February 1, 2015

What the Writing Process Really Looks Like

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Writer’s workshop, a common instructional format for teaching writing, is based on the process in which “real” writers engage. A bedrock idea behind writer’s workshop is that these “real” writers take pieces of writing, usually on topics they choose to write about, through a series of stages–prewriting/brainstorming, drafting, revising, editing, and publishing. The cycle is generally thought of as something like this:


Over time, with pressures from roll-outs of published programs and test preparation, this cycle can become formulaic in the classroom. resulting in “writer’s workshop” structures that looks something like this:


Not only is this forced fit model far removed from the original conceptualizations of writer’s workshop, it can also lead to pretty stale writing experiences and student writing. In fact, we find that our writing process looks less like the neat circle above (and certainly not like the regimented weekly schedule) but more random and spontaneous, like this:


jmb_presentation_wake_heart of 21st century writing_1-23-14


Furthermore, our definitions of reasonable work within each stage of the writing process tend to be pretty broad. We are less and less surprised by the way play and seemingly off-task “behavior” helps us break through the places we are stuck in our writing. Prewriting, drafting, even revision, often happen in our heads as we bike, swim, dance, cook, etc. We have grown to think of all these diversions as anything but, giving them their rightful, prominent place in our writing process. Below, you will find lists of the types of work that may occur in each of the stages of our writing process. As you will notice, the lists all end with “and more…” indicating that there are many, many more ways to engage in the particular writing stage. We would love to hear about the work you and/or you students do in the different stages of the writing process? We would also love to hear about the ways that “off-task” behavior helps your writing.

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The Cold (Humid?) Truth about Words

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hot and humid

As the cold grips most of the United States, we begin today by asking you to imagine “unbearably humid” weather. (Does this ease the bite of the winter chill?)  If you were describing this to someone who had never before experienced it, what words would you use to help them understand what it’s like outside?

When we did this, we imagined a 90 degree day in August in New Orleans, Louisiana.  We pictured ourselves catching our breath after stepping outdoors from the temperature controlled indoors. The air feels thick, so thick that we imagine cutting it with a knife.  And it’s heavy.  And wet. Within moments, our skin is clammy, our clothes are drenched with sweat.

In December, a Florida newspaper ran an article about the weather and described this year’s early winter as “unbearably humid.” When Kim and her husband read this, they looked at each other– the weather they had recently experienced had been in the low eighties. While there had been some humidity, perhaps they might go so far as to call it unseasonable humidity, calling it unbearable was just…funny.

This newspaper article became great fodder for teaching students about the importance of words.  Kim brought this article with her to a sixth grade class where they looked closely at it, wondering if they’d find other words that indicated the author intended to write humorously about the weather. However, they didn’t.  Analyzing in this way helped them to realize how one misplaced word can distract a reader, bringing the importance of words into focus.  They talked about how authors use words to communicate their message and how one little word can change the meaning of everything.

Marilyn Jager Adams says, “Words are not just words.  They are the nexus—the interface—between communication and thought.  When we read, it is through words that we build, refine, and modify our knowledge.  What makes vocabulary valuable and important is not the words themselves so much as the understandings they afford.” Words not only matter when we read, but they matter when we write and speak as well. If we aim to help children understand their world better, developing vocabulary is paramount to our work.  We offer the following tips as reminders of how to help expand children’s vocabularies on a day-to-day basis:

1. Read aloud!

Written text is the best source of new vocabulary for students. Hearing new words read aloud in meaningful contexts prompts inquiry about words.  When listening to engaging stories and ideas communicated through read aloud, children will often notice words that they’ve never before heard and ask, “What does that mean?”

2. Provide ample opportunity for students to talk.

Talk provides students opportunities to use the new words they are encountering.  Allowing students time to discuss their ideas about books or process their learning at other times in the day gives them a chance to try out content-specific vocabulary and try-on new words.  Using words in meaningful contexts helps students to remember and retain new vocabulary. 

3. Make sure students write–often and a lot!

Writing also allows students opportunities to use new words.  Experiencing the struggle of figuring out just the right word to complete a sentence or convey a message the way it is imagined, reinforces the importance of words and reminds children that the more words they know, the better they communicate.

For more of our thoughts on vocabulary instruction, watch this short, learning video.

The Power of Job-embedded Coaching

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On Monday, we posted a blog that described a couple of coaching contexts where we have worked in classrooms recently. As we work in schools, we are frequently reminded of the power of coaching in classrooms, and were pleased to see that, in its December issue, the American School Board Journal published a really thorough and thoughtful description of the job-embedded coaching model. The article is written by Alice Oakley and Hope Reagan, practicing coaches and founders of Education Resource Group. The article details a step-by-step process for supporting teachers as they work to take new strategies to expert levels of implementation.

We have a deep appreciation of coaching’s potential, considering our experiences coaching teachers and those of all our friends, including Alice and Hope, who coach in classrooms. Furthermore, job-embedded coaching is supported by a substantial body of research. Most prominently, this includes the monumental research on coaching presented in the classic text, Student Achievement Through Staff Development by Bruce Joyce and Beverly Showers, in which they statistically analyze and summarize a tremendous body of research on what works in professional learning. They set out to find out, what types of professional learning lead to substantive changes in classrooms and, consequently, student learning. More specifically, they wanted to know how the context or design of professional learning is related to how well teachers implement the presented strategy towards the end of impacting student achievement outcomes.

Their landmark research has offers substantial support for the kind of classroom coaching described in the American School Board Journal article, as the table below illustrates.

Source: Joyce, B., & Showers, B. (2002). Student achievement through staff development (3rd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.


In this table, the first column– “TRAINING COMPONENTS”– presents the design of the professional development. The second column, labeled “Knowledge,” indicates the percentage of participating teachers who could demonstrate knowledge, or rote explanations, of the workshop content after the workshop. The third column, labeled “Skill Demonstration,” indicates the percentage of participants who could demonstrate, beyond the context of the workshop, at least some skill in implementing the strategy. Finally, the fourth column, labeled here as “Use in the Classroom,” shows the percentage of teachers who skillfully implemented the strategy in the classroom. That is, the percentage of workshop participants who reached the level of “executive function” with the strategy.

The Joyce and Showers research makes clear the power of job-embedded coaching. Of note (circled in red in the table, above) is the incredible increase in executive level functioning–from 5% to 95%–that occurs when strategies presented in a workshop are supported with subsequent coaching in a classroom context. What makes this research so powerful is that, it doesn’t simply represent a single study. Rather, Joyce and Showers conducted a meta-analysis of all the professional development research at the time. So the results are not indicative of a one-time outcome in need of replication, but rather a consistent pattern across a body of research.

Considering the thoughtful description articulated by Alice and Hope, combined with the quantitative research summary offered by Joyce and Showers, one wonders why job-embedded coaching is not happening in every school.

What are your experiences with job-embedded coaching?


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