Saturday, February 25, 2012

Strengthening Our Writing Muscle

5th grade teachers
"Writing taught once or twice a week is just frequently enough to remind children that they cannot write.  They are like athletes who never get in condition, yet have to play the game before cynical spectators." -- Donald Graves

This quote spoke volumes to me.  I ran across it as I was preparing an instructional improvement session for my staff.  I immediately began thinking about how we  "condition" our students and build their writing "muscle."  Any fitness enthusiast or coach would agree that a good conditioning program takes time, energy, practice, concerted effort, application, dedication, and consistency to build strength, stamina, and muscle.

Imagine the following scenario.

Bodybuilder A:  This bodybuilder lifts weights only once or twice a week and learns just the basic mechanics of weightlifting.  In isolation, she uses proper form but does not apply the moves in a cohesive, logical format.  There is no authentic feedback given to the bodybuilder, and she has no real purpose for her workouts.  She often gets distracted and off track and is inconsistent in her routine.   She hasn't spoken to anyone about her trips to the gym and does not interact with others while there. 

Bodybuilder B:  This bodybuilder has a purpose.  She is training for a competition and is excited about her journey.  She trains 5 days a week, pre-plans each day's workout, and learns not only the mechanics/techniques of effective lifting but applies them with concerted effort.  She gets constructive feedback from her peers and self-reflects.  She tells her friends about her workouts and reads the latest fitness magazines for inspiration and ideas.  She revises and edits her program based on what is working and the areas that need improvement.  She analyzes the effectiveness of her training regimen and begins to see incredible results. When it comes time for the competition, she has gone through many phases of preparation and gets the opportunity to share the fruits of her labor.  Whether she wins or not, she feels confident in her work and gets a great deal of satisfaction from reaching her goals.

Just imagine the strength, stamina, and muscle Bodybuilder B would gain from this type of conditioning!  The same holds true for our students.  In order to build their strength, increase their stamina, and gain muscle in their writing, they must follow a well-designed daily regimen. 

Building Strength
Too often, writing instruction is reduced to teaching mechanics and grammar in isolation.  While these skills are necessary and must be taught, they are sometimes reduced to worksheet-driven learning.  We can help build a writer's strength through exposure to rich meaningful texts and multiple genres that demonstrate the skills and strategies we are teaching.  Lessons should be followed by opportunities that allow students to apply what is being learned via their writing--authentic practice!

3rd grade teachers
Increasing Stamina
Imagine a beginning runner training for a marathon.  She will not be able to run the entire distance on day one, and it will take many days of conditioning to prepare and build the stamina necessary to endure the rigorous challenge.  Students also need to build their endurance in writing --their writing stamina.  This is the independent component of writer's workshop.  Students are encouraged to build their stamina by writing independently for 30-45 minutes a day. If this opportunity does not exist for our students, we are not giving them the chance to go the distance.

Gaining Muscle
As hard as it may be at times to convince myself to get up and get moving after a long day at work, I have never regretted a workout once it has been completed.  When I leave the gym, I feel amazing!  The endorphins are coursing through my veins.   Some of our students may also be tough to convince to "get moving" with their writing.  They may need extra encouragement and support.  However, once they begin writing and practice and improve,  they will feel the endorphins after sharing their piece of writing.  They will be so glad they began moving!  They will be gaining the muscle that is needed to express themselves via the written word.

Kindergarten teachers 
As my staff diligently worked on writing about one of their favorite memories, I was busy crafting my own piece.  The memory I chose was the moment I got the call from my superintendent offering me the position as principal.  It was truly a life-changing moment.  It was a moment that led me here--leading my amazing staff through another learning opportunity.  At the end of "class," some of my teachers shared their writing by reading it aloud to the group.  It became evident to me that I was in a room full of writers with incredible stories to share.  It is my hope that as we continue this journey of learning they will inspire their students to become writers through meaningful daily instruction. 

Students, get ready!  Your teachers are preparing to help you build the strength, stamina, and writing muscle we all know is lying beneath the surface.  Let's work out!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Destination: Building a Community of Writers

Now that I am feeling confident that our school-wide efforts with Daily 5 and CAFE are fully up and running smoothly, it is time to focus on our next area of improvement--writing instruction.  With the Common Core standards staring us directly in the eye, there will be much more emphasis placed on students applying their learning through writing.  In researching what may be the best path to take with our professional development, all roads continue to bring me back to Lucy Calkins' work.  The writer's workshop is a direct reflection of the philosophy and structure we have embraced in regard to our reading instruction.  Teachers are comfortable teaching mini-lessons, modeling strategies through read alouds, meeting with students in small groups or one-on-one, and setting up a structured environment in which students become independent learners and are actively practicing reading and writing on a daily basis.  It just makes sense that we would apply this philosophy to teaching writing.

In our district, we are fortunate to have daily staff development built into our schedule.  Our day begins with a 30 minute instructional improvement block.  I am able to schedule specific staff development topics that are pertinent to our overall instructional improvement.  Two weeks ago, I shared Lucy Calkins' philosophy for writing workshop by reading an excerpt from Launching the Writing Workshop in her Units of Study.  We then talked about the perceived roadblocks that were preventing us from providing the type of writing instruction we dreamed of.  Many of the roadblocks were related to time--not enough time/ the time of day we have to teach writing is not optimal.  However, one roadblock that I found to be particularly challenging as an admininstrator is that not all teachers are confident in their ability to teach writing.  Why?  Most teachers do not view themselves as writers.  Imagine trying to teach reading if you didn't see yourself as a reader.  Wouldn't that be difficult?

So how do I get more of my teachers to see themselves as writers?  The same way we would expect to develop this belief in our students.  I am planning on doing some writing instruction with them and letting them practice writing during our instructional improvement block.  We will delve into the format of writer's workshop and how it looks, sounds, and feels.  We will build our writing stamina and create I-Charts to assist us in creating an independent learning environment. We will practice writing our thoughts on paper, revising our writing, and sharing.  

Last week, I purchased composition notebooks for each teacher and had them bring personal items to decorate their writer's notebooks.  I give Beth Newingham credit for this idea.  The teacher resources section of her website has been a delightful find!  This week, my teachers will be bringing their writer's notebooks to instructional improvement block and will be delving into the world of writing.  I must say that I am extremely excited to begin this journey with them.  I'm ready to start moving some of those roadblocks! 

This blog will also provide me with an outlet to begin to see myself as a writer and lead my staff toward realizing their potential as writers.  Once they begin to see themselves as writers, we can begin to move toward our ultimate destination--building a school-wide community of writers!

Share your favorite writer's workshop resources with me via Twitter!  @MMEPrincipal

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Welcome to my Blog!

I am a first year principal who has been toying with the notion of creating my own blog.  The idea first crossed my mind when some of my teachers shared their blogs with me.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading their reflections and felt that a blog would provide me an outlet to reflect upon my first year as a principal.  I chose to name my blog "A Principal's Pensieve" because a pensieve (in the world of Harry Potter) is an object used to review memories.  It will be my goal to not only review my memories and experiences via this blog, but to reflect upon them in order to learn and grow.  Thank you for visiting!  I look forward to sharing my experiences!