This year, I have watched many brave teachers dip their toes into the waters of using reader/writer workshop as a part of a balanced literacy approach in their classrooms. They have made the choice to get more comfortable allowing their students choice in what they read, moving away from worksheets and teacher-driven lectures, and designing their READING and WRITING classes to emphasize….wait for it…..actual READING and WRITING! That statement may seem ridiculous, but it is quite common for me to go into reading and writing classes and see neither of those actually happening. After all, emphasizing the skills of reading and writing is pointless if the students don’t ever apply those skills within the context of real reading and writing. So, it has been exciting to watch these teachers (from kindergarten through high school) break away from what they are comfortable with in order to do some things that they know will be better for students in the long run. They are taking a risk. They are trusting (with tons of research to support that trust) that this will work.
While this has been incredible to see, I know that this is the time of year where panic starts to set in. The test is looming, and it is starting to appear on the horizon. Benchmarks are being taken. Results are coming in. And not all students are passing. Administrators start panicking. Teachers start panicking. Parents start panicking. Students start being put in accelerated programs, tutoring, Saturday school. Schedules start being switched. Teachers start being switched. Before you know it, we have shifted our focus from building readers and writers to making sure they can pass a test. So, let’s stop, take a breath, and remember our WHY.
As the crunch time nears, I want to share 5 ways to overcome the urge to revert back to endless practice of passages and questions.
1. Look at the successes. It is almost February. Your students HAVE grown this year. Are they reading more? Are they able to tell you authors that they enjoy? Do they actually WANT to write? Those are successes. It is likely, though, that you have some data to back up the fact that they HAVE made progress in areas. Sure, there is still work to do, but don’t ignore the growth that has happened. I don’t roll my eyes at the half-pound I lose just because it’s not the full 30 yet! It’s progress! Remember and acknowledge the success so far.
2. Remember what time it is. This can be a hard one because we want to say “Yes, but…the test is in ____ weeks, and the kids still don’t ___-.” Remember...it is only January. Even in February, remember it is only February. There is still time. If you were to work your body out intensely everyday for 4 months prior to a race, it would get too fatigued by the day of the race. The same goes for our brain. Yes, start weaving some testing practice in, but treat it like a training schedule for a marathon. A long run may only be done once a week, and what is considered a “long run” at the beginning is nowhere near the length of the final race.
3. Shift the format. At this point in the year, I encourage the teachers I work with to start shifting their instruction to more small-group based activities if they haven’t done so already. Usually, the curriculum begins to spiral and there is enough data by this point to tell you which students are understanding concepts that you have taught and which ones are not. Use that data to narrow down the what you need to spend time creating whole class lessons for. Not every standard is created equal or needs as much time spent on learning it. Acknowledge this shift with your students. Prepare them to work more independently. For some teachers, this is naturally how they teach. However, for many-especially secondary-the idea of small-group instruction may be new. For many middle school or high school students, they may not have had this type of instruction since elementary school. Don’t assume they remember how to work independently while you meet with groups. If small group instruction is new to a teacher, I generally encourage them to begin building one day a week into their schedule to focus on targeting instruction in groups, then move to two days, and so on. Around 4 weeks before the test, the majority of instruction could be in small groups.
4. Use learning stations to review, reinforce, and enrich. That’s right. Learning stations. No matter what grade you teach, they are one of the best tools for getting ‘bang for your buck’ as far as time goes. There’s no need for them to be complicated and time-consuming to create, either. Think of things that students can do with any text. Combine that with a pair of dice, and bam!...you’ve got some learning stations. For a free sample pack of some learning stations that can be used with 5-8 grades, click here: https://goo.gl/Zqo3FC These may give you some ideas that will spark your own.
5. Keep it real. Even as the testing season approaches, never forget that authentic reading and writing is still the priority. Keep self-selected reading and writing as a central component of your class. Make sure you distinguish between testing strategies and reading strategies. Students should know that one is for ALL reading, and one is for ONE TYPE of reading. Same goes for writing strategies. Acknowledge the test, but keep it in its place in the grand scheme of things.
So, I hope these tips will be helpful, and I would love to hear other ideas!