Collaborative Circle Blog

Learning By Doing: Experiencing the Power of Being a Writer Through the Eyes of a New Consultant

It’s hard being the new kid on the block. Whether you are a student looking into a sea of unfamiliar faces in a new school, a beginning teacher taking a shaky deep breath prior to initiating a first lesson, or an experienced teacher embracing a new curriculum and instructional stance, it can be disconcerting when you find yourself, suddenly, feeling insecure and hesitant. Recently, I experienced these feelings when I retired from the Florida Public School System with more than 30 years of experience as a teacher and literacy coach and stepped into the role of Collaborative Classroom consultant.

Why, you may ask, after accumulating such a wealth of experience would I ever be lacking in confidence? It’s easy to explain. You see, though I have admired Collaborative Classroom’s unique curriculum and pedagogy for several years, I have done so from a distance. I never had the privilege of working in a school or district that recognized the value of Collaborative Classroom programs and professional learning; therefore, in my new role, I found myself studying the materials—and studying them a lot. But, as you may expect, I realized that studying a curriculum in isolation is not enough. One must live in the moments that occur when the content meets the students. So, on my journey to becoming a confident Collaborative Classroom consultant, I knew I had to take the materials I had been studying and put them into motion with real kids, in real classrooms, alongside real teachers.

Since I started my journey with the Being A Writer program, it was easy to find teachers in my former school who were willing to open their doors to me. Delivering meaningful writing opportunities had always been a challenge in the school where I formerly coached because the core literacy curriculum in use did not offer many such opportunities. Thus, teachers were just a bit curious about this writing curriculum I was gushing on and on about. The remainder of this blog will offer just a few of the moments I experienced as I relaxed, waved good-bye to any expectation of being perfect, prepared for each day’s teaching with intention, trusted the materials, and taught the curriculum as designed.

For my first practice run, I selected Grade 2, Unit 1, Week 4, featuring the mentor text, Miss Tizzy by Libba Moore Gray. You simply can’t go wrong when you ask children to think and write about their friends. The host teacher had developed a caring community of learners, so that vital element of Unit 1, The Writing Community, was well established.

As I prepared for teaching each day, I made sure that I had a solid understanding of the writing and social development focus areas and could identify them as I studied the three parts of each lesson: Getting Ready to Write, Writing Time, and Reflecting and Sharing. This step made my planning efficient and kept me focused. I was careful to remain true to the concise language of instruction indicated in the Teacher’s Manual. Being acutely aware of the connection between the writing and social development focus areas—and the language used to impart the instruction to support those areas—strengthened my resolve to “teach as intended” to best support student thinking. The strength of the Teacher’s Manual helped me to resist the temptation to go off on tangents. I deliberately chose to maintain a neutral stance in response to student thinking (that was hard at first), use wait time to provide access for all learners, and use a consistent signal to regain student attention and maintain each lesson’s respectful tone.

With such support for my preparation and teaching, why did I think I was such a “newbie” and feel so surprised when the lesson and subsequent lessons went so well? When teaching an intentionally-designed curriculum that allowed me to practice and learn as I taught, I discovered that successful lessons are the norm—not the exception! The priceless moment at the end of my four days of teaching in this classroom was when a little boy, lining up for P.E., broke away from the line and ran to hug me, saying, “I used to hate writing. Now I like it!” That was only after four days, and it had nothing to do with me. It had everything to do with me being the vessel through which a curriculum focused on student thinking and actions was poured out to eager, motivated learners.

For my next practice run, I selected Grade 1, Unit 2, Week 5 lessons, featuring the mentor text, Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale by Mo Willems. Again, the host teacher had established a caring community of learners, so we were ready to go! What stood out to me during this teaching cycle was how truly helpful the Do Ahead notes, Teacher Notes in the margins, and Teacher Conference Notes are when preparing, teaching, and conferring. Everything I needed to know to stay on point and emphasize what mattered most in these lessons was there in the Teacher’s Manual, either to support advance preparation or real-time teaching and conferring. What this did was enable me to keep my attention on student actions and thinking rather than have to troubleshoot or scramble around due to confusion caused by a lack of clarity in the resources.

Facilitating the read-aloud, shared writing, and student writing flowed easily. The students loved noticing and using speech bubbles, just like Mo Willems does in so many of his books. The only one who could not believe how well the students were writing at first was the teacher! She said, “Aren’t we supposed to give them (the students) what they should write first, then second, then third? Shouldn’t we be walking around helping them as they write?” What a beautiful opportunity to share the power of teaching for independence, and helping students find their own unique voices. My favorite moment after this experience was when the teacher, two weeks later, sent me a picture showing how a student was using speech bubbles in his writing. Good teaching fueled by great resources makes a lasting impact.

My latest experience to date was in a third-grade classroom. I had limited time, so I selected the Fiction genre unit, Week 3, Day 1, and the Extension Activity. The mentor text for this lesson was The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch. This particular class was still working on routines and procedures, so the Facilitation Tip helped me to gently support how students responded both to me and to their peers. The students had not worked with fiction at all this year, so I found the ELL Note helpful when supporting everyone in verbalizing responses to questions about the characters in the story. This experience stole my heart because the children, it seemed, had not had the opportunity this year to “just write,” and they soaked it up like little literary sponges. At the end of the first day, before I left the room, a little girl came up to me and offered me her scrunchie. Do you know what a treasure a scrunchie is to today’s kids? I melted.

The next day, we focused on comparative adjectives in the Extension Activity. I never realized comparative adjectives could be so enjoyable—for me to teach or for students to learn. That’s the beauty of a powerful curriculum. It brings out the best in everyone. At the end of that lesson, a little boy came to me and asked, “Do you like rings?” He then took his ring off of his finger and offered it to me. “It’s a mood ring. It will tell you what kind of mood you’re in.” I’m not sure that ring could have registered the level of joy I felt knowing the children in my care loved the learning they had experienced. Another child had drawn me a picture. It was of a squirrel and a bird sharing a cozy limb in a simple one-branch tree. It read, “Good vives.” Naturally, the child meant “Good vibes.” Exactly. Teaching with the Being A Writer program has helped me give and receive “good vibes.” In addition, the child had written, “You are pretty. You are kind.” The picture is still hanging on my refrigerator as a daily affirmation.

Was my teaching perfect during my practice lessons? No. Do I still have a lot to learn about the Being A Writer program? Absolutely. But with a curriculum that supports my practice and brings such happiness to children, my journey to becoming a confident Collaborative Classroom consultant is off to an amazing start.