Celebrating Emerging Writers (and Their Teachers)

Considering different perspectives, particularly the student's and the teacher’s, is the entry point.

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As leaders, how do we know if our time spent in classrooms is supportive of our students and faculty? Is our help helpful? This is a challenge I sometimes experience during instructional walks1.

For example, during writers workshop in kindergarten, a teacher had a small group at a rectangular table. They were writing about a gift they received over the holiday break. One student, Tyler, needed considerable support. "Listen when I say 'skid'. What do you hear?" His response was inaccurate. "Try it again: 'eer', in skid-steer." As she helped him sound out the word, the other students were encouraged to draw their description once they were done writing.

I was ten feet or so away, trying to hear and document the conversation. Seeing an entry point, I scooted my chair over to their space. "Mind if I join your group of writers and listen in?" Typically, I hang back and observe, but I sensed an opportunity for helpful participation.

They made room for me at the table as I continued to jot down notes. "What is your favorite reason for coming to school?" The teacher continued to guide the writing. When one of the students wanted to know how to spell a sight word, she pointed toward the word wall. In my notes, I documented that the students spent much of their time actually writing.2

Before they transitioned from writing to recess, I asked if I could share a few of my observations from instruction with the group.

"I noticed the following during your workshop time:

  • The teacher helped you sound out words you did not know.

  • She accepted your best kindergarten spelling.

  • You could write about what you were interested in and knew a lot about.

  • You are using resources in the classroom when writing, such as the word wall.

  • You all wrote for at least ten minutes straight.

Isn't that great that you are given this time, support and choice for your writing?"

They all nodded, then made haste to get their winter gear on for recess. All except Tyler.

"Would you mind working with our friend here a little longer? He had a tough time getting started this morning" I accepted the teacher’s invitation.

These are the situations in which I am not sure how I will be helpful. Do I review behavioral expectations with him? Remind the student about consequences? In my experience as a principal, these conversations have little impact on long term student actions.

The issue here that others have noted3 is a) kids want to do well, and b) they will do well if they can. This means that whatever they struggle with could be beyond their current capacity. Maybe it is the environment. Maybe it is a challenge with attention. Maybe the instruction is not engaging. We can and should alter space and/or task if we believe it will help.

Yet it can also be a simple matter of recognizing and celebrating success with what is given to us today.

With that, I started by celebrating what this student was doing well. I had an entry point: "Let's look back at the writing you did today." Tyler pushed his paper toward me. He had spelled skid-steer (a small vehicle for loading and moving material, popular on our families' farms) as "sdseh".

The teacher looked on as I began. "I noticed you had two Ss in skid-steer; that is how it sounds. You also included a D and an E. How does it feel to try out that big word?" He smiled. "Good!"

"You should. Once you began to write, you showed us what you could do." I thought about connecting his focus and work ethic he displayed with his writing to behaviors elsewhere, but I held off. Tyler went off to recess.

In the room with the teacher, I reiterated what the student had accomplished. "Thank you again for giving him the opportunity to write about what he knows and is interested in. Your approach is setting him up for success." She smiled and thanked me for coming in.

Did the teacher see it the way I did, now or even beforehand? It took me a bit to find the opportunity for celebration. Just being in classrooms daily reminds me of the patience and the consistently positive attitude needed to support students with some challenges.

Every day, I have the chance to support teaching and learning. It was not always readily apparent how. I first need to acknowledge that I do not have all the answers. I also must assume that something positive is present in that classroom; my job is to find it, note it and celebrate it.4

The strategy of reframing these situations with students offers another point of view for everyone. I am intentionally looking for the good. If I do not see it right away, I keep looking. It is often the flip of the same experience. This is not about being right but about becoming attuned with the full reality of the classroom. Considering different perspectives, particularly the student's and the teacher’s, is the entry point.5

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1

You can read more about instructional walks here.

2

In this Educational Leadership article, Rachael Gabriel suggests literacy leaders first ask: “Are students reading, writing, and talking in every period of every day?”

3

Check out the work by Dr. Ross Greene, for example Lost at School and Lost & Found, for a more proactive approach to supporting student development in behavior and self-regulation skills.

4

To learn more about instructional walks in the literacy classrooms, I have recently partnered with Choice Literacy and created a course on this topic. Learn more here.

5

Next week, I will be posting the seventh (of nine) writing tips, with this entry describing my experience celebrating a 5th grade writer. It will be available for full subscribers; see below.

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