Two Microchanges to Make All the Difference

Things are crazy right now, to say the least. 

When I started my instructional coaching job, I made a vision and a mission statement that I hung up above my desk. I refer to it more often than I care to admit as I often let my agenda, my feelings, and what I think is best get in my way. I did this as a teacher too, and I had to remind myself what’s important: kids. This was my true north and helped me focus on the work. 

This is especially true in the age of COVID. 

We need to keep our compasses facing north, toward staying safe, toward doing our best in this endless stream of adversity. How can we continue to do that and be the best we can for our kids even if we don’t have nearly enough support? This is a very overwhelming time, and, while we need to keep ourselves safe, how can we ensure our students are getting the best reading and writing instruction we can offer them? 

Implementing something completely different and new seems outside of many teacher’s zones of proximal development. However, there are little changes teachers can make to increase their reading and writing instruction and to help close that ever-widening achievement gap, and I hope the two I share today are easy enough to implement next week in your classroom. 

Microchange #1: Choice Reading and Writing

Reading and writing is the foundation on which our class is built. It is not enough to have the students analyze a text and write about it. They must be given the freedom to read and write of their choice. 

During my first year at a high-poverty school a few years ago, I was one of the only ELAR teachers who instituted choice reading (aka SSR) every day. I was having trouble keeping pace with my team, and since I was the new kid on the block, I was worried about what would happen if I fell behind. I went to my department head and expressed my concern, and she quickly told me to get rid of reading every day. I was dumbfounded. How could that be an option? As the year went on, I saw the students’ engagement and desire to read grow. Grow more than I ever could have imagined. I was in awe at the in-depth conversations my students had about their books, and how they were recommending books for each other. I couldn’t believe this was the same group of students who started the year with a strong dislike for reading. 

I thought to myself, if I had this much success with reading, maybe I could do something similar with writing. I decided to try something small: free write. What could go wrong with that? The problem was they had not been given that much freedom in their writing (which is a completely different blog post for a different day). I had to scaffold them to that freedom. First, I started with some prompts. I used Corbett Harrison’s Sacred Writing Time slides and prompts, and it helped my students get their feet underneath them. I also incorporated some pictures; just some random pictures I found from the internet that I thought the students would find interesting. With the pictures, I gave them free rein; they could write about what they wanted as long as it had to do with the picture. After some of this gradual release, I felt they were ready to take on the free writing. They soared! I read some great poems, stories, plays, etc. from my students, and I marveled at how creative they were. Of course, they were dying to share with their classmates, and we all loved hearing their writing. 

At the end of that year, my students had the most growth according to the state and MAP tests. I wish I could tell you that didn’t matter to me, but it was a little satisfying and validating. I didn’t quit my daily choice reading, and I didn’t quit my free writing, and my students were better for it all-around. 

This year, I coach at a high-poverty school, and some of my ELAR teachers have implemented this microchange. They’ve already started to see the benefits of it, but I warned them, like I will warn you, SSR is a long-term goal. You won’t see gains from it for a while if you implement it correctly and consistently.

Easy way to make this microchange: Start with 5-8 minutes of choice reading and/or writing two to three times a week, and then slowly start to increase the amount of time and how often during the week. 

Microchange #2: What do you notice? Grammar Instruction

Grammar instruction has always been difficult, for me, but I think for most of us. Every year, I tried something different: a new way of teaching grammar. I tried gamification, daily oral language, worksheets, stations, “drill and kill”, you name it, but I didn’t see any significant gains. This was until I found Jeff Anderson’s Everyday Editing and attended a training conducted by him. After he explained his whole process, I could not wait to get back into the classroom to try this out. (If you are unfamiliar with Jeff Anderson’s work, I highly suggest you do a quick web search, read an article or two or buy his book(s) and implement it in your classroom.) 

This is an example from Erica Brown using the “What do you notice?” technique for her students.

In Everyday Editing, his first step in introducing any new grammar instruction is to put a mentor sentence on the board, one that exemplifies the grammar, punctuation, or capitalization rule you are trying to teach and ask the students a simple question: “What do you notice?”. 

This activity can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be. For example, if you are teaching comma rules, specifically commas in a compound or complex sentence, you would find a sentence that shows how to correctly use that rule in writing. Ideally, this sentence would come from a text you’ve read with your students in class or from a high-interest novel, or even from an article or website. After you’ve found your sentence, display it on the board.

“Texting was the easy part. When they were texting, Nina felt certain that she and Ethan weren’t doing anything wrong; they were just old friends who’d happened to reconnect at college. When they were texting, she could control her responses down to the last comma.” – from Majesty: American Royals II by Katherine McGee

Ask the students “What do you notice?” and let them tell you. Of course, their answers will vary, and it will vary from class to class, but eventually, with some guiding questions from you, they will get to the commas and how they are used in the sentence. This is when you can start the instruction part of the lesson with some guiding questions, such as why did the author use commas there; if the commas weren’t there, how would the sentence and the meaning be different; would you use commas there, and so on. 

The great part of this is the students see these rules implemented in real-world writing. It goes beyond the “I need to do this because my teacher said so.” This is also an organic way to teach author’s craft–to have the students dive deep into the language, word choice, and sentence structure and use that information to analyze why the author made those choices and how that affects the communication of the information in the text. The “What do you notice?” question is the gateway to analyzing author’s craft while also teaching grammar rules. 

When I used this in my classroom, I had a high rate of success. Students were paying attention to sentence and writing construction during SSR, and sometimes I would get an excited, “Mrs. Easton, I found a complex sentence!”. We want the students to take notice when they read and use that information to inform and shape their writing. I’ve found that students, including those in a high-poverty area, can be successful in growing as a writer using this technique.   

Knowing this instructional strategy works, I brought this up to one of my ELAR teams. A teacher took it and ran and she has reported to me and her team the change she’s seen in her students’ writing pieces. She also marvels over their class discussions, and sometimes debates, over the sentences.  

Easy way to make this microchange: Choose a grammar, capitalization, or punctuation rule you want to focus on. Find a mentor sentence and post it on the board and have a “What do you notice?” discussion. I would start with 1-2 sentences per week, get the students used to the process, and then move forward from there. 

During this COVID age, I hear from my teachers, over and over again, how stressed they are and how if “one more thing is added to my plate I’ll lose it”. These microchanges aren’t supposed to be “one more thing”, they are supposed to bring you back to THE thing: teaching kids to love reading and writing.

– Shawna

How do you use SSR and/or free writing in your class? How do you teach grammar? You can connect with me on Twitter @shawnaeaston03 or on Facebook at facebook.com/movingwriters.

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