Co-teaching Reading and Writing Workshop: A Pragmatic Approach

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 2018-2019 beat is all about 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

Successful co-teaching, to me, is one of the biggest mysteries in the world of pedagogy. While, I admit I have a lot to learn, it’s not that I’m completely ignorant; I’ve read some really smart articles, attended brilliant conference presentations (shout-out to @arwnek and @karriebec), and even picked the brains of–and made classroom visits to–teachers who execute co-teaching on a high level (shout-out again to @arwnek and @karriebec).

The thing is, I’ve taught full-inclusion classes along with an intervention specialist for the last 9-10 years, and at the end of each summer, I think to myself, “THIS is going to be the year that I take all I’ve learned, we finally make co-teaching work!”

And then, you guessed it, life happens.

What Gets in the Way…

Last year, I worked with a wonderful intervention specialist who was split between 4 different classrooms across 3 grade levels. This year, I work with a different wonderful intervention specialist who is split between 3 classrooms, a requirement to do pull-out instruction, AND this is her first year using the writing workshop model. Oh, and did I mention, this is our first year working together?

It takes a lot for effective co-teaching to occur. I have always believed that co-teachers need to co-plan and co-assess in order to implement any of the co-teaching models.

The thing is, most intervention specialists are over-extended, over-run, and overwhelmed.

Many intervention specialists end up being over-extended across multiple classrooms and multiple subject areas (some are even teaching kids in multiple grades). If an intervention specialist is spread out across multiple classrooms, in order to co-teach they would have to be co-planning and co-grading, with 2, 3, or even 4 different teachers.

On top of that, Intervention Specialists are over-run with paper work, from collecting data to filling out IEPs, a good chunk of what could have been planning time, ends up being spent on clerical work.

In the end, many schools just aren’t set up to facilitate a successful intervention model, especially when it comes to co-teaching.

So, for starters, general classroom teachers might do well to empathize with the mammoth task in front of their intervention specialist teammates.

But There’s Hope…

However, if you use a workshop approach (for more info, visit Rebekah’s primer) in your teaching, it can be done. In a writing workshop, a new skill is introduced in a 10 minute mini-lesson (for more on this, check out my previous post). The largest chunk of class time is spent on students writing/reading, with the intent of trying out the new skill. While students work, the teacher confers with students one-on-one and in small groups. This is where the real teaching happens. Afterward, students share out their progress and the teacher debriefs with the class.

Earlier this year, I, once again, found myself in the co-teaching weeds for some pretty predictable reasons. I struggled to get my co-teacher involved in the planning process because (1) she wasn’t comfortable co-teaching the mini-lessons and (2) she didn’t have the time to co-plan in order to ease her discomfort with this new way of teaching (she’s spread across three classrooms, has to implement a remedial pull-out program for readers who struggle, and she has a substantial caseload this year).

If You Can’t Co-plan, …Co-assess!

We were in the middle of our narrative writing unit, and I wanted to do a quick assessment to see what skills and strategies were sticking with students–and what students needed next. So, we flash drafted (more on flash drafting here).

I divided the stack in half, and asked my intervention specialist to look over a portion of the drafts that evening, and instead of grading, we’d both make a list of “successes and needs” that students have, based on this writing sample they’d given us.

The next day before school, we both showed up with our lists, and we talked about the “successes” to help us see which lessons had been most effective. We also discussed which “needs” were most common, and then we pulled all the students’ papers that had these needs, putting them into piles. In this case, many students, especially those who excelled at this type of writing, struggled with formatting their dialogue. There was also a large camp of students who were still writing one giant paragraph, instead of indenting in when shifting ideas.

I had my handy-dandy mentor text binder with me, so we found a text that had plenty of dialogue, and we chose a text that seemed to be breaking for paragraphs in some interesting and intentional ways. Then, we decided who would work with which small group, and we were off.

From this moment on, our co-teaching became infinitely more manageable and impactful. By focusing our planning on small group teaching and one-one-one conferences, we no longer had to spend hours co-planning units and lessons–I could do that on my own (at least until my teaching partner became more comfortable with the work)–and instead, we were able to make targeted plans in the small chunks of time that life gave us.

Of course, in order for my co-teacher to feel comfortable using this teaching method, I also did a little coaching on how conferences would work in our classroom. She even observed a few of my conferences with students before trying it on her own. After a short adjustment period, we were conferring with twice as many students each week, which meant twice as many students getting one-on-one instruction. As you might imagine, the growth our writers achieved by the end of the unit was staggering. On top of that, when life threw us its various curve balls, we were able to roll with these situations more easily.

I no longer had to do last second lesson-overhauls when our co-teaching plans were disrupted by not having enough subs in the building…or by [insert common reason why intervention specialists are pulled at the last second here]. All it meant was that I’d be on my own conferring that day.

Co-teaching was no longer a hassle–instead, we were finally leveraging the extra teacher in the room to support and stretch the learners in front of us.

Organization = Crucial

Without some kind of organizational system, it would be easy for everything to fall apart. For example, it’s awfully easy to make the mistake of only working with students who are better at getting your attention…and then weeks go by and you realize there are 11 kids who’ve gotten zero feedback or support.

To this end, my colleague, @sprinklesofmissb, uses a simple system in which she writes the days of the week across the top of her whiteboard, and puts students’ names under different days to indicate when she’ll be meeting with each student.

conf sched

(image via Maddie Baldwin’s #OCTELA19 presentation)

In our classroom, we use a slightly different approach (adapted from an method I learned from TCRWP staff developer Pablo Wolfe).

In order to record which students we confer with and what we discuss, we keep a binder full of loose-leaf paper for each class. As we confer with students, we compliment the student on what we notice the student is already doing, and we record this compliment on a sticky note (labeled with the child’s name and today’s date).

Then, we deliver a single teaching point, which is either something we notice they aren’t doing yet–or–something the student can try out in order to move their work to the next level. Then, we jot this teaching point down on the sticky note under our compliment.

By the end of our workshop, we often have a small handful of sticky notes which we place onto the loose-leaf paper in that class’s binder. I imagine this might be hard to picture, so I recreated a few examples in the image below.

(Note on image below: check boxes indicate what the student is already doing and “TP” stands for “Teaching Point” we left the student with)

By using this sticky note method, before a subsequent meeting with a student, we can flip through our recent conferences to see what we had them working on the last time we chatted. This helps us avoid teaching something that the student already got before–it also allows us to check-in on how the student is progressing with the previous teaching point.

To figure out who we need to work with on any given day, we use a simple tally system. To create this system, I simply print a class list at the beginning of the unit, and, each day, we mark a dot next to the students we met with that day when we put our sticky notes in the class binder.

If you want to take this strategy to the next level, you and your co-teacher might use different colored pens. The image below shows a recreation of what this tally system might look like.

img_20190313_123719

This simple organization system may not be for everyone, but it has worked wonders for our teaching team. By keeping track of our conferences, we are able to make sure we get to all our students on a regular basis, and we are able to avoid some teaching redundancies–all of which leads to students being able to make more progress as readers and writers.

My co-teacher and I agree that we have a ways to go when it comes effective co-teaching,  but I can say this: co-teaching feels a lot less mysterious these days, thanks to a workshop model that allows us to focus on the part of instructional time where the highest-impact teaching occurs.

–Noah

How do you implement co-teaching methods in reading and writing workshop? What kinds of co-teaching tools are in your co-teaching toolbox? Connect with me on Twitter @MrWteach or at facebook.com/movingwriters.

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