Zoom Out, Zoom In, Transfer

In my first semester beat, I’m exploring the life-saving power of routines–but not just any routines. I’m talking about routines that make life easier, more efficient, and more familiar–even in the most daunting of times (cough, 2020, cough). I’m talking about routines that allow students to thrive whether you are teaching in person, virtually, hybrid, or anything else under the sun. Routines are a compass that can keep us from getting lost in unfamiliar landscapes. Routines
 are anchors that keep our boats from floating away during the storm. Routines build good instincts so that when the fledglings leave the nest, they soar.

This semester, I’m exploring routines because, as the old Beatles title reminds us, “Tomorrow Never Knows”.

Adventures in Subbing, Part II

In my last post, I discussed how certain workshop routines can work anywhere as I took readers through a substitute teaching assignment with 3rd graders. Today, I’m going to take you on another one of my substitute teaching adventures.

Here’s what I’m hoping you’ll takeaway as you read about my teaching experience with 7th graders:

  1. Zoom out. Think about how this lesson and it’s learning target–not just within the context of today’s activity, but as something that writers do in general.
  2. Zoom in. Think about different entry points to what you taught in the mini-lesson. As you work one-on-one with students, how might you scaffold the work for students who are new to the strategy–without doing the dang thing for them? Also, what might be the next step for students who are already mastering what you taught?
  3. Teach to transfer. Aren’t you sick of kids coming to you without the skills you thought they’d have by now? Aren’t you tired of upper grade teachers complaining that students didn’t learn the stuff you KNOW you taught?

1. Zoom Out to Consider the Big Picture

When we were young and dumb, we would roll our eyes at our teachers as they handed out assignments, muttering, sometimes under our breath and sometimes quite audibly, “When am I even going to use this?” And then, as we grew up and eventually got hired to teach, we became what we once despised. We became the teachers who assigned things and then got mildly to severely pissed off when students would turn the dreaded question on us, “Umm, why exactly do I need to know this?” And then we’d invent some imaginary scenario about writing a resume, college application, or [insert adult thing here] that maybe in a roundabout way showed, but did not in any way convince, the student that sentence diagramming is somehow useful.

In all seriousness, though, do you ever stop to think about why a student would really need that lesson?

Knowing specifically how what you’re teaching fits in to the context of becoming a better writer, communicator, and thinker does more than help us answer smart-aleck students. It makes us teach the content with more intention, and in a way that is more likely to be useful to students beyond the assignment that’s in front of them.

A few weeks ago, I was subbing for a 7th grade English teacher, and as I read over the lesson plan for the day, I took a deep breath and zoomed out to think about why the day’s learning target might be useful. In this case, students were “continuing to work on their essays with a focus of elaborating on their evidence.”

As I unpacked the plans, it seemed like students were writing 5-paragraph essays, and, having done work on intro paragraphs, they were now working on body paragraphs. It also looked like students were supposed to use text-based evidence, and, as mentioned before, elaborate on this evidence.

Now, now. Don’t be so quick to judge. In case you’re wondering why I didn’t say anything mean about the 5-paragraph format, allow me a moment to go off-piste…

  1. For the last few weeks, I’ve been a substitute teacher. Like many of you, I’m asked to teach a sort of “canned curriculum”. If I push back, I don’t work.
  2. I actually think the 5-paragraph essay is a decent scaffold for young writers, and just like every scaffold, the problem really occurs when the scaffold isn’t eventually removed.
  3. Something to consider: what if we taught lots of structures, 5-paragraph being one of them, and what if we had the nuanced discussion of when to employ one structure over another?
  4. Good teaching can happen anywhere and under any circumstance–even in a canned lesson that works within the controversial 5-paragraph structure.

With all of this stuff in mind, I zoomed out to find where I might deliver some good teaching. I started with the focus for the day’s lesson. I asked myself, why might it be useful for students to elaborate on a quote?

That’s easy, in most essays, we want our readers to not just hear us out when we deliver evidence, but we want them to see how it all connects back to our main point. It also makes visible our thinking about the information presented.

So, when I eventually taught the lesson, here’s how this thinking played out.

Today your teacher has you continuing work on the bodies of your essays, and she wants you to focus on not just using quotes from your research, but on elaborating–explaining your evidence and how these connect back to your main point.

What have you already learned about how to do this?

Student A: After your quotes, you’ll say something like, ‘This shows blah blah blah…’

Me: Awesome. What else?

Student B: You want to make sure that you elaborate to show how it proves your claim.

Me: Alright. Anything else?

Student C: We’re supposed to mix up how we elaborate, like, not just say ‘This shows…’ every time.

(Now, here’s where we zoom out) Me: It sounds like you’ve learned some important strategies. You know to not just use evidence, but to show the reader what that important ideas the evidence conveys and how it supports your claim. Why do you think it matters, though? Why should writers know how to do this work?

Me after a long, awkward pause: Let me put it differently. Why should someone be able to explain their evidence? Why should we be able to show how it’s proving the point.

Student A (again): “Because what if our reader doesn’t get it?”

Me: Oh yeah, I bet that happens all the time, right? Sometimes, we have to help readers see how it all connects, and not just trust that they’ll figure it out on their own.

Me after another awkward pause: I want to give you one more. A writer named William Zinsser said, “Writing is thinking on paper.” A lot of Language Arts is learning how to think deeply. When we take time to break down quotes and connect them to our main point, we’re making our thinking visible, not just to our teachers, but to ourselves. So, as you go off to write today, remember that, one, we have to make sure our readers understand why we used that quote as evidence. Two, we want to really put our best thinking on paper as we explain our evidence.

Alright, off you go.

2. Zoom in on Entry and Exit Points

Even when I’m subbing, I employ a form of writing workshop.

Now, anyone who engages students in a workshop approach knows that the heart of the teaching occurs with those one-on-one conferences. One key to successful conferences is listening and being ready for whatever a student has going on in their piece. Another key, however, is in being prepared.

Of course, you can’t prepare for every possible circumstance. This is why it’s helpful to zoom in on the learning target itself and think about entry points and exit points. In other words, if a student is going to struggle with this work, what might be a good entry point? Moreover, if a student has already mastered today’s work, what will be their exit point–what’s their next step as a writer?

If a student is nowhere near ready for the day’s work, I’ll have to have a pretty good scaffold ready. If a student long ago mastered today’s objective, I’ll need to a good next-step move that doesn’t feel like busy work (worst case scenario, I can always ask, “So, what do you think is your next step as a writer?”).

For this lesson on elaborating on evidence, I jotted a few of my favorite transitions on a sticky note:

  • “This shows ____ because ____.”
  • “In other words, [author] is trying to show us _________.”
  • “So, what [author]’s trying to say is ____. This is important because____.”

For my exit point students, I’d be posing a question: “So, it looks like you’ve got a pretty good grasp on how to elaborate on your evidence. Let’s look at one of the places where you’re doing this work. Here’s why: sometimes we might over explain, and sometimes our explanations aren’t as elegant or as sophisticated as they could be. So, let’s look at your essay. Where’s an elaboration that you could make more elegant or sophisticated?

So, as students were working, I started with students who…weren’t working. One wasn’t working because he’d already mastered the strategy du jour. So, I set him up to make his work more “elegant and sophisticated”. I also told him I’d call on him at the end of the lesson to share because I thought it might help the class.

Another student was struggling, but she wasn’t far enough behind to need my prepared scaffold. She was overthinking it. So, I had her talk it out. I asked, “Why did you use that quote? …Okay, how does that quote support your point? …Perfect! Write that down! …Now, this is something you can do without me, right? Just ask, ‘Why did I use this evidence?’ and ‘How does it support my point?'”

I didn’t get to use my sticky note scaffold that day–but it’s better to be overprepared than under, right?

3. Teach to Transfer

With seven minutes left in class, I asked students to share out some of their evidence elaborations. After 3 or 4 students shared, I moved into transfer mode:

Today you did the important work of what William Zinsser calls “Thinking on paper.” You also were sure to elaborate on your evidence to make sure your reader was with you. Now, I have an bigger thing to think about: when else might you use this evidence elaboration skill?

Student D: On other essays?

Me: YES! Now, I know it sounds simple enough, but I can’t tell you how many students forget to use a skill they learned before. In fact, I’ve probably been guilty of this, too. The thing is, we don’t want what we learn here to stay here. Teachers teach this stuff so that you can use it in other circumstances, too. So, where else might you use evidence elaboration?

Student C (from earlier): When we’re arguing with people in real life.

Me: Absolutely. Anywhere else?

Student E: We’re writing a paper in Social Studies right now…

Me: Bingo.

We’re all Subs Now

In my work as a sub, every day is strange and, if I’m honest, kind of terrifying. I mean, I’m teaching someone else’s plan to someone else’s students…under the weirdest circumstances I’ve ever seen. Sometimes I’m teaching virtually, sometimes, I have a hybrid classroom, and other times it’s a full, masked class. On top of all that, it’s tough because I can’t be the teacher I was before because, well, it’s not my class. I can’t build relationships I used to, and, if I’m honest, on those days where I’m just trying to survive, establishing rapport is the last thing on my mind.

I bet this circumstance sounds familiar. It’s almost as if we are all subs now! Pandemic teaching has hit teachers hard–especially the ones who care the most.

But this much is true: we have still have the tools to be successful. As the old Nicotine gum commercial says: we can make it suck less.

What I’m trying to say is nothing will make this situation into something that it isn’t. Pandemic teaching sucks, but when we zoom out on why what we’re teaching matters, it sucks less, and when we zoom in on entry and exit points in our one-on-ones with students, it sucks even less. Furthermore, when we focus not just on our assignment but how students can use our lessons in other situations, …you get it.

And sometimes, once in a blue moon, it even turns out okay.

I’m so interested to know what you are doing to make this school year “suck less”. What kinds of routines do you bring to planning and teaching? Leave me a comment below, or hit me up on Twitter @MrWteach! You can also interact with the Moving Writers community at Facebook.com/movingwriters.

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