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April 1, 2018
Vol. 75
No. 7

Bringing Cohesiveness to Writing Classes

Consistently strong writing instruction won't happen if teachers are left on their own, without coordinated support and guidance. Just ask a teacher.

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Instructional StrategiesCurriculum
My student D. leaned over the document camera, his final draft projected on a bright screen behind him for all of his classmates to see. He read aloud, page after page, to a rapt audience of his 7th grade peers and some visitors at our class's fiction publishing party. The room was quiet except for the sound of D.'s words being spoken aloud, creating vivid images in our minds.
"You don't know what happened, do you?"
"No."
"They had a son but felt like they weren't ready, so they gave him away. He would have been about 13 now, and his name was Luke Rivera."
"I am 13, and my name is Luke Rivera."
As he finished his final line, the room erupted in applause, and his peers began an instant chatter about how good his story was. D. smiled sheepishly and took a few questions about his piece, his writing process, and the choices he'd made as an author. After a few minutes, he returned to his seat, and another writer projected her piece under the doc cam for everyone to see.
Moments like this are now common in my classroom—and in my school, a high-needs public school in the Bronx. But that wasn't always the case. My journey as a teacher of writing—and as a writer myself—has been one of ups and downs. I've seen writing curricula dropped and new ones adopted in the middle of a school year. I've had to create a new curriculum from scratch at least twice in my teaching career. I've tried out popular methods—such as student writing conferences and blogging—that seemed to push some students to new heights while barely influencing others.
Over the last two years, however, my school, my students, my colleagues, and I have found a more consistent groove. We've grown as a community of writers. As I reflect on our progress, I realize that this is mainly the result of our school's becoming more intentional, at an organizational level, about writing instruction. The progress truly began when our school's administration established a solid infrastructure to bring cohesiveness to our experiences of teaching and learning writing.

Creating Cohesiveness

When I started teaching at the school, our writing program for grades 6 through 8 was anything but cohesive. Our department consisted of three English language arts teachers, with the assistant principal, a former librarian, as our chair. We were a team, but we were far from a united whole. Each teacher was using the Common Core standards to create his or her own curriculum or adopting parts of the state-approved curriculum for middle grades language arts. We didn't have common rubrics or habits of mind in our classes. We would come together once a week to look at student work, but that that was the extent of our professional collaboration.
Two years ago, all of that changed. Our administration, concerned about some test-score data in language arts, made some basic but smart decisions that shifted the culture of teaching writing in our school in a profound way—for students and teachers.

Common Curriculum

The first thing our school did, with the help of the district, was to adopt a common curriculum that all of our writing teachers would use. This curriculum emphasizes giving students large amounts of time to write, frequent opportunities to go through the writing process, and plenty of feedback from teachers and peers. The framework provided a shared starting point for us as teachers of writing and gave us a series of unit and lesson plans that had been created by experts in the field. This fundamentally shifted the work we did as teachers of writing because it established a foundation that we could all stand on and build from together.

Common Rubrics and Checklists for Students

Along with the curriculum came common rubrics and writing checklists for students. The rubrics provided teachers with specific skills to be taught in particular genres across grade levels and the language to assess how effectively students demonstrated those skills. The checklists gave our students accessible language that they could use to guide their writing and that traveled with them from grade to grade. It's only been two years, but this continuity is starting to create, for students, a more consistent understanding of what quality writing includes and how to create it.

Common Rituals

As teachers of writing, we have established and supported one another in developing common rituals across our classrooms. Now, every teacher plans and holds strategic guided writing groups in which students receive targeted instruction in an area where they can improve as a writer. We confer regularly with students and track our conferences in a shared spreadsheet that all of us—teachers, coaches, and administrators—can access. We also hold our short mini-lessons in the meeting area of our classrooms. This creates opportunities for students to come close to see, hear, and focus on a teacher modeling a skill or practice. Lastly, we host publishing parties across the school to showcase student writing.

Common Planning Time

In another key move, our administration restructured our teaching schedules to include common planning time at least twice a week. This gives our department one or two common consecutive periods during the week to come together and develop our practice. It has proved to be invaluable. We use this time to plan units and lessons, dissect student writing, norm our scoring, read professional literature, and watch videos of accomplished writing teachers in action.
When practitioners are expected to do the complex work of teaching writing in isolation, they are destined to struggle. Teaching and learning are collaborative processes. Shifting the schedule to carve out this planning time helped us forge a professional community and changed the level of teaching our student writers receive.

A Web of Support

The amount and types of new supports our English language arts team of writing teachers receives has also been critical to our growth as teachers of writing. This professional learning bolstered our ability to succeed by providing us with what we needed not only to manage, but also to thrive. Schools can adopt new curricula and instructional practices, but if teachers aren't given the support to implement these new elements, they are destined to work for some but not for all. Following are some of the professional learning programs that were put in place for us.

Informed and Experienced Coaches

Our English language arts team now receives training from two experienced literacy coaches who visit our school one to two days a week. They observe our lessons and provide feedback on our practice. Because they observe all of the teachers in our now-growing department, they are able to identify trends across our classrooms. At weekly meetings with our team, they share strengths they've seen and areas where we can improve. They also encourage us to visit each other's classes to see particular practices in action.
A recent practice we've started with one of our coaches has proven to be especially powerful. She gives each of us individual feedback in front of our colleagues so that we can hear and collectively brainstorm solutions to problems of practice in our classes. For example, she recently noted that students in one of my classes didn't seem to have a sense of urgency when independent writing began. We collectively brainstormed and shared ideas to encourage urgency and support students in getting straight to writing. A level of trust has been established in our team so that we're able to hear our "glows and grows" in front of one another without fear of ridicule or embarrassment. Hearing what someone else does well and helping them think through how to improve has been beneficial for all of us.

Developing Professional Practice and Expertise

Our work with our coaches has increased the amount of professional reading and research we do and exposed us to videos of other writing teachers in action. We regularly review research on writing instruction or watch videos, collectively discuss them, and plan out how we might apply the ideas shown to our own practice.
Thanks to this type of support, I was able to reduce the amount of time I spent delivering mini-lessons on particular writing strategies. My students were sitting in the meeting area for too long, but I couldn't figure out how to model what they were about to practice on their own in less time. The coaches shared a video of another New York City teacher who delivered a rich mini-lesson on author intent to a group of 7th graders—with an opportunity for students to practice the technique in pairs—all in less than 15 minutes. Seeing this teacher in action, followed by having an opportunity to dissect her practice with my colleagues, proved to be what I needed to shift my own thinking on how to structure my mini-lessons. I realized that I was trying to deliver too much content instead of focusing on one specific skill. Now, my mini-lessons are 15 minutes or less and are filled with content, strategy, and engagement.

Peer Observations

With the support of our coaches, we've created more opportunities to observe each other in action in our classrooms. This has helped us fine-tune and improve new strategies. To help our students grow as readers and writers, for example, our team utilized our common planning time to establish a robust vocabulary program that takes place in everyone's classroom every day for the first ten minutes of instruction. While we established the structure for what the ten minutes should look like, our coaches noticed that we were putting it into practice in different ways. They encouraged us to observe each other during those ten minutes to see what they were seeing. We did so, and we used our next department meeting to debrief and create more consistency in our approach.
In addition to the outside coaches, our school now encourages the underutilized practice of having experienced educators serve as models of what effective instruction looks like. As a veteran teacher, I recently modeled a writing conference for one of our paraprofessionals and a first-year teacher so they could see the practice in action. We were able to debrief after the lesson, and I then observed and coached them as they held their own conferences with students. Using the expertise of our experienced teachers and our coaches allows us to grow as a team and support all of our students in their growth as writers.

Professional Learning Experiences

While we receive an incredible amount of support within the walls of our school, we've also benefitted from having more opportunities to learn with colleagues and peers from across the city and country through professional learning experiences.
Before the beginning of each new writing unit, a member of our team attends an all-day workshop facilitated by the creators of the curriculum. Whoever attends takes and shares detailed notes that allow the rest of that grade level to learn. This summer, three teachers from our department, along with our principal, assistant principal, and writing coach, were able to attend a weeklong professional learning workshop on the fine points of the curriculum with other schools in our district. As a result of that shared training, we've established new rituals and practices across each of our classes.
Each time a colleague attends a professional workshop, he or she is expected—and given time—to share what was learned with the entire team. This happens in our weekly department meeting and during our school-wide professional learning series, when we have an opportunity to share with teachers outside of our department. Last year, through one of our professional learning share fairs, I shared a strategy for helping students organize their writing with our math, social studies, and science teachers. The more continuity we create across disciplines, the more our students can apply what they learn in ELA classes to other facets of their academic lives.

Leading for Writing

The shifts our school made two years ago have deeply impacted what writing instruction looks like in our classes and the quality of our students' writing. Our students have grown tremendously in their ability to organize their thoughts, elaborate on their ideas, establish their craft, and write with a clear purpose.
While I believe strongly in the power of teachers to drive school improvement, none of this could have happened with teachers working on their own, developing isolated strategies as best they could. We needed the support, guidance, and leadership of our administrative team to create a cohesive program—and a community of practice. School-wide initiatives and efforts have the most potential to create systemic and lasting change. To be successful, sustainable, and supported, school leaders must prioritize the development of a pedagogical infrastructure to create cohesiveness and support the growth and development of their teachers.
When this happens, teachers can thrive in a challenging area like writing instruction, and moments when students like D. demonstrate the power of written expression become common in classrooms.
End Notes

1 The curriculum is the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project's Units of Study in Writing.

Author bio coming soon.

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