What do we do when the release of responsibility seems too gradual? How do you know when you are providing too much support, or too little? In The Unstoppable Writing Teacher, M. Colleen Cruz takes on this question and many other that writing teachers face. While this excerpt from Unstoppable makes it clear that teachers have a lot of options for increasing the independence of a writer, the even bigger takeaway is that the first step is to ask ourselves how we view students.
The exciting thing about working on developing independence is that what you are working toward is very black and white. If you decide to go for it, you will immediately discover if you are doing something to enable a student or empower him because he will either need you less, or else he will need you the same amount (or more!).
The first step I believe is the most crucial. It is not so much an action as a stance. We need to assume competence. This was something my teaching partner, Jenifer Taets, taught me years ago, and was further seconded by Kara Gustafson, a special education consultant. The idea is simple. Before we swoop down to offer students tons of support, we should see what they can do independently. As Kristine Mraz, master teacher and co-author of Smarter Charts, has been known to say, “I pretend I can’t use my arms. If I let them try to do everything, it might not be perfect, it will probably be messy, but most kids will figure out how to do a lot more than we think they can.” We should assume, and make visible our assumption, that she can do a lot more than we know and then actively observe to get a sense of what a student can and can’t do. If, after letting her have a go at something, she struggles too much—to the point of frustration, then dole out support, slowly, until they are no longer frustrated and are now back to being appropriately challenged.
As part of that effort, we will want to apply the least restrictive, most tailored scaffolding. When I was a new teacher, I am embarrassed to admit, I used to claim to support my strugglers by handing out graphic organizers. Every student who had a hard time with writing would receive the same graphic organizer. Some students did have trouble with organization, but for others it was a fine-motor issue; still others struggled with generating ideas. So for one or two kids my scaffolds worked, but for most they did nothing—or even worse, they held some writers back. Now I know that if I am going to use scaffolding, I need to make sure it matches the individual student’s needs and still allows her to work at her maximum capacity.
Additionally, when putting a scaffold in place, we need to concurrently have a plan for how and when to remove it. Scaffolding on buildings and in teaching is meant to be temporary. Just as construction companies put up scaffolding with a timeline for removal, we need to do the same. When a child needs a scaffold to support her, we need to provide what she needs. Perhaps she needs a list of sentence frames she can use to get started. Perhaps she needs to always rehearse her writing orally before she records it. Whatever the scaffold is, when you introduce it to the child, you might consider saying to the student that you are giving them a tool they will use for a few weeks (days, minutes) to help them get stronger at a skill they want to strengthen. Then, perhaps to keep yourself honest, set an alarm on your phone or computer to remind you when you should pull the scaffold back a bit. Then another alarm for removing that scaffold. That way, even if the student isn’t yet ready for the removal, you are reminded that it needs to go eventually.
Of course, not all supports need be temporary. School is a great time to teach interdependence in order to support independence. After all, once they leave school, it is most likely their friends and colleagues who will support them with their life goals. Therefore, we need to teach students how to work well with their peers. Being able to work well with peers is one of those gifts that keep on giving. The thing is, students don’t always know how to do this effectively. You might consider teaching a string of lessons to your whole class on how to give strong feedback and support to their writing partners.
Not every reason a student seems to need an adult to prod him has to do with learning difficulties. Sometimes the reason a student is struggling so hard with his writing is that he is not engaged with it. The genre or the purpose or the topic is just not compelling to him. You might also consider adding independent projects to your curriculum. When students are able to develop and implement their own independent writing projects concurrently with the whole-class curriculum, there is often energy to spare in terms of writing across the day with more volume and interest. Because students are so invested in say, their comic book, they will want to learn more about how story arcs go and character development so that they can apply those things to the projects of their own invention. When students are working on independent writing projects, they are doing them alongside of the whole-class writing curriculum. Sort of like how students will have independent books they are reading during your mystery unit, in addition to mystery ones. So your class might be studying poetry, but when a student has free time, for homework, or at designated independent project times, students will work on their fantasy stories, plays, and newspaper articles.
You might also consider offering seminars once a month or once a week. Seminars are when students learn from each other or guest teachers about a topic of interest. Usually students either request a topic or someone volunteers to teach it. Other students then sign up for the seminar on a given day. Seminars have the dual purpose of empowering students to share their learning with others and to play the role of teacher, as well as allowing even more choice and offering alternative voices for the attendees of the seminars.
There is something fantastic about watching students teach what they’ve been learning in writing workshop, as well as what they’ve invented. The amount of attention to detail they put into teaching can help us see where our teaching is strongest, and where it might need shoring up. Additionally, when students lead and sign up for seminars it further reinforces interdependence.
In addition to being the author of The Unstoppable Writing Teacher, M. Colleen Cruz is the author of several other titles for teachers, including Independent Writing and A Quick Guide to Helping Struggling Writers, as well as the author of the young adult novel Border Crossing, a Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children's Book Award Finalist. Colleen was a classroom teacher in general education and inclusive settings before joining the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project where she is Director of Innovation. Colleen presently supports schools, teachers and their students nationally and internationally as a literacy consultant.