Life Happens: “What to Do When You Don’t Have What You Need”

There’s a John Lennon song that addresses an issue that teachers know all too well: “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making [lesson] plans.”

Even the most responsive and differentiated approaches can fall victim to the different kinds of chaos that life throws our way (Technology, I’m talking to you). On top of that, for a host of reasons, even our most school-loving students have off days. Heck, I have my fair share of off days, too, if we’re being honest.

Once in awhile, my lesson, or unit, plans assume that students bring certain skills and abilities that have not yet been unlocked. Maybe I didn’t pre-assess well enough, maybe I misidentified students’ needs, maybe I made the wrong adjustments.

My first semester beat will be all about exploring the moves a teacher can make when life happens to our well-made plans. Here, I’ll be detailing successful adjustments, as well, as moves that didn’t work out so well. Most importantly, I’ll be describing some of the key lessons I learn as common (and not-so-common) issues pop in the Reading and Writing Workshop.

Life Happens Logo

The Plan

Flash drafting has been a go-to move in my teacher toolbox for the last couple years. It allows students the opportunity to develop writing fluency and stamina, and it can also be a great way to remove some of the overthink-y barriers that keep young writers from getting their ideas on the page. For more on flash drafting check out Rebekah’s and Allison’s in-depth posts here and here.

About three weeks into the school year, I just knew if I could get my students flash drafting, we’d not only be building good writing habits, students would have several pieces to choose from as we moved toward publishing.

It went…okay.

Life Happens

During the 4th week of school, on our second flash drafting attempt, I noticed that a good portion of students weren’t quite thriving in the flash drafting environment as much as I had hoped. In fact, almost a quarter of my students weren’t really doing anything at all. I checked in to see what was wrong:

  • “I forgot my notebook” (What!? How could you not bring your notebook!?)
  • “I don’t know what to write about” (Gah! We spent the first week and a half creating writing territories in our notebooks!)
  • “This is boring” (HOW DARE YOU. Also, where’s your notebook?!).

I have to admit, a little part of me died when I heard some of these comments–especially when they said they didn’t know what to write about or that it was, of all things, …boring.

We had spent the first two weeks of school generating all kinds of lists, webs, sketches, and maps that we could use to jog our memories and generate ideas (see–Figure 1). I had taught mini lessons showing students how to mine their territories. For most students, our writing workshop was flourishing, but, for these kids, it was stagnating…and we’d barely even begun.

writing territories

Figure 1: Anchor Chart-ish List of our Writing Territories. Each functions as a list or visual that jogs memories we can write about.

Figuring Out “The Why”

First, I needed to figure out what was really causing this problem for these writers. Nobody likes feeling bored, and nobody likes the feeling of falling behind one’s peers–so, why were they forgetting their notebooks in a class where everything happens in a notebook?

I used The Stake Out  strategy (I describe this strategy in detail here) to figure out why some kids didn’t have their notebooks. Had they lost them? Does this happen in other classes or just mine? Are they forgetting on purpose? Would they do the work if they had what they needed? Is it forgetfulness, chaos at home, or something else? Is the child just…feeling lost?

The more I learned, the more I realized that most of my serial notebook forgetters fell into two camps:

  • Some kids had some kind of chaos at home, and it was a miracle they brought anything to school.
  • Some kids had some kind of chaos in their minds, and as a result they struggled with the kind of mental organization it takes to think about what each teacher expects them to bring before leaving their homerooms. In most cases like this, the student has been struggling with these issues so long, they give up, thinking no one can ever really help them.

Small Group: “What to do When You Don’t Have What You Need”

During the next writing workshop, I pulled them for a small group conference (a move I learned from @burkelf at a TCRWP professional development). I said, “Today, I want to teach you what you can do when you don’t have what you need…get it! Fast! I’ll never give up on you, so you can’t give up on me, okay? If you can’t get what you need, problem solve. Here’s what that might look like in my class. Then, I demonstrated how to make a quick writing territory on a spare sheet of paper, pick something, and then flash draft (Figure 2).

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Figure 2: Demonstrating how to make a Favorites/Not Favorites List + Triangulate a Writing Idea

After demonstrating, I asked the small group of students to try it out with me. After most of the students had isolated a good writing idea, I sent them off to flash draft. One student still struggled to make this new writing territory and isolate a writing idea/memory, so I held him back with me, and worked with him until he was good to go.

Over the next few days, I checked in with each student from this small group before school started, I had a sticky note that listed what they need every day for my class (pencil and writing notebook–that’s it!). After saying hi and catching up a bit, I said, “Hey, I’ve noticed that a lot of times you have what you need for class, and it goes great for you, but when you forget something, it goes badly. I wanted to just check in so that you would have what you need for my class today.” Note: I was careful to mention that they are successful sometimes, and I phrased it so it wouldn’t feel like an attack, but an “I’ve got your back here” kind of statement.

I shared the sticky note, and helped them find each item for my class–and if they didn’t have something, we came up with a plan for what they could use instead. We snatched pencils out of the Lost and Found. We stapled loose-leaf pages together and made a quick Favorites/Not Favorites List. The unspoken message being, “No more hiding. If you don’t bring what you need, I will help you, and it will be more work than if you had brought what you needed–and that’s okay. It’s just a logical consequence of not having what you need.”

I think this series of moves worked for these kids because I had flipped the script. These students expect to not be noticed, and then to be chastised when the teacher finally figures out what’s going on.

Instead of chastising–which never really works anyway–I taught them.

Now, at this point, you are probably seeing the bottom of this post, and maybe you’re wondering, “But wait, didn’t he also mention students who didn’t know what to write about? What did he do to help these kids?”

Looks like I ran out of time and space. Oh well, Life Happens! Come back next month to find out ways you can use Mirror Writing with students who struggle to start writing and revising (in spite of our well-made lesson plans).

What kinds of strategies do you use for serial notebook forgetters? What are youre go-to strategies for learners who struggle with executive functioning issues? You can connect with me on Twitter @MrWteach or on Facebook at

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