3 Things You Can Do Now to Improve Your Writing Instruction from the Not So Wimpy Teacher
When you think of writing instruction, how do you feel?
If you get that sick feeling in your stomach, or that dizzy, confused feeling in your head, then you'll not want to miss this interview with Jamie Sears of Diary of a Not So Wimpy Teacher.
Jamie once flailed about as a writing teacher [I've been there!] but now she's a confident master writing teacher. Watch my interview with Jamie or read the summary below to discover her 3 Things You Can Do Now to Improve Your Writing Instruction Next Year.
Keep watch for your chance to snag the notes for these 3 tips below. More importantly, consider how these steps may refresh your thinking and expectations about writing instruction.
May writing instruction become something you look forward to!
The Not So Wimpy Teacher Initially Struggled with Writing Instruction
Jamie from Diary of a Not So Wimpy Teacher once was a little wimpier about writing instruction than she is today. 😉
And I can relate! Can you?
For reading instruction, I found myself utterly unprepared and unable to help the students in my 6th grade class who needed me most.
I was really agitated by it!
That feeling of inadequacy sent me on a 2 decade search for answers. From those frustrated beginnings is why I bring you a streamlined system for teaching anyone how to read, here at Reading Simplified.
Jamie, too, initially struggled with writing instruction. But she didn’t remain there.
Here’s the Not So Wimpy Teacher’s earliest beginnings with writing in her own words:
I had zero training about how to teach writing. I remember my first year in the classroom; I had no idea what to do.
I actually love to write and I thought, well, “I love to write. Everyone else will love to write, too!” 😉
Fortunately, I was lucky enough to have a mentor. I went to her with, “What should I do?”
And she said--I mean--she said something brilliant. But at the time, I didn't really understand how brilliant it was.
She said, “Well, you're going to have them write a sample for you. And then you're going to read it to figure out what they need help with. And you're going to use mentor books to help them learn it.”
I thought, “Whoa!” That was way over my head!
I gave my students a pretest. And I looked at their writing...
”Okay, they are all terrible. They don't use capital letters. They don't use punctuation, and I can't even read their writing.”
Since this was my first year teaching, I hadn't learned third grade handwriting, yet, which is really tough to decipher.
I was really struggling with my writing lessons.
First of all, I tried not to teach writing.
I tried to avoid it--”Oh, no, math went too long today. I guess we won't do writing!”
And I just did anything to avoid it altogether. I would even hope for a fire alarm.
When I did do writing, I thought, “Oh, no, it's writing time. We are going have to do this.”
I would draw my kids to the carpet and say,
“Okay, guys, today we're writing personal narratives. And remember, personal narratives are just a story about you.
You should make sure to use dialogue and you should interesting words. Don't say 'said' all the time.
Try to think of something different, but in paragraphs and make sure you have a really interesting lead because good personal narratives, they do all those things.
Okay, let's go back and work on your personal narrative!”
Students would then charge back to their desks and just sit there and stare at the clock.
Come on! I just didn’t know what to do!
Transitioning from Telling to Showing in Writing Instruction
Finally, it dawned on me a couple of years later--I never taught them how to do any of that. I’m telling them what to do, but I’m not showing them. I was not teaching them anything!
Mostly because I just didn't know what to teach. And I didn’t exactly know what I was supposed to do. I really felt inadequate. I really questioned whether or not I was cut out to be a teacher.
And, oh, that became a real issue for me.
I remember being with my principal saying, “I've never been so terrible at something before. I feel so lost.”
And she said, “Do you want me to let you out of your contract?”
Well, the thought really went through my head, like, it might be best option to not to screw up these kids.
Being a new teacher was just overwhelming.
But writing was something that was definitely a huge stressor for me.
And, honestly, reading would have been second up there on the list.
So, I really decided that I needed to make a change. I couldn't go home stressed and in tears over this any longer.
I was feeling the pressure from administration, from state, from testing to make my students better writers. They weren't growing. And I knew that it was up to me.
So I tried many new things. I really put myself out there. I read everything I could find about teaching writing--there's some good stuff out there.
But it was hard to find at the time. A lot of it was very old. And it didn't seem to match up to how my class functioned.
My kids don't sit in straight rows and wear uniforms like the students from those books.
When the Not So Wimpy Teacher Saw Her Students Get Excited to Write
I tried so many things. Some things really crashed and burned.
But with other things I started to think, “Hmm, maybe there's some potential here.”
After lots of practice--lots of trial and error--I finally put together a writing workshop that worked.
And as I saw the progress of my students. I started to get really excited about teaching writing!
And then the crazy thing is when I got excited about teaching writing, my students got excited to write.
When I started to see this come full circle, I really got pumped up.
I thought I’ve got to tell other teachers about this because even in my own school, teachers and those on my Facebook page (Not So Wimpy Teacher), are having the same problem as me.
I've been there...I know exactly how you feel.
And I think, "We can help!"
That’s when I started putting out writing units and talking to teachers about writing. And I'm so happy that I did.
How Do You Feel About Your Writing Instruction?
Jamie has quite a story, right? And how many of you out there can resonate with her story?
We asked our Facebook audience how they feel about teaching writing and most used words like “stress” or “worry.”
But some of you have perhaps gone on a path like Jamie, so you actually enjoy writing instruction.
I can certainly relate to Jamie’s path from frustration to excitement as a teacher!
I felt basically the same as she did, but about reading. I got obsessive about looking for answers because I knew it was so important.
And I found a solution. One that I kept trying to refine ever since!
So there’s nothing wimpy about the Not So Wimpy Teacher’s journey as a teacher! It totally resonates with me.
Writing was also quite a challenge for me as a younger teacher. I had a book--Nancy Atwell’s In the Middle, to learn about the writing workshop.
But it was just one book. I needed to ask the author questions!
I didn't have that kind of resource.
No one in my school was doing writing instruction that way:
- I believed that students needed choices.
- And they needed to be practicing the whole writing process.
- And I needed to be guiding them.
But there's a lot more to a good writing workshop!
Which lessons do you do? And how do you instruct with a whole group versus a small group? Etc...And so it was quite a challenge for me, just like Jamie!
3 Tips for Writing Instruction--Easy Summer Prep for Next Year
Jamie has just 3 simple actions to challenge us with this summer. And if you want a 1-page handout that summarizes these 3 steps, look for that option at the end of this article.
As Jamie says,
“I'm dying to tell you guys! I see all your questions, and I just desperately want to help you.”
Let’s jump into the Not So Wimpy Teacher’s first challenge to us to beef up our writing instruction next year!
1. Evaluate Your Class Schedule And Make Time for Writing
Here’s Jamie coaching us on that first step:
Number one, I ask teachers, “What's the biggest challenge you face in teaching writing?” I'm finding that, for so many teachers, the challenge is that they don't have time to teach writing.
It's not really built into their classrooms schedule, right?
Or maybe it is, but they're not getting to it...kind of like I wasn't.
So the first thing that I think you can do right after summer break--you can do it in your swimsuit by the pool, or in your pajamas, or watching Netflix--is to re-evaluate your classroom schedule.
I know that you don't always have 100% control over it, but I want you to get out a piece of paper. It might even take more than one piece of paper because I want you to write out your real schedule.
If I were to watch your class for the entire day:
- What would every minute be spent on, specifically, how many minutes per activity?
- How many minutes did you spend walking back from lunch?
- How many minutes does it take you to use the bathroom?
- How long did it take to do the morning routine? -- The pledge, the attendance or whatever you do in the morning?
- How long did it take your students to get to the reading groups or to clean up after reading groups?
Really go minute by minute. I'm not talking about the schedule that you give to administration or you post on your board. And not just when you're going to teach the main subjects.
I want you to really think about your whole schedule and how all of your minutes are spent during the school day.
It's hard to reckon with, “Huh, do we really spend that much time transitioning? Do we really spend that much time walking the hallways?”
Remember you don't have to show anyone else this schedule. So be honest about it. It's for your eyes only; no one is judging.
It’s so important that we really evaluate our schedule and where our time is being spent, so we see those areas that just need some refining.
Are we spending way too much time getting ready for centers? Or cleaning up or packing up?
Then start asking yourself the question: “What can I do to make that time more efficient?”
When Advance Preparation Improves Transitions and All Types of Instruction
Sometimes I feel like the biggest thing that you could do is be more prepared for your day.
Do you have all of your class manuals, your workbooks, or any other materials you are going to use? Are they all up and ready?
I found I was wasting too much time going around my classroom to get the things I needed.
When it was time to teach math, I had to go get my teacher guide out, I had to find the page, then I had to go find a dry erase marker that worked.
I was walking around the room getting things while my students were waiting on me, giving them time to have behavior issues that then required me to spend minutes addressing.
When I was more prepared for my day--everything out, my pile right in the order that I needed it--I saved some minutes.
And the other biggie is those transitions.
Mm hmm. We get sort of used to them.
And we think kids take a long time picking up from reading centers. That's just the way it is, right?
But does it have to be that?
Maybe we need to change that mindset, thinking that it has to be that way. And that students have to take that long.
If we simply accept that, then it will take that long.
But what can we do to help speed it up?
We need to really teach the procedures the beginning of the year, instead of jumping into that curriculum too fast.
You need to spend time practicing going to get your pencil and your materials. How long did that take?
One of my favorite things to do is to race them (of course, there's no running) and they're very competitive--And I am, too, so it really works out.
And I tell them, "If I'm ready for math before you then I win. And if you finish before me, then I'm going to give you a point!"
I started by thinking about how my classroom is set up and whether a transition was taking a long time.
I found I watched them and observed.
They're opening up the really messy desks to get out their notebook they know they have to bring.
Or they've sifted through the desk and shoved it back in and maybe one person dumped their whole desk.
They head over to get a pencil and they realize it's not sharpened. Now, there's a line at the sharpener.
Then they're finally coming to the table.
Yep. I mean, even if that's only three minutes, that's still a lot of time.
I feel like a kid can get back to math centers in less than a minute.
I thought "What can I do differently?"
Sometimes you need to rearrange where things are in your classroom.
If the kids are having to go all over the classroom to get what they need, you somehow organize your classrooms with everything they're going to need in a straight path.
They can pick up one thing, pick up the next and head right where they need to go.
I solved the problem by putting their math notebooks on a small group table. And I had a bucket of sharp pencils. I always prepped those before they came in for the day.
They just had to stand their bodies up, walk to the table, pass out the notebooks and grab the pencil out of the cup.
This decreased the transition time significantly. And it might sound like only a little bit, but think about how many times you transition during the day.
So take some time look at that schedule, and be real.
And think about where some of those big chunks of time are and what can I do to decrease that next year so that we are not wasting so much time?
You may even think about other things that maybe aren't required. And and if you want to continue doing them, or at least shorten the time you're giving for them.
This will all help to create the time you need for writing.
And I get the question all the time, "How much time do I need for writing?"
My opinion? At least 30 minutes. I love having 45. That's my dream number.
So number one, evaluate your class schedule and make time for writing.
Let's move on to number two for the things you can do to improve your writing instruction for next year.
2. Find a Coach or Mentor to Help Improve Your Writing Instruction
All right, this one is a big one. And I really learned it the hard way.
But now number two, if you really want to improve your writing instruction, get a mentor.
You need someone who is already good at it, who already enjoys it and is getting results for their students.
Think about this, if you were wanting to learn how to do watercolor paintings, you would get on Google or a community Facebook group.
You'd put out a post and you would say, "Hey, I want to learn how to watercolor paint Does anyone know have a good teacher?"
You might even go on YouTube, and find the teaching videos or buy an online course about it.
There's so many options.
Now, if you wanted to get really good at watercolor painting, and you knew nothing about it, or you weren't getting very good results, you would find a teacher, a coach, a mentor.
Someone who could teach you the basics, look at what you're doing and give you some ideas about how to improve.
Same is true with teaching.
So a mentor--a guide--somebody who's getting results, who wouldn't mind just sharing some tips with you, ore even coming in and watching some of your lessons.
Think about teachers who teach in your building, who are really getting good writing results.
Take them out to coffee, ask them some questions, and see if you can pick their brain for some ideas.
This is what I needed. This is what I really, really needed.
If you do not have a mentor, teacher, friend, or someone that you can go to that's local, I would love the opportunity to be your mentor.
I have a huge heart for writing workshops and helping teachers to become better writing instructors.
And so if that's something if you need a mentor, I am more than happy to do so.
I have a course out right now called "How to teach writing without hating it."
In the course, there are seven video modules, 28 to training videos and a workbook.
As you go through these videos, you're going to learn how to set up a writing workshop that's actually manageable.
I'm going to teach you how to make mini lessons and still keep it at that 10 to 15 minutes.
I'm going to show you how to do independent writing, so your kiddos are actually writing and enjoying it and not staring at the clock.
We'll talk about conferencing and you actually can conference with all your students every single week.
I know that sounds like a little crazy to some teachers who have not been able to manage that. I know if you told me this several years ago, I would have thought there's no way I can do it.
We will talk about grading because you should not be bringing home stacks of paper every night.
That's not good for you and your health and your family.
And we're going to even talk about like how to get started on the first day.
We also have a Facebook group and it's already phenomenal. In there, I'm able to really coach you on your specific situations.
Sometimes when you have a mentor who's outside the situation and kind of look in and give you some ideas, it can be really helpful.
But even if I'm not your mentor, find somebody who's willing to be your mentor--somebody who's willing to give you those tips and tricks, because you don't have to do it alone.
Find somebody to help you along the way.
Marnie here again....So number one, evaluate your class schedule, make time for writing and be honest, brutally honest with yourself.
And then find a coach or a mentor, maybe an online mentor like Jamie, or maybe someone in your community.
Jamie, what's your third suggestion for us to think about over the summer?
3. Practice, practice, practice!
Okay, so number three. This one's kind of fun and it makes a big difference.
Number three is to practice the delivery of your mini lessons.
And I know that might sound silly because I know it sounded silly to me when someone actually recommended I do that for math.
I found as teachers, we love to talk, and to perform. And we are used to repeating ourselves.
So often, it's just part of how we deliver lessons when kids need us to repeat ourselves.
We don't even know we're doing it.
I started practicing some math lessons. And it got me thinking, "Wow, I've gotten much better at my math lessons. What if I did this with writing?"
And it's huge difference. And it's easy.
However, I wasn't sure what to teach on...do you ever feel that way?
Solution! I have this free guide about what to teach and writing.
Take this free guide and just pick a few of the lessons.
Honestly, you start with an easy one, and then work your way up.
Pick a few of the lessons and while you're doing your hair in the morning, deliver the lesson in the mirror.
Give the whole lesson in the mirror like you want to do for your students.
Set a timer on your phone and check how long this lesson is taking you to deliver without even a kid there to ask a question.
You're going to get more succinct. You're going to stop repeating yourself as much because you're becoming clearer and you feel more confident with the lesson.
Also, I have been known to practice my mini lessons while I'm driving.
If you need to record yourself go for it, so you can listen back to it.
We don't want to take too much of the time, because when we get those long, mini lessons, we're taking the students' time to write.
Yes, some students are going to need more repetition and a little extra help, but you can meet with them during conferences, and you will give them individualized help.
However, other students don't need instructions repeated over and over. So we don't want to waste their time hearing it more than they need to.
Think about breaking up a long lesson into multiple lessons.
For example, when I teach about leads, I don't teach leads in one day. There are multiple strategies for writing a good lead.
Instead of teaching good lead strategies in one day during a 45 minute lesson, I break that up into two or three months.
And I know that means your units will take longer to get through. But if you take the time to break it up into small chunks, and you teach it well so that they remember it, then you don't have to spend so much time re-teaching it.
Give them little chunks and they can practice that chunk.
And they'll take in some more tomorrow. And then they can kind of decide which strategy works best for them.
We don't teach every multiplication strategy and one lesson. We don't teach all of our photograms in one lesson.
Don't feel like in writing that you have to do huge topics. Bring it to the tiniest topics possible.
We need to get them doing the thing that we want them to learn -- writing.
So I love this idea of practicing your mini lessons. And then you'll feel more confident and you won't avoid writing.
Again, the 3 Things from the Not So Wimpy Teacher...
- Evaluate your class schedule. Make sure you have time for writing!
- Find a coach or a mentor. And Jamie would be honored to do that be to be that mentor for you.
- Lastly, practice your mini lessons!!
Now it's YOUR turn! Please share in the comments if one or any of these strategies have inspired you! What are your plans for improving your writing instruction this coming year?
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