Notes from the Writing Institute @ TCWRP

I’ve just completed the August Reading Institute at TC, but still thinking about last week’s Writing Institute and all I learned through Chris Lehman’s sessions.  I have pages and pages of notes to re-read and think about over the next few weeks, but here are some take aways that I’d like to share, some ideas I want to put into practice when the year begins:

“Teach the writer not the piece of writing”:
This was the mantra all week, and with each passing day I began to see its relevance and implications for my teaching practices.   On the very first day we met, Chris shared this thought with us: “The more I’m marking up a student’s work,  the more I’m being a good editor not a good teacher of writing.”  If the focus is on the “polished”  finished piece of writing rather than individual skills that the student has practiced and gained independence in, then I have not met my goal as that student’s writing teacher.  In other words, if the final piece is more a reflection of my editing skills rather than what this student has learned to do on his or her own (as a result of mini lessons, conferences, etc.), then what has been achieved?
As I begin a new year of writing workshop, I will be thinking of this.  We want to see our students grow as writers, a bit at a time, through our teaching and our guidance – using strategy mini lessons, mentor text examples, shared writing experiences, and conferences.  Ideally, these should be the tools in our students’ writing toolboxes, not the markups we make on their drafts which they copy, “correct,” and never really learn to do for themselves.
Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse  
In order to develop our students’ strength in writing, we need to give them more opportunities for practice, for rehearsal.  Harkening back to Malcolm Gladwell’s notion that:  “Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good,”  (Malcolm GladwellOutliers: The Story of Success), Chris asked us to think about building practice into our writing workshops. When we launch into our genres, for instance, how much time to we set aside for our kids to try out ideas in flash drafts before they commit to their topic of choice?  A writing cycle with rehearsal in mind may look like this:

  • class essay/ immersion/collecting ideas
  • rehearse with a draft in notebooks with an idea
  • collect/ rehearse with another draft
  • draft outside of the notebook (this is when we move onto the yellow drafting pads in our class)
  • revise/final draft/publish

The opportunity to practice memoir, for instance, before actually committing to the idea that will end as the published piece, will allow for a growth in writing skills as well as a greater sense of ownership and independence for our  kids – this is the transference we want to take place in our writing workshops.  This is also why we need to give our kids opportunities to come back to writing a genre more than once, in all genres: narrative, opinion, and informational.

Writing partnerships:
Our kids benefit from conversations about their writing so that they have others that they are accountable to.  These partnerships are more fluid than those we have in reading workshop – in that kids don’t need to be on the same writing level in these partnerships.  Such partnerships allow our kids to be teachers of each other, as well, always an empowering thing to watch take place in our classrooms.
When I’ve tried writing partnerships, I’ll confess that I’ve had mixed success. Sometimes the partnership yields wonderful conversations and better writing, and sometimes not.  Often, I worry that the partnership, off in a “quiet spot” somewhere while I continue my one-on-one conferences, is in reality a quick “what are we doing for the sleepover/playdate/party?”   chat.  
But Chris’ set up had a far better (and therefore more productive) structure. It should include:

  • a timer – 5 minutes (to set a parameter of work time) 
  • a check in with the following : name______ / purpose: we are here because_____ (we are working on sensory details, for example)
  • teacher evidence: where can I see evidence of this work? (our draft contains this evidence of how I improved this area of my piece here and here).

As a writing teacher, this is my area of greatest challenge.  I’ve tried multiple grids and note taking strategies, and have even begun recording conferences so that I can make conferences do what they need to do for me: help me guide my students and figure out what I need to teach them.  Chris offered various forms we could use, but urged us to think of our notes as not simply a record of what was said but a way to get better feedback as to what we need to teach.  Our notes should yield feedback for larger unit goals as well as individual student goals.  Here are two I found to suit my conferring needs:

I have pages and pages of notes to go through, mark up, think about,  and figure out what to do with. Most of them look like this – teacher hieroglyphics:

I feel incredibly lucky to have sat through a week of learning with Chris Lehman – best of all, I feel as though my students will benefit from all that I was able to learn, as well.  What a gifted, generous teacher of teachers he is!  And here are two books I would highly recommend: the first is available and my recently purchased copy looks dog eared and marked already up for “put into practice” use this year

and the second is due out this Fall (I’m taking no chances and have pre-ordered a copy already):

Available soon:

Chris blogs at, and he can be followed on Twitter here as well: 



6 thoughts on “Notes from the Writing Institute @ TCWRP

  1. Since I don't get to 'practice' what I preach much anymore, I'm grateful for your thoughts, Tara, especially about conferring. Sometimes I feel as if many teachers think that conferring means having a little chat & they don't take time (which is so valuable, of course) to record what happened. I'm still planning to check out Evernote as a way of recording. Thanks for all!

  2. This is the troublesome end of of practice, I think. Everyone is unsure, and that uncertainty leads to a certain degree of (how shall I put it!) obfuscation? I think that sharing ideas, watching each other confer, debriefing and then trying it out again would be so helpful – in case there isn't a lit coach in the building to do this with. But, that involves time and trust – and how many buildings have that in place? Not ours, for sure. Your teachers are so lucky to have you, Linda!

  3. Finally back again, to print, & then found your reply. Thanks for the compliment. I am also hoping to get others to observe each other-I believe that might be even more powerful than watching me. They are in the trenches, so to speak, & admire each other, although they don't get enough time to share!

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