The small moments of teaching

imagesI was lucky enough to see Peter Johnston (Choice Words and Opening Minds) speak at a conference in York, PA, and he said many things that strike me as so relevant to our everyday interactions with students.


One comment he made resonated immediately: he said the small moments of classroom life change everything. As teachers, we plan for that perfect lesson, that perfect unit of study. We assess our students’ needs to inform our instruction. These things take time, and they should: careful planning and use of formative assessment to inform our teaching build independent learners.

But these aren’t the only things that matter. Perhaps if we rethink some of the small moments of our teaching, we can see when we actually had those breakthroughs with specific students: did the breakthroughs come because of careful lesson plans, or because of our relationships built across dozens of small moments in a school year?

When Peter mentioned small moments, I immediately thought of Jonathan, one of my fifth grade students from 14 years ago. I live and work in Denver, and in my district, if it snows in the morning, we often have a late start. Late start means teachers must arrive on time, but students arrive 90 minutes later. That’s the theory. Sometimes, due to work issues, parents have no choice and they must drop their students off at the regular time. Driving to work in bad weather on days like these, teachers often hope that they will actually have some extra time to plan, and that none of their students will show up early. I confess I was one of those teachers on this particular day in the winter of 2002. At about 8:30, I thought I was in the clear and began planning and working in earnest – and then the office called: “Mark, Jonathan is here. I guess his dad had to drop him off on the way to work. Sorry.”

I confess that I was not too happy – I was hoping for another hour of work time. But I made a decision to just chat with Jonathan and have him help me in the copy room. When he walked in, I didn’t repeat my typical speech at times like these: “You know, this is a late start day – you shouldn’t be here yet. Make sure to tell your parents to check the news or the website on snowy mornings.” This wasn’t Jonathan’s fault, and truly, it wasn’t his parents fault either. Jonathan was a fifth grader. His parents had to work, snow or no snow. So I welcomed him and asked if he wanted to help me get ready for the day. He smiled and said, “Sure!”

Jonathan was typically very quiet. He never said much, and he didn’t have a lot of friends because he had recently moved from another school. To be honest, I didn’t really know him well – until that day.

I had almost an hour to talk with Jonathan. After a few minutes, he did all the talking and I just listened. He told me all about how his dad was trying to quit smoking and even though it made his dad pretty cranky, the good news was that there was a lot of chocolate around the house: apparently his dad replaced chocolate for nicotine whenever he tried to quit smoking. Jonathan also told me about his puppy, and how he was trying to train it without much success. Those small moments of me listening and learning about Jonathan made a huge difference. I was thankful for the late start. Rather than chastise Jonathan for arriving early, I welcomed him and listened to whatever he wanted to talk about, and much of it had nothing to do with school. After that, Jonathan participated a bit more in class, and he started producing more work over time. The breakthrough had nothing to do with careful lesson plans, and everything to do with an opportunity to get to know one child a bit better.

Simple, small moments with our students build relationships because they help our students to trust us, to view us as someone who cares about their lives beyond school.

During Peter’s presentation, I started to think of other small moments in my teaching career:


  • The time I laughed when my students told me about the dance party they had when a sub fell asleep at my desk during math class. Obviously, they played the music at a really low volume so as not to wake the sub. My sixth graders kept saying “Don’t be mad, Mr. O! He woke up and caught us dancing, but we weren’t mean! We were just having fun. And plus, HE fell asleep!” How could I not laugh?
  • The time Zach moved his desk from across the room to a space right next to my guided reading group. Zach was one of those students who was often disruptive. He had a reason for moving closer to the group: “You won’t have to talk too loud to get mad at me if I mess up. I’m right next to you now.” How could I not laugh and welcome him to sit right there?
  • The time I heard one of my third graders taking bets before my latest Patricia Polacco read aloud: “It’s Patricia Polacco!” one boy whispered to the girl sitting next to him. “I bet you a dollar he’s gonna cry at the end!” She refused to bet, so he turned to the boy behind him: “Wanna bet?” But no one would take the bait. They all whispered: “Of course he’s gonna cry. He always does when he reads her books.”

There are so many other moments like these. When I reflect on my many years of teaching, in fact, it is often the small moments I remember. I hope, of course, that my careful planning, teaching, and assessing paid off. But I know which small moments made a difference. So perhaps, as you relax this summer, you can reflect on those small moments that made a difference for your students. And as the next school year begins, look for the opportunity to show students that you are human – you listen, you laugh, you cry, but most of all, that you care.

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Small Group Writing Conferences

small groupWhen we confer with students, we often feel guilty because we run out of time… and as important as it is to confer with students individually, one way to save some time is to confer in small groups.

When I first tried small group writing conferences, I grouped by need: Writers who were stuck in the early stages of the writing process worked together with me to discuss ways to become “unstuck”, those who needed more support with organization met at a different time, and those who were ready for greater challenges met in yet another group.

There is certainly nothing wrong with grouping students by need. The conferences become more efficient: you can often provide feedback to 4 or 5 students in about 15 or 20 minutes. There are possible downsides, however. Writing is complicated, and some writers may have more than one need. If you aren’t careful, small (lower-case-g) groups can become  (all-capitals) GROUPS that meet too regularly, and writers may start to label themselves as struggling or advanced. My most successful needs-based small groups have been very short term and laser-focused.

An alternative to pulling small groups based on like needs is to just ask small groups of students to work on their writing at a table while you monitor their progress regardless of their needs. If the purpose of a conference is feedback, then providing feedback as close as possible to the actual act of writing can increase the power of the conference.

When I pull small groups of students in this way, I say something like this to the whole class before I begin:

“For the next couple of days, I am going to pull some small groups just to see if I can give you some support while you are writing. It’s kind of like the coaching I did when I taught swimming: I would give advice while my swimmers were in the pool, while they were actually swimming. This worked better than waiting til they got out of the pool. Don’t worry: I won’t interrupt your thinking and you can certainly ask me to let you work a bit longer before I talk with you, but I think having you close by in small groups might be a way to give you better feedback.”

When I have spoken with students about this method of conferring in small groups, their feedback to me has been very positive. They feel they can ask quick questions, and they are more likely to listen to my feedback if they haven’t written so much text that any potential problems seem too big to solve. It also provides an opportunity to give frequent positive feedback to your more resistant writers: you can acknowledge even small progress, and because you aren’t sitting alone with one student for the entire time, you are less likely to create a dependent writer. Another benefit is that writers may overhear what you saying to another writer. This is a good thing! They may try a strategy you teach someone else.

Happy conferring!

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“Pretty much I’m already an author.”

imagesPeter Johnston, in his books Choice Words and Opening Minds, reminds us that the language we use with our students can help or hinder their identities.

One of the simplest things we can do when we work with our students is to call them “writers”. This is certainly not a new idea. Lucy Calkins, Katie Wood Ray, Matt Glover, and other experts in the field of writing instruction have been recommending this for years. And I have been lucky enough to see it pay off again and again in the workshops I visit.

I was visiting a first grade classroom during writing workshop not too long ago and I talked with students about their writing lives.

One student can’t wait to show me her writing folder. After fanning out her many books on the table – illustrated stories and “All About” books on topics she cares about – she says, “Pretty much I’m already an author. Look at all these books. I guess I might as well be a writer when I grow up.”

At six years old, this student, and all of her classmates, exhibit tremendous confidence in their writing. Of course, the teacher does much more than refer to her students as writers. She teaches, models, demonstrates, provides time to practice, and gives feedback.

These first graders do what all writers do: they make choices, they find the best way to communicate their ideas, and, yes, they hold themselves accountable by finishing the projects that bring them the most energy and joy.

When I work with teachers around the country, one of the common concerns about the workshop model is that it lacks structure. I am always surprised by this comment. If  “structure” means the writing sounds stilted and lacks voice but has perfect transition words, then perhaps a workshop does lack structure. Writing workshops are not places where all students’ writing  sounds the same. And I say “Amen to that”. I tire of the comments about how students must “learn the rules before they break the rules,” or “they can get creative after they learn the structure of writing” or “that creative writing stuff is fine for elementary school but I have to get them ready for high school.”

Writing workshops I am lucky enough to visit are full of structures, routines, and expectations. Students in these workshops write with purpose and meaning. These are not “free-for-all” classrooms where writers are not held accountable to high standards. In fact, I find students hold themselves very accountable, even at kindergarten, when they care about their work and they aren’t just finishing their writing to please the teacher or to get a better grade.

Effective writing workshops are places where students, regardless of age, can confidently state: “Pretty much I’m already an author.”


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New book about writing conferences

lets-talkI am very excited about my new book on conferring from Stenhouse, Let’s Talk: Managing One-on-One, Peer, and Small Group Conferences.

Conferring can be difficult because there are so many things to manage. I tried to write a book with practical tips for all of us who have struggled with time and paper management over the years. Sections in each chapter provide tips for working with English Language Learners. There are two chapters on peer conferring, and one is based on the kind of talk that happens in the “real world” of writing workshops: the peer review conference. I will blog about what that looks like very soon. Meanwhile, happy conferring!

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Conferring Tip #2: Love the Resisters


One truth I have learned about resistant writers has helped me more than any other:

Resistant writers are better at resisting than they are at writing. They resist because they have practiced resisting. I need to figure out how to nudge them toward practicing writing more than they practice resisting. And if I have a resister sitting in front of me, I am already behind because they have become very good at avoiding.


These kind of negative thoughts about resisters don’t help: “They just won’t write! They hate writing. It’s making me crazy. I’ve tried everything. If they won’t write, I can’t do anything about it.”


This kind of thinking is more helpful: “I wonder why this writer resists so much… I notice some days are better for him than others. What do I need to know about this writer to help him write more?”

When I think about my resisters as opportunities to learn – when I “love” the resistance – then I am more likely to provide meaningful support.

I do not claim to be an expert on working with resistant writers, but I have certainly had a lot of practice. I have become better at figuring out what to say and what not to say when working with resisters.

 One resistant writer who taught me a lot was in my fifth grade class a few years ago. Jonathan was a passive resister. He didn’t say much at all during writing time, and he preferred to be left alone. Some days, Jonathan wrote nothing. Other days, he would write a few lines of text during writing workshop. I made the mistake of being overly enthusiastic about his progress one day, and he shut down for the next few workshops.

As I continued to observe Jonathan, he taught me that some resisters respond to an invitation to talk. Instead of being too enthusiastic – “That’s awesome, Jonathan! You got so much done today! I knew you could do it!” – I started to talk to him more like this:

“Jonathan, I noticed you wrote more today than yesterday. What do you think made the difference for you?”

Allowing Jonathan into the conversation is what I was missing at first. When I started asking him what he thought, he engaged more willingly. I began respecting Jonathan as a writer who could articulate something about his own process. Our talks allowed him to learn strategies that he could replicate later.

If our conference revealed that choice made a difference, I named that for him: “So today, it seems like choice helped you. I gave you some choices, but you also made a good choice about what to write. So one strategy that works for you as a writer is to choose topics you care about.”

On another day, we might come to the conclusion that talking with a partner helped Jonathan begin to draft: “Do you see how talking out your idea for even a few minutes helped you? You seemed more excited to start writing today because your partner liked your story.” Slowly, over time, Jonathan practiced writing more than he practiced resisting, and by the end of the year, resistance was rare.

I share this example to encourage you to talk with your resisters. Love them. Embrace the challenge. See resisters as opportunities, as writers full of possibility.

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Conferring Tip #1: Consider Purpose

I am excited to announce my new book from Stenhouse is due out in February, 2015! I hope Let’s Talk: Managing One on One, Peer, and Small Group Conferences will provide some helpful tips for all of you who work with writers every day.images-2

I will be updating my blog more regularly now, and periodically I will discuss some of the ideas in my new book.

Consider purpose first

When we enter into a conference with a student, we need to think first about why we are talking with them. I used to believe that everything was about me: I needed to teach the writer something, or the conference was a waste of time. So even though I acted as if I was listening to my students read from their work, I was often engaged in my own internal monologue:

“What should I teach? Look at those spelling errors – oh wait. I am not supposed to talk about that right now. Seriously? No periods for half a page? Look at all those ‘ands’. Should I mention that every sentence is a run-on? Oh wait – I missed that part. I am going to have to ask him to re-read what he just said… I can’t read his handwriting.”

One reason I stressed so much about conferences is because I was in search of that one, perfect, elusive TEACHING POINT. Now, I worry less because I have shifted my focus from me to the writers in front of me.

Perhaps the most important reason to engage in a conference with a student is to learn from them, especially at the beginning of a unit or at the beginning of the year. A fifth grade writer I met recently comes to mind when I think of how I can use a conference to learn, rather than teach.

Just looking at Ryan’s notebook cover taught me that he loved baseball. It was full of baseball stickers and images of his favorite players. As soon as I opened the notebook, I realized I was working with a writer who felt empowered: he had many pages already written, and he was able to tell me about why he was writing each piece. He even had a goal: Since he had written so many pages about sports and about his life already, he decided to tackle fiction. After asking him what he might write a fiction piece about, we talked about his love for fantasy and science fiction. Before long, he was brainstorming possible story ideas, and even began to think about how he might incorporate his love for baseball into his ideas for fantasy stories.

Listen first

Ryan, and many writers like Ryan, have taught me over the years that conferring is primarily about listening first. The teacher must listen to the writer and let them lead the way. My discussion with Ryan lasted less than 5 minutes, but I could write pages about what I know about him. When I checked with him later in the workshop, he had completed a list of story ideas and had started on a draft of a possible story. I realize that all writers are not confident like Ryan, but I firmly believe that if we listen first, and learn from our writers, we can best serve them. I did teach Ryan something that day: I taught him that he had the tools he needed to begin his journey into fiction writing. He already knew the power of brainstorming, and he had successfully completed short drafts about his love for baseball and his current life as a player on a good team. I recommended he use all he knew about being a successful writer (brainstorm, talk out ideas with a partner, write what you care about) to help him draft some fiction.

My conference was successful because I listened, I based my tips on what was already working, and I walked away and gave Ryan time to write. Ryan (and all my writers) do not need me to hover over them, making sure they are doing what I think they should be doing. Writers need time to write, relying on their strengths to continue writing, making decisions about how best to proceed, and seeking guidance from me (and other writers) when they need it.

In future posts, we will discuss other topics about conferring- including how to work with resistant writers. In the meantime, happy conferring!

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New DVD!

My DVD on writing conferences,  How Can I Support You?  is available now from Stenhouse. You can view a free preview clip online.

I am very happy with the outcome of this project… none of the conferences are “perfect”, but, I believe that no conferences are perfect. I do my best as a teacher/learner to listen as much as I can to what kind of support I can offer my students. I think this comes through in the DVD. I definitely want to teach all of my writers something, but I want to meet them where they are so I know what they are ready to hear and to try.

The DVD features conferences with 3rd grade essay writers and 5th grade narrative writers. One of the conferences is in a guided writing format, and there is also a peer conference between two students.

I hope the DVD can help teachers to be more confident with their conferences!

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