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Top Takeaways From The TC Writing Summer Institute

August 8, 2015 3 Comments

Hello everyone! It’s the morning after my last day at the TC summer writing institute and since walking out the doors of Columbia University, my brain has not been able to turn off.  I have been looking forward to this week of learning for a year now (since finishing up my first institute last August) and this year was beyond all expectation.  The amount of knowledge that I have gained about being a workshop teacher has been so beneficial and inspiring that I can’t wait to put them into practice the moment my students walk through my classroom door.  I found myself throughout the week continuing to ask myself, “Is it September 8th yet?!”  I never thought I would wish my summer away, and even though I plan on enjoying these next few lazy days of summer, I have a renewed sense of purpose and determination for the beginning of the school year.
As much as I have enjoyed this week of learning, I kept thinking about how I was going to share all of these strategies and new ideas with all of you and with the other staff members at my school who were unable to go.  I was in a little bit of a panic.  Could I do it justice?  Would I be able to write these things in a way that would inspire others who couldn’t be there firsthand?  Because of this, I decided that even though I will continue to write a few more installments of my, Launching the Writing Workshop Do’s and Don’ts series, I realized that I needed to share my reflections on my experience with you all first.  My hope is that through these top takeaways from the institute will provide us with a springboard to talk more about workshop teaching but also inspire you to decide what goals you want to set for yourself at the beginning of the year.
With that being said, I hope I can share some of the magic from the institute with you below with my top ten takeaways!  Here goes nothing!  
Lucy Calkins did not waste anytime in her keynote speech on the first day of the institute.  Her speech really resonated with me and many others, especially when it came to this idea.  She spoke about how important it is as teachers to share the strategies of composition with our students.  But, the only way to create an intimate setting where students feel safe and confident is how we respond to them when they’re sharing their ideas.  She quoted Don Murray who states that, “Listening is essential to writing.”  This quote and how Lucy spoke about active listening really hit home for me.  
We all have those students who upon first glance or during our first few minutes in a conference, appear to have nothing to say.  In that moment, when we can so easily panic and say “Oh no!” is when teachers can evoke the most response and either lift our writers up or squash them.  If we act as though Susie’s story about going to get ice cream with her dad is the most amazing thing we’ve ever heard, she will too.  Lucy said to respond with enthusiasm and ask for ALL of the details!  If you are excited about their story, they will be too and encouraged to tell you all of the tiny moments that make up Susie’s trip to get ice cream with her dad.

This idea kept popping up throughout the entire week with several different staff developers and I have to admit, it’s a weakness of mine.  I have been motivated from the start with the writing workshop but not all of my other colleagues have been.  I have actively pursued professional development opportunities to learn as much as I can about this kind of teaching and I have struggled to find the time to always share with other staff members.  You all know what happens, our to-do lists become too long and our schedules quickly become jam-packed.  The time to share and just talk gets smaller and smaller.
I don’t want that to be the case anymore.  We need to work collaboratively with our grade level teams to plan, decide, and assess writing together.  Annie Tortono, a staff developer at the project, said that we shouldn’t “wonder about how writing is going in our school, we should know.”  One of the ways we can “know” how writing is going is by creating norming meetings three times a year with our grade levels.  Bring examples of student writing and as scary as this may sound, trade with our team members and assess each other’s student writing. This will open everyone up to a dicussion about what truly constitutes benchmark writing or below benchmark writing and what we can do as teachers to move our writers along the progression.  

Real talk, this is a challenge for me!  I have spoken before about using timers during mini-lessons to make sure we keep mini-lessons mini.  But, I also need to be careful of this during my small group work and my conferences.  Amanda Hartman, a lead staff developer who I had the pleasure of being with in one of her sessions, talked A LOT about keeping teacher talk “lean and purposeful.”  When you’re in small groups or conferences, keep YOUR talk to two minutes and then put it onto the student.  Coach them and guide them to what they need to change or add but do not over-talk.  Small group work should be about the teacher coaching and the students exploring and practicing what they have already learned.

Okay, this one I used to think I needed to hide behind my computer screen for, but now I am going to shout it loud and proud.  So many teachers worry about not fitting in the teaching of grammar, mechanics, and conventions inside the writing workshop.  No, there are no workbook pages on nouns, verbs, or adjectives.  You’re right.  Because……well…..wait for it….I’m getting the courage to type…..this should all be taught organically and authentically throughout all aspects of balanced literacy.  
There are several mini-lessons outlined in the units of study that focus solely on the use of mechanics (stretching out words, using the word wall, thinking of what we already know about words to spell), conventions (punctuation and capitalization), and grammar (syntax) that are taught to your students.  These standards ARE taught in the writing workshop but it is taught as PART of the process, not in isolation.  There are several opportunities to focus on these standards in writing workshop. 
 You can pull small groups solely on adding punctuation and capitalization.  You can do an interactive writing lesson to show where writers put capitals and where we use end punctuation.  You can do interactive editing with small groups or your entire class to show how to edit a drafted piece of writing. Or you can even create a day every week for a mini-lesson that is called “Attention to Conventions.” (thank Monique Knight for that idea!) The possibilities are endless but it’s more about responsive teaching.  Which means you are teaching your students the mechanics, conventions, and grammar that they need at THAT moment after you study their writing and see what they’re using but confusing.

I heard this from several staff developers and almost all keynote speakers throughout the week like Mary Ehrensworth, Sarah Weeks, and Lester Laminack.  They continued to stress the importance of showing vulnerability to your students.  Lester Laminack spoke at great lengths about the importance  of teachers showing students that being wrong will cost them NOTHING.  In order for our students to write and feel confident sharing their ideas we need to first show them that WE make mistakes, that WE put ourselves out there for critiques, and that WE deserve their trust and respect.  
A way we can do that as workshop teachers is to share our own writing with them and ask for feedback.  We can tell them about a time when we had to fix something because we didn’t get it right the first time.  Lester Laminack said that, “everything we ask our kids to do in writing, we should have an example of our own.”  This shows them that we’re taking risks as well and it’s ok for them to do it the same.  

This quote goes hand in hand to what I said in the previous point.  In order for our students to write and feel confident, they need to have trust.  Lester Laminack asked us to think about how we gain trust or think of others as trusworthy.  What we as adults need to trust someone is time, history, and showing vulnerability.  Our students need that as well.  We can’t automatically assume that they trust us from the moment they walk through our doors.  We need to gain their trust and then gain their respect.  Once we have this, they will be more willing to take risks in their writing and all other areas of the school day.
This takeaway was truly eyeopening.  I heard this from Mary Ehrensworth but from several other staff developers at the project as well.  The importance of oral rehearsal, the act of kids storytelling with teachers or with partners, is so unbelievably important.  Especially at the beginning of kindergarten and even still at the beginning of first grade, some students are not able yet to put words onto paper. Students need the time and guidance to understand first how a story should sound and then practice, practice, practice telling their own stories in a storyteller manner.  This focus on oral storytelling and oral rehearsal will help encourage our writers and unlock their writing in ways we could never do if we rushed them to put pen to paper before they’re even ready.  
We can raise the level of kids talk during playtime (yes, they talked about the importance of play as well), during read aloud, and during writing conferences.  It is a major goal of mine this year to have my students orally rehearse their stories before putting pen to paper to have them fully grasp the concept of what a story should sound like.   I want to get them away from listing in their stories like “This is my dog.  This is a cloud. This is my mom.”  If we give students the opportunity to orally rehearse and coach them to recognize how a story should sound, they will be more apt to do it when we give them the pen and paper.

Yes, yes yes!  Just because we tell students what a small moment is, that does not mean we’re teaching them to fully understand and apply that.  We have to show them, model it, let them practice it, and then coach them and encourage them to keep going.  
I thought this was such a beautiful sentiment that Lucy Calkins shared in her keynote speech.  Teaching writing is a matter of faith.   Faith that our students have stories to share, faith that they trust us enough to share them, and faith that we can coach our writers into sharing more and more.  I choose this year to have more faith in my students.  
My biggest takeaway from this entire experience is that I have so much more to learn and so much more room to grow as a teacher.  Just when I think I have a handle on being a workshop teacher, there are so many more strategies that I can try to help my students grow more.  I never want to stop learning from others and growing into the teacher that I know now I want to be.  I want to be a teacher who is vulnerable, who makes mistakes, who celebrates my students at whatever level they might be at, and who inspires others to do the same.  Lofty goals but thanks to TC, I know I have the time and energy to try and reach them.
I hope you will stick around in the days to come to read more about how I plan to launch writing workshop in my classroom!  Thanks as ALWAYS for stopping by!
Keep calm and write on!


  • MyDayinK August 8, 2015 at 5:20 pm

    All I can say is WOW! Great post my friend! You really captured some great highlights and ideas to think about. I can't wait to use some of the ideas you shared in my classroom this year. I love the idea of raising their level of kid talk to raise the level of their writing! Brilliant! Writing workshop is one of my favorite times of the day and your series as well as this post will only help it become better. Thank you for sharing your experience with us.

  • First Grade Stripes August 8, 2015 at 6:48 pm

    Whoop-Whoop! AMAZING Jayme! THANK YOU so much for sharing this wealth of information! I'm so glad that you were able to have such an awesome sauce experience! I love the fact that the overall picture of writing is to focus on the student and less teacher talk. We have to continue to provide excitement everyday and let the students voice become encouraged through writing. I'm definitely implementing these cool strategies! I LOVE the quotes! Keep up the good work! Thank you again for being fabulous! :)

    All the best!

  • Emily English August 9, 2015 at 5:01 am

    Thank you so much for sharing your amazing experience with us! I am VERY eager to hear about how your launching unit will look! My school fully embraces Lucy Calkins' units of study and I just love teaching writing to my first graders now.

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    Hi! I’m Jayme! A former elementary teacher turned stay at home mom sharing toddler activities, mom tips, and educational resources to help you learn and play with your children. I believe in the power of PLAY and creating meaningful activities for you and your little ones to enjoy together.

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