Hey there, new teacher! I hope you’re hanging in there!
This is right around the time of the year during my first year of teaching when I learned teaching writing is a lot harder than it looks. By the end of first quarter, I had tried my hand at a writing assignment or two and ended with a huge laundry list of things I needed to improve in my instruction and wanted to try differently next time. If you’re new to this, I’m assuming you’re in the same boat.
After my first writing unit as a teacher, I became obsessed with getting better immediately. I saw what experienced teacher leaders were doing when I went to conferences and conducted my own research, and I was always in awe of their creativity and groundbreaking ideas. If I could just use their same ideas, I thought, I could be just like them!
So after my first writing unit, I completely scrapped everything and went after the next unit from a totally different angle. And then I did that again with the next writing assignment. And again after that. And eventually, I realized something.
It was still really, really hard.
Those super teachers are awesome. I still look up to them and want to be like them when I grow up. But sometimes they fail to show us that they have the same struggles as any other writing teacher. They have students that struggle to come up with topics, they teach skills in mini-lessons that don’t end up transferring to their students’ writing, and their students sometimes fail to understand the writing tasks they put in front of them. What sets them apart, though, is they inherently know so many strategies to work through those issues; experience has taught them what problems to anticipate and the best way to respond. Once I realized this, I took a different approach, one I’m going to share with you today.
First Year Writing Teacher Tip #2: Set small goals for yourself and your students.
As I said in my last post, we can’t expect perfection out of our students, and we can’t expect it out of ourselves either. You have put in the time to get to the level of the experienced teachers. Starting from scratch with each and every writing unit isn’t going to get you to that level in year one; it’s only going to spread you thin and burn you out. And if you’re changing everything every single time, it’s going to be difficult for you to reflect on what’s working and what’s not. So take a deep breath and identify one thing you can realistically improve upon in the next unit.
Here’s how I adopted this strategy a few weeks ago:
At the beginning of the school year, I taught my students how to read like writers. If this is a totally new concept to you, I suggest you look at Rebekah O’Dell’s Writing Workshop 101/102 series, as it is a great place to start! The concept revolves around students noticing what professional writers are doing and trying to emulate those techniques in their own writing.
My students were rockstarts at “noticing” what writers were doing in the mentor texts we read together in the first week of the school year. But by the second unit, I noticed they weren’t digging in as deeply as they had previously. The act of noticing was not something I wanted replaced in my instruction; there are too many benefits for our ameteur writers to stand on the shoulders of professionals. However, I decided if I tweaked my approach in how they record their noticings, this might yield a different crop.
Enter the 3 way venn diagram. It is important that I first point out that the venn diagram is in no way, shape, or form a new concept. I chose this activity because the act of comparing and contrasting the structure and language of 3 mentor texts requires close examination of the details of each, which is exactly what I wanted my students to do. New teacher, please remember that you don’t always have to re-invent the wheel. Let your goals lead you to the right activity for what you want to accomplish rather than choosing something that’s nuanced for the sake of looking creative and “cutting edge.”
In the narrative unit my class just completed, we examined 3 mentor texts from The New York Times— How 50 Cent Spends His Sundays, What Bill Nye Can’t Travel Without, and Billie Eilish is in the Mood for Love (and a Weighted Blanket). If you don’t have a subscription to the Times, I suggest getting one fast! There are so many great resources for types of writing you can have your students do, along with sample mentor texts for each proposed writing assignment. It has saved me so many hours over the course of this school year!
But back to the writing. My students read the three mentor texts, each of which had narrative qualities and a “list” style format. However, each text came with its own unique style in its individual sentences and varied a bit in structure. Instead of simply asking students, “What do you notice?” about each one as I had done at the beginning of the year, I decided to get off the stage and let them do the talking! Students were randomly assigned into groups of 3, and each group sketched a giant three circle venn diagram— one circle for each mentor text.
I didn’t give them many guidelines; I simply told them to use one color for structural details and another color for language details and to fill out the chart as best as they could until the bell rang. And you know what? Their desire to fill the chart allowed them to see details in the mentor texts that they may not have seen at first glance. They noticed the piece about 50 Cent had little flair and got straight to the point (just like his Sunday routine), while the Bill Nye and Billie Eilish piece contained quirky details. We also discussed how the author of Billie Eilish’s article used a lot of dashes to indicate pauses in her speech. This helped create a “coversational” vibe that is absent in the other two mentor texts.
Ultimately, my writers went into the unit with an array of new techniques to try. It’s important to remember, however, that this activity isn’t the end-all-be-all. Nothing in teaching ever is. I’ll be the first to admit, I still wish they would have dug deeper and examined individual sentences as they completed their venn diagrams. But I celebrated my victories and moved into the next unit wondering what I could do to make them pay more attention to sentence craft. And that’s exactly what became my small goal for the unit we’re working on right now!
How can we avoid teacher burnout by setting small goals for ourselves? What ways have you “tweaked” writing units to work through an issue? I’d love to hear your thoughts on Twitter @TimmermanPaige!
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