Wait! 1 Book Recommendation and 4 Productive Pauses for the Problem-solving Teacher

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Image via publicdomainpictures.net

Let’s face it: no matter how well we run our reading and writing workshops, there are about a hundred different points in any given class period where problems can crop up. There’s no such thing as a perfect lesson plan, and as a result, teachers have to be decision making machines on a minute by minute basis. But what do you do when an issue arises that throws a wrench in the whole teacher-decision making apparatus?

Maybe a student is struggling to begin working, perhaps a student throws you for a loop during a writing conference.

Boy, oh boy–do I have the book for you.

Here’s the kicker: it’s not a very well-known book. It’s not even a book about teaching.

Oddly enough, it’s a book about waiting.

The book is called Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, and it completely changed the way I go about teaching.

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Image via frankpartnoy.com

Throughout Wait, Frank Partnoy lays out the thesis that, in almost all aspects of life, whether you play tennis or the stock market, the best of the best find ways to wait until the last possible moment to make a move.

Too often, we rush decisions, and as a result we make bad ones. When confronted with a decision, waiting gives us more time to process and make the correct move. In his book, Partnoy provides examples of tennis players who sprint to where they think the ball will end up in order to have the maximum amount of wait-time before it arrives. The faster the player arrives at this point, the more time she has to make adjustments, get the right angle, and set up her swing. So, it’s not just that we need to delay. We need to put ourselves in a position that will allow us an optimum amount of time to make the right decisions.

I love ideas like this. It’s part of the reason why Allison’s Slow September post made so much sense to me (also, the recommendations in her post so smart and easy to implement). The whole article was about giving ourselves a chance to slow down as teachers so that we can do what’s best for our young readers and writers.

But, in the classroom, some of the problems that arise can feel like life and death. How can a teacher delay when a student is struggling with a strategy…or–gasp!–is off-task?! How can a teacher summon the strength to wait when every fiber in her being is telling her to deflect, redirect, and correct?

Honsestly, it’s not easy. And sometimes, I don’t quite get it right. However, with practice, any teacher can reap the benefits of waiting, and it helps to have a few go-to moves. So, here are four ways you can use productive pauses to capitalize on the advantages of waiting.

1. The Research Conference

When a student isn’t writing up to the standards we’d hoped, or when a student doesn’t seem to be using the awesome thing you taught in the minilesson, it’s easy to grow impatient and just jump into re-teaching.

But what if re-teaching isn’t what the child needs? Enter productive pause #1: The Research Conference.

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of learning from a Teachers College Reading and Writing Project staff developer, you may have heard about a move called The Research Conference. Basically, it’s a 1-2 minute conference you have with a student while the rest of the class is writing where you don’t teach a single thing. You just check out their writing, name something good the student is doing as a writer (or reader), and try to notice all the things they might need. After jotting a few notes, you thank the student and leave without giving any advice.

Research conferences allow teachers time to process what the student is and isn’t doing and plan out the one thing that the student needs next. Research conferences are especially helpful when first getting to know new student writers.

Research conferences can also be a great productive pause for the student whose writing issues are tough to figure out.

Next time you confer with a student whose writing throws you for a loop, compliment something the student IS doing, notice all you can about her writing, thank the writer, and…leave! More often than not, you’ll realize exactly what that student needs on your drive to work the next morning.

2. The Walk Away

The Walk Away is maybe the simplest productive pause, and yet it can be the hardest one to execute. Think of it not as storming off from a tense moment–but rather as a staged retreat from a writing conference gone wrong.

Just the other day, I had a student arguing that he couldn’t write a narrative because nothing in his life was that important. Apparently I hadn’t done what I’d needed to empower him as a writer (for more on this check my upcoming interview with David Tarr. I’ll be uploading it here a few days after this post goes live). Additionally, my writing about small moments mini lesson hadn’t landed with this student how I had hoped.

Instead of arguing, I politely finished my teaching point, and I walked away. We were both frustrated, and neither of us were in a mental place where we’d be coming up with anything innovative or helpful. That night, I realized that my mentor texts were too strong–he felt like he could never do work like that. As I conferred with students in the room, I realized he wasn’t alone. If I hadn’t walked away, I could easily have spent the rest of my class trying in vain to help one student while the rest suffered. It would have been like focusing all of one’s efforts fixing one little leak in a boat riddled with holes. The Walk Away allowed me time to properly assess the situation.

Last year at NCTE, Stacey Shubitz described something called Mirror Writing. You basically pull out a typical student’s work, and write your own original piece, mirroring the strategies and style moves the student does and doesn’t make.

Teachers can use this to feel what it’s like to write like these students, and they can also use them as a teaching tool. In the case mentioned above, I started the next day’s mini lesson by displaying a piece of mirror writing that mimicked the writing of the boy I’d worked with. I asked students what I had done well. I asked students to name a few places where I might add improvements.

They suggested I add detail to the moments before, during, and after the main action. I said, “These are great suggestions, but how can one go about adding detail when they’re not sure what else to say?”

I went on to show students a strategy that I call mapping out the trouble. First I listed all the direct and indirect causes of the main problem in my story (ie-if it’s a story about a time someone made me mad, a direct cause would be all the things that led up to this moment. An indirect cause would be something like, “he always does things like this. One time, he even…”).

Then I listed all the details I could think of from the moment of trouble. What I thought, felt, saw, etc.. Then, I listed all the things that happened along with things I felt or sensed after the trouble occurred.

Lastly, I tried to think about whether I had learned, or could have learned, a lesson from this little moment.

At this point, I had a full page of details and actions on display in front of my class. We talked about how much easier it would be to stretch out my small moment story when I started re-writing. Then, I sent students off to try out the strategy with their own small moments.

The boy I’d argued with the day before was off to the races. Success didn’t seem so far away, and he had a strategy that matched up with where he was as a writer.

It all started with a well executed Walk Away.

3. The Check-in

Too often, when we are teaching, every little non-action can seem like an act of defiance.

The other day, during Free Reading Time, I heard a couple students whispering to each other. Instead of shushing–or worse–I waited and watched. It turns out, the two students were taking turns reading to each other out of a book about endangered animals and discussing what they read.

Sometimes reluctance to read or write can have a more insidious cause. We all know that some struggle with school because of difficulties at home. But, isn’t it odd how this fact can so easily escape us the moment we invite students to read or write? Sometimes, I feel like the moment I put on my teacher hat, my ability to empathize automatically disintegrates.

This is why I’m trying to develop a simple habit of checking in before redirecting. I’m trying to expect the best intentions from students instead of assuming the worst.

Last year, one of my 6th graders wasn’t writing during our writing workshop. I noticed him staring down at an empty page about five minutes into our workshop. I knelt down next to him. His gaze remained on the page in front of him. I said, “Hey bud, are you alright?” and tears filled his eyes. I sent him off to the restroom, he came back a few minutes later and started writing. Maybe all he needed was just a little compassion. To know that someone cared. He never told me what was wrong, so I’ll never know for sure, but I can say this: I’m glad I delayed redirection in favor of compassion that day.

I never want to be one more reason I child feels like she is falling apart. I don’t always get it right, but when I do, it usually starts with the words, “Hey, are you doing okay?”

4. The Question Blitz

Sometimes a student’s writing issue or behavior difficulty is more pressing and requires a that a teacher act sooner than later. A few years ago, @AngelaFaulhaber taught a PD session where she described a fun strategy called The Question Blitz that students can use to set the stage for nonfiction reading. It goes like this: read the title, read the first sentence or two, and furiously jot as many questions as you can in the margins. Blitzing a passage with questions can move readers to actively engage with a text, moving them to, perhaps, do more thinking as they read to see if which of their questions are answered.

Teachers can use The Question Blitz to work through problems students are having. More often than not, I use this strategy in conjunction with The Walk Away.

Every teacher is familiar with the student who escapes reading or writing by going to the bathroom during independent work time. Instead of yelling for the child to come back, be grateful for the opportunity this child gave you to take a productive pause, and try a question blitz: is he acting out of defiance or confusion? What might have been confusing? Is there an executive functioning issue? What strategies might help a child who struggles to process instructions? Should I try making a quick checklist on a sticky note? Does he need a scaffold to organize his thinking? I wonder what will come up if I Google “Helping Students with Executive Functioning”…

We always tell students that writing helps us really think through an issue. Why not take a productive pause to practice what we preach?

4. The Stake Out

Maybe I watched too many crime dramas as a kid, but I always loved the idea of The Stake Out. A cop or two suspect that something is afoot–but they don’t have enough information to act. So, they basically wait, watch and listen.

Of course, we don’t have the luxury of spending an entire school day watching and listening–we have to teach at some point. But what if we took a chunk of workshop time off from conferring or writing alongside your students, and just paused to observe all that we could?

Here’s how it might work: start a notebook in which you can just take field notes on all the things you notice about your readers and writers. Park in an inconspicuous area and jot some notes about what students are and aren’t reading. Look over a writer’s shoulder and write down what strategies he is and isn’t using. Stand close, but not too close, to some students who are chatting, and, instead of interrupting, take some shorthand notes on their conversation. How long did it last? Did they eventually get back to work?

Some times, you’ll notice that 8 different writers could use the same advice, and you now have a your small group conferences planned for tomorrow.

Other times, you’ll find that things that looked like problems are actually momentary blips, and you’ll be glad you didn’t drop a frustration bomb on a problem that didn’t need solving.

If you don’t feel like you can buy into this strategy, look around at your colleagues during your next staff meeting. How many of them are “On Task” the whole time? Can we give students the same grace we give ourselves?

The Stake Out can be used as a preemptive productive pause in the same way a teacher might use The Research Conference. They don’t have to last that long either. Sometimes, you can just give yourself an extra 5 or 10 seconds to assess the situation before acting. In my experience, at least half of the problems or struggles students encounter sort themselves our or turn out to be something other than what I had thought.

It all starts with giving yourself permission to not solve every problem right away. The next step is to use a strategy that will put you in a position to have maximum wait time for making a decision–even if you’re only buying yourself a few more seconds.

In most cases, the problem or struggle is going to last a decent chunk of time whether you intervene or not. So, why not wait it out until you have had the time to come to the best possible decision? Quite often, productive pauses actually end up saving the teacher time, sparing her the agony of failed decisions that end up adding gas to the fire.

In the end, whether you go all in with The Stake Out, do a quick check in, or just simply pause before jumping in to solve an issue, you’ll be surprised at how much more effective you can be as a teacher as you master the “Art and Science of Delay”.

How do you use productive pauses in your classroom? How do you use intentional waiting in reading and writing workshop? You can connect with me on Twitter @MrWteach or on Facebook at facebook.com/movingwriters.



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