled up with this:

photo 2

Because of my impending maternity leave, much of my summer planning time was spent pondering a tough question: how do I maintain intentional, quality writing instruction when I’m not there to instruct?

This is a question all writing teachers face eventually — even if it’s not an extended maternity leave, we have lives and families that sometimes demand we step away from our classroom for a time. Though less problematic, we even face this when we are out of school for a few days at NCTE or when we are down for the count with the flu.

This time around, I am really lucky — right now in my classroom is a long-term substitute who has previously taught English in my school and spent more than two weeks shadowing me and learning our routines before I left. (Thank you to school administrators who saw the value in this!)  A dream, really. When I had my daughter, my substitute wasn’t hired until after her birth. I never even met him.

We all know we can’t depend on the fact that a qualified English teacher will be there to teach our students (much less teach writing to our students). How can we planner-loving control-freak educators mitigate the risk of time away? What can we do to ensure that our students are engaging in meaningful writing when we aren’t there and when we have no control over who will be? In the absence of perfection, what’s the best we can do for our students?

I don’t have the right answer, but here are some questions I asked myself as I looked at the school year ahead:

How can I structure our curriculum for the year to best support my students’ writing lives?

In my English classes we have literature study, writing workshop, and independent reading to accomplish. Looking at this list of to-dos, I wondered, “What can I most easily and most fairly expect for a substitute to be able to teach? And what will my students best learn in my absence?”

Sometimes re-structuring the curriculum means pushing some things back. Both of my leaves of absence have very conveniently happened so that I have started the school year, been out during most of the first semester, and then been back at school for the start of semester two.  So, it just made sense to me to leave the heavy lifting of full-time, all-out writing workshop for second semester when I return.

In the meantime, my ninth grade students are still practicing many of workshop’s basic routines (more on that later). They are studying literature as a whole class, the element of my curriculum I thought most subs would be familiar with and for which I could most easily leave suggested activities.  Finally, they are engaging in rigorous independent reading a la Penny Kittle, which they will continue for the entirety of the school year.

But, sometimes re-structuring the curriculum  means frontloading instruction when we would typically wait. With my eleventh graders, who will move to a different English teacher second semester,  I spent the first month of school in a “writing blitz” — all writing workshop all the time as we reviewed the elements of analytical writing by writing an analysis of a film or episode of a television show.  While I am gone, students will be moving into a pretty traditional, literature-centered English course. While I wouldn’t normally begin the year with such an intense burst of analytical writing, I wanted these kids to have a hearty review of the kind of writing they will be expected to submit, and I wanted them to have a hearty review of writing workshop structures that could help them achieve success in writing even when they are not in a workshop-centered class.

This question of re-structuring works on the micro-level, too, though. Even when we are out unexpectedly for a day or two are there lessons you could push back (things that you really need to have your hands on)? Are there lessons or activities you could push forward (things that your students have had practice with and could more easily navigate with minimal teacher input? Writing group feedback, perhaps? Some structured revision?)

Where do I need to let go?

If we’re honest with ourselves, our expectations are often out of control. I fail to meet my own expectations in my classroom most of the time, so it would be tough for anyone, however wonderful, to step into my classroom and take the reigns. I bet the same is true for you, too.  We — I  —  have to let some things go.

Here’s what I decided to let go while I’m out — writing workshop. Now, this doesn’t mean my students won’t be writing — they will — but in a less holistic and integrated way than were I present. My students will write regularly, and they will write responsively to literature and to their independent reading, but I have decided that it’s not fair to expect my sub to develop and teach mini-lessons, move through various genre and technique studies,  or confer with my students. This is an awful lot to lay on someone walking into my classroom for a twelve-week stint.

Where can you let go when you are gone? Where can you convince yourself to trade what’s best for what’s good?  What are reasonable concessions to make in your teaching context? (I promise, there are some.)


What writing routines can I establish that my students and any substitute can continue on their own?

While I wouldn’t ever expect my substitute to teach mini-lessons and confer with students, there are plenty of elements of workshop that my students can be practicing and incorporating into class life over the next three months:

    • Using the Reader’s/Writer’s Notebooks — In the month I was with my students, we spent a lot of time setting up notebooks and practicing how to use them. As they continue to collect ideas and bits of work in their notebooks over the next few months, they will also be preparing gems they can polish in future, bigger pieces of writing in semester two
    • Notebook Time — Notebook Time is the time for writerly play and experimentation during the first 5-7 minutes of class. Students respond to poems, study and imitate powerful sentences, draw conclusions about data, practice revision, playing with writing territories, and collect seeds of ideas for future pieces of writing. Having modeled it during our shadowing period and having shared some resources for Notebook Time, I feel confident that this routine practice and writing play time is something that can continue through my leave.
    • Sharing Writing & Collaborating — Students are always encouraged to share their responses to the daily Notebook Time. My students will also be working in smaller collaborative groups to share about independent reading and to complete activities and projects related to their whole class reading. The more practiced students are at  sharing their work, having conversations, and collaborating together, the more effective writing groups will be in the second semester.



When you are out — what writing routines can your students practice without you?

Closing Thoughts

The reality — something I have had to pep talk myself on over and over again — is that it won’t be the same as when you are there. I haven’t yet had a group of students who can teach themselves an entire unit of workshop study. So, some things will have to give. Taking a break from the classroom is never perfect, but that doesn’t mean we need to ditch our best laid writing plans entirely. After all, isn’t any consistent, intentional writing practice better than nothing?  With flexibility – and some relinquishment – we can provide our students with writing opportunities that will benefit their writing lives while we take care of our outside-school lives. We will all be better off for it when we return.


I would LOVE to hear how you work to make writing instruction continue when you are out — for illness, for maternity leave, when recovering from a surgery. What tips and tricks can you add to our community? Leave a comment below or find us on Twitter @RebekahOdell1 and @Allisonmarchett. Use #movingwriters.

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