Blogstitute: Reflections on another school year

July 20th, 2015

This is the last week of our 2015 Summer Blogstitute and I am excited to bring you this post from Mark Overmeyer (Let’s Talk), who has some wise words to share as you reflect on the past school year and prepare for the next. We have one more post coming to you on Wednesday, so this is your last week to look back on previous posts and leave a comment for a chance to win 12 free Stenhouse books. Follow us on Twitter using #blogstitute15.

Reflections on another school year
By Mark Overmeyer

lets-talkTeachers often create goals for the summer: they plan to work in their gardens, finish house projects, and try to get to those books they set aside earlier in the year. I am the same way, but I also spend the early part of my summer reflecting on what I learned in the previous school year.

Perhaps because I have lived my life in school years since the age of five—moving from school to college to teaching to graduate school to consulting—I tend to reflect more in the summer than in January, the traditional time for resolutions and reflection.

Here are three lessons I learned during this school year that have helped me reflect on how I facilitate writing workshops:

  1. Conferences are important, but writing time is more important. Conferring plays such an important role in our work with readers and writers. The opportunity to talk with a student one-on-one is priceless. However, what if a student needs time to write more than he or she needs the chance to talk with you? I ask this question because of my many interactions with primary students in writing workshops this school year. On at least three separate occasions this year, when I began a conference with the question “What are you working on as a writer today?,” the response was “I am working on my writing. I don’t need help.” One kindergarten writer told me, “I need to get my writing done. I need to work alone.” Most of the students who tell me they need more time to write are under the age of seven. As writing teachers, we have so much to learn about independence and agency from our youngest writers. Because of so many students asking for more time, I often start a conference now with something like this: “I would love to have the chance to talk with you about your writing. Can you talk now, or do you need to get some more work done before we talk?”
  1. Love the resisters. We have all taught resisters. They might sit passively during the first few days of writing time, hoping you don’t notice how little they produce. Or they may actively resist writing early in the year, saying something like “You aren’t going to make us write a lot this year, are you?” These resisters are so good at what they do: they avoid, they wander around the room during writing time, they keep saying they don’t know what to write about, or they just sit. Instead of being frustrated with resisters, I learned this year to find them fascinating—and to love the resistance. Fourth-grade teacher Sandy Mulligan in Colorado Springs has helped me to see resistant writers in a different light. Sandy actively decides to love her resisters. When she meets a fourth grader who hates to write, she doesn’t worry at first about why. She just says, “I am so glad you are in my class! This is your year! We are going to figure it out together. You are going to LOVE writing with me. I promise.” And she is right. It takes a while with some of her students, but when I have visited her classroom in May the past two years, I have asked students what they think about writing, and they love it. All of them. I merely ask “What do you think about writing?,” and they spontaneously yell out “We LOVE IT!” Sandy has students just like yours: Some come to her classroom with struggles in life and struggles in learning. Some come to her classroom ready for whatever life brings them. Sandy is relentlessly positive about writing, and her workshop is filled with joyful work. It is not a place filled with chaos, or with the message that everything written is wonderful. She has high expectations, and she provides scaffolds and safety nets when needed. From what I have witnessed, in classrooms where the writing workshop has meaningful purpose and is filled with joy, resisters stop resisting. Not always at first, but I have learned to never give up. I have learned from Sandy—and Elizabeth and Keith and Cheryl and Shelly and Monique and so many other teachers like them—that if you love your resisters, slowly the walls of resistance will break down and writing will happen. And happen. And happen. At some point, you won’t be able to stop them from writing, which brings us to my next lesson . . .
  1. In effective classrooms, writing is its own reward. I have felt this way for more than twenty years, but I was reminded of how rewarding writing can be in so many schools this year. I witnessed students clapping in at least ten classrooms when writing workshop was about to begin. I heard many students groaning when writing time had to end, begging for more time to write. Anne Lamott would be proud of the teachers in these classrooms. My favorite quote about writing is from her classic book Bird by Bird (Pantheon, 1994):

Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do—the actual act of writing—turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward. (xxvi)

One of my teaching goals every year is to hear students ask for more time to write. Sometimes I intentionally go past our writing block to see if anyone notices. When students are lost in writing, whether they are five or fifteen years old, they don’t want to stop. In the most effective workshops I visit, students are not rewarded for writing more, and they are not punished if they are not quite ready to write on any particular day. Teachers in these classrooms set up rituals and routines the first day of school that allow and expect writing to happen. If we avoid writing early in the year by setting up notebooks for a week, or if we skip writing a few times a month because of assembly schedules, students may think of writing as difficult, boring, or unimportant.

As teachers, our feedback comes not just during conferences but throughout each day. The longer we wait to start writing workshop, or the more quickly we end it before the school year is over, the more likely some unintended feedback might sneak in—the message that, somehow, writing is inherently unpleasant and should be avoided. Why not start Day One, Minute One? What better way to get to know your students than to start with, “I am so excited to meet you! We aren’t starting with rules. We aren’t starting with putting away supplies just yet. Let’s get to know each other a bit. I can’t wait. I am going to share something I wrote so you can learn about me, and then I am going to invite you to think, talk, and write a bit so I can get to know you. This is going to be a great year.” When we start with rules and supplies, our message is “School is a place filled with rules and school supplies, and these are of primary importance.” When I start with writing, my message is “I want to hear from you. I care about you. I want to know what you think. This is a place where we will learn from each other through writing.”

I wish you all a summer filled with relaxation, rejuvenation, and reflection.


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17 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Monique Bunero  |  July 20th, 2015 at 2:32 pm

    Thank you for this post! I will begin my year this way. I am excited for the possibilities, and the growth of relationships began last year with the same group of children. Didn’t think about what beginning the year with rules and regulations can do. Trying your approach will no doubt be revitalizing!

  • 2. Julie Clay  |  July 20th, 2015 at 4:15 pm

    “Love the resisters” is a worthy goal no matter the grade or age of the students. These students have frustrated me in the past, but after a few years of teaching, it occurred to me that the reason they were resisting was because they had successfully done it in the past, which usually resulted in a disparity of skill level compared to their peers. I decided to take on the mentality of “the buck stops here”; instead of letting the resisters opt out of an activity, I encourage and differentiate instruction to help them successfully participate and complete the activity. Too often students have “fallen through the cracks” before they arrive in my classroom, and many of them are the classic resisters.

  • 3. Kelly Mogk  |  July 20th, 2015 at 11:14 pm

    Such powerful truths you share here! My favorite part of the year is watching the “resisters” become the biggest fans of writing time. Makes my heart smile. 🙂

    I also love the idea of asking at the beginning of a conference if a writer needs some time to work alone first. Adding it to my bag of tricks — can’t wait to see how it goes! I teach 4th grade and this is my second year in a school where we are departmentalized. I only have 60 minutes to teach both ELA and Social Studies each day, so it is especially important I use our time to my learners best interest! I think this could make a big difference for us. Thanks for sharing!

  • 4. Christine Ciringione  |  July 21st, 2015 at 10:11 am

    Mr. Overmeyer’s thought: “As writing teachers, we have so much to learn about independence and agency from our youngest writers.” really resonates with me. As a teacher, I have to let go of MY need to confer, especially until the student himself is really ready. I love the idea of asking the students when a conference would work best for them. Another way to further students’ agency! Many thanks for this post – lots of gems here!

  • 5. Melissa Bogaert  |  July 21st, 2015 at 10:13 am

    Thank you for this post! My goal is to have students as excited for writing as they are for reading 🙂

  • 6. K. Dunlap  |  July 21st, 2015 at 10:22 am

    I love the idea of jumping into writing the first day – the first minute even! When I changed my first day of school routine to have students write poetry on day one – it made a significant difference in their attitudes about writing in general. They just assumed we would write nearly every day! These were high school students and when they would get the I can’t do this attitude I would remind them that they had written poetry on the first day of school – and that isn’t easy – so of course they can do this! Thanks for the great advice!

  • 7. Kerry  |  July 21st, 2015 at 10:39 am

    I teach 8th grade, so I’m quite familiar with the resisters! I love the idea of setting the tone for the year from day one. We will write and read every day. Students need to see that we value it before they buy in. Thanks for the great article- it made me reflect on my own practice!

  • 8. Kristin  |  July 21st, 2015 at 10:57 am

    I thought that this blog post held so many truths! Students really do need time to write. When students’ writing volume increases, their writing improves. The more students write the better! I agree that teachers should be aware of what students need. If students need time to write, instead of conference with a teacher, then teachers should allow students to have the time that they need. Conferences can always be rescheduled for another time!

  • 9. Tina  |  July 21st, 2015 at 2:01 pm

    Thank you for this great article! I have shared it with others at my school. I especially love the “Day One” idea, and plan to use it!

  • 10. Rachelle  |  July 21st, 2015 at 2:37 pm

    I also love the reflection on resistors in the classroom. It’s so important to greet students with optimism and positivity, but I like how you pointed out that Sandy still has high expectations and that not everything written is wonderful. It’s a hard balance to find, though, between praising enough that the student has confidence and not enough that they settle for less than their best.

  • 11. Christine Ciringione  |  July 21st, 2015 at 2:58 pm

    I absolutely love this: ” As writing teachers, we have so much to learn about independence and agency from our youngest writers.” It makes me realize that I have to temper my own NEED to confer with writers with when that conference will be most meaningful to the writer!

    I am excited to pose some variation on this question: “Can you talk now, or do you need to get some more work done before we talk?” to further my students’ choice, independence, and agency as writers. What a great suggestion.

    This post was quite valuable as I begin to think more concretely about this year’s writing workshop! Thank you!

  • 12. Jennifer Thach  |  July 21st, 2015 at 3:04 pm

    I couldn’t agree more with getting out of the way and giving students time to write! Just like with reading instruction…we often forget to give them time to practice!
    I spend the first few minutes of independent writing time continuing my modeled writing before starting conferences.

  • 13. Cheryl  |  July 21st, 2015 at 6:18 pm

    I really appreciated this article. I will be starting a new high school assignment this fall and am feeling a bit apprehensive about the resisters, but I know from previous experience that maintaining high expectations and being patient but diligent, the resisters do eventually jump in. I appreciate the reminders of saving the rules for another day and just allowing time to read and write be the focus of the new year. If that’s what I expect and that’s what I love, it only makes sense to do that as a means for establishing the precedence that will guide the entire school year. Can’t wait!

  • 14. Maribeth Batcho  |  July 22nd, 2015 at 7:36 pm

    Thank you, Mark Overmeyer, for a great post!
    Day 1 and Day 180 included oral and written storytelling. On that last day of school, the children and I laughed and laughed at the twists and turns in our story as one by one we all added to the plot! Many told me it was their favorite activity in ‘writing workshop’ all year (I think being a part of a professional video with Lynne Dorfman beat all, but who am I to differ with a group of second graders?!)
    I very much appreciated the mind-shift concerning the resistant writers, many of whom were on my team this year. I will definitely try Sandy’s strategy.
    Thanks again, Mark!

  • 15. Teresa  |  July 23rd, 2015 at 1:10 am

    My students always write on the first day of school. Then, my goal is to have writing time at least one day each week. They get to write on a variety of topics, and, usually by the end of the year each student can name at least one topic they liked. Sharing is encouraged but not required. Thanks for reminding me to keep writing as an important activity not just a time filler. In the past I have been guilty of setting it aside when the schedule gets crazy.

  • 16. Tracy Mailloux  |  July 23rd, 2015 at 8:54 am

    Thank you Mark Overmeyer for a post filled with many valuable points to think and reflect on! Your point about conferencing resonated with me as I feel that when we give kids time to write and then interrupt them for a conference it sends a mixed message. I need to let go of my need to meet with kids when I think they are ready and let them do more of the leading.

    Writing as it’s own reward is also a key takeaway for me here. You are right when you talk about things being dropped for special assemblies, half-days, etc. As an elementary teacher it’s all important! I will be conscious about giving each subject it’s due in an altered state instead of skipping one completely when these things happen.

  • 17. Sarah  |  July 27th, 2015 at 3:50 pm

    I do love the resisters! I am not always sure I am doing them any academic favors, but they always know I love them and accept them. Resisters have some great stories to tell and they are only waiting for someone to REALLY pay attention. I have halted many an oral telling of a great story with a serious and heartfelt, “THAT needs to be written down. Do it now because I want to read it!” It matters then.
    I am definitely stealing the pre-conference “Are you ready to confer or do you need time to write?” I think this is important because it gives my students (high school) some autonomy AND it minimizes wasted time. Sometimes when I confer with a student, they really just don’t have any good questions yet, or the ideas are too raw to give meaningful advice. It is a little scary to pass a student by who tells you they are not ready, though. Are they? Is this another method of resistance? Maybe it doesn’t matter.

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