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Do All the Stars Have to Align in Order to Do Good Work?

IMG_7363  This school year has had some remarkable moments. I worked in Cairo, I worked with my old district in Florida (a real treat), and for the first time in the ten years since I started this gig, a superintendent sat on the rug beside the kids while I modeled a lesson.IMG_0120 Finishing the school year and upon reflection, I realized there is a district that has changed my life. Support From the Top: I arrived early to the school the morning we met.  There were quick introductions, but I really did not know this Literacy District Leader. Nor did she me. I didn’t know what to expect. She started the first meeting with “I didn’t know how to teach writing when I was in the classroom. I did a lot of assigning. Then after reading Pathways to the Common Core by Lucy Calkins, I realized how important writing was to our district. After speaking with the administrators, they agreed. Sometimes you get connected with a consultant. Christy Curran is a wonderful fit for writing workshop. I liken it to We are a perfect match, and we had no idea.” This district supervisor did so many smart things. First and foremost—how about that compliment?! Kidding aside, she set a tone that completely supports the work and the consultant with her introduction. By the way, taking the time to introduce your consultant is the professional thing to do.  Often teachers feel as if they are not treated as professionals.  This small act can change that.  Also,  when teachers feel like they are getting greatness, they are more apt to listen.  Secondly, she talked about her faults. She told the teachers that she taught writing by assigning. She admitted what the teachers are probably doing in the name of teaching writing so they don’t feel so bad about their work. HUGE! Teachers have difficulty embracing change when they feel like everything they’ve done before then is wrong. It gives the new work a bad taste. And by the way, it is NEVER wrong! Could it be better? Of course it always can be better.  But for now let’s recognize that change is hard. As the days went on and the work began to unfold, the district supervisor quickly began to trust me. I suggested the coaches and teachers needed foundation for this deep work. She then hired me to lead a week-long institute. She started talking about it to her teachers the day after I suggested it — before we even had dates reserved. She was planting the seed. “Today was great for you, think about spending a week with Christy so we can have the support we need. Be thinking if you would like to attend that.” This was important because she had her audience, they were eager, attentive and ripe for more.  This leader knew it and acted on it immediately.  Not a week later or over email, but person to person while the work was hot. Recently, I did an institute where the teachers were paid to attend and many did not show. And they were being paid! Often when we wait to offer the support it can be easy to forget how beneficial the training was.  We think summer and fun and family–come on, do I really want to work?  However, if we make the commitment immediately following the training when the training is on teachers’ minds and their excited about it, you may get larger participation. Just as teachers sell writing workshop to kids, we as coaches, consultants, and administrators have to be consistently selling it to teachers. I then began to ask how the coaches work? Can we rethink their role so that it becomes more focused, equitable, and purposeful? Done. How do the principals see the work? Can we have a day with the leaders? Can we take them to a classroom where this is happening? Can we discuss non-negotiables for next year? Can we share ideas for the coaches role? My last day was set aside for administration and the supervisor and I planned it together. Everything I suggested — from classroom visits to re-structuring the coaching, the district leader supported and included in the agenda. Done. Done. And done. A dream. Coaches Can Make All the Difference in the World: It didn’t end there, though. Did I mention their coaches? You know the kind of coaches I’m talking about. If you are reading this, I’m pretty sure you’re this kind of coach.   The kind of coach who says everything you want to hear. Who ask authentic questions around their struggles—the exact issues the teachers struggle with. She notices the big and small things you are trying to demonstrate, and shares publicly how wonderful the kids responded to the work modeled. Then, to top it off, she starts emailing you. I hope I don’t embarrass her, but here are some of the emails from my new friend and true gift to the teaching of writing, Michelle: #1 Hi Christy, Unfortunately I couldn’t make it to the lesson today and I won’t be able to be there Monday either; I first off wanted to say thank you so much for all of the knowledge and inspiration you have shared with us (it really makes me want to go back in the classroom and teach writing!)  I learned so much during this past week and hope that I can help pass the enthusiasm for writer’s workshop along to other teachers.  In my opinion, there are also many strategies that can be applied in other content areas in the classroom.  Anyway, my question is do you have any recommended “PD Plans” for schools that have not started any writer’s workshop yet..I work with School A, and they have not received kits yet, but will this summer.  Any advice regarding where to start or how much PD to give, etc. I know Dara and Angie planned some PD for the schools that started this year, and worked on developing “lesson snapshots” with the teachers.  I was thinking about recruiting a teacher from “A” and work together with her to plan and teach a Unit for the remainder of this school year….I realize I am rambling a Well any advice about supporting teachers / planning PD /  etc. is Greatly appreciated!  Thanks so very much and look forward to working with you again!! #2 Christy, Thank you so much for your time and suggestions.  I have found a grade 2 teacher to “pilot” a narrative unit for the remainder of the year…since this school has not implemented writer’s workshop yet, I am thinking about using the first grade unit “Small Moments”..  My plan is to dive into the reading this weekend and her and I are going to meet and plan next week…can I contact you with follow-up questions as I proceed?  Thank you so very much and have a great weekend, I hope you can find some time for yoga! #3 Hi Christy, I just wanted to share a quick story with you..I met with a second grade teacher today who started implementing writer’s workshop right after you were here (she is at a school that had not started implementation at all yet)..I was blown away with how much she has done in just 5 lessons…and how much her kids were writing! They made beautiful folders, are using the pens, she has the rituals in place, and shared that it has changed the whole culture in her classroom, the kids are excited and asking when writer’s workshop is and parents have contacted her telling her how much they love the small moments notebooks the kids are using to record ideas.  Starting next week I will be working with her to co-teach the mini-lessons and conference with her.  She is so inspired, its amazing, thank you!!! #4 Hi Christy! Just wanted to take a moment and share a few writers workshop moments from this past week. I have been working with the second grade whose school had not started writers workshop yet or even had their own kits.  Her students are up to 35 minutes of writing after about 7 workshops…they are recording their stamina on a class thermometer anchor chart.  I had my first conferences this week…some replies I heard after asking the kids what they were working on as a writer: “writing across pages” (Spec. ed student who had about 9-10 pages FILLED) “getting the reader to be able to feel what I was feeling” (middle of the road student!) “trying to end my story by taking it full circle” (spec. ed student!) Its very easy to compliment these students and the teacher..they are doing such a great job! I think the teacher worries about “it all coming together” but I just keep encouraging her that we are working on building a writing culture, stamina, volume, and independence.  It is difficult for me to confer with the students, not knowing them very well (I find it hard to gauge where they are so quickly and to give a teaching point that is appropriate for their level) but we will just keep practicing!  We are also in the process of developing our “strategy notebook”. Well thanks again for inspiring us to inspire young writers! #5 Hi Christy, Tomorrow I will be attempting to “replicate” the lesson you taught in Susan’s room at BES with the third graders.  I thought it would be a great follow-up with the class that I have been working with, since the last time we taught this lesson we just focused on “slowing down the heart or the most important part”…my question is after the students try out the strategy “It could be about 3 times”…and think about the problem / tension…how do they actually incorporate this into their writing?  Let’s say they have a great idea, “oh my story could be about how I am sad because my parents are divorced and that is why I wrote about spending time with my mom”….how do they embed that into their writing, or do you have any strategies around this???  I just foresee them adding this piece at the end of their writing and just explicitly stating this instead of embedding it into their writing, does this make sense??  Thanks so much Christy, I am so excited to be a part of this learning!! #6 Hi Christy, Thanks so much for those extra strategies, they really helped.  Although I could tell the lesson was “over most of the kids heads” ..probably 5-6 really got it.  A few highlights: *a little girl who is writing about a gymnastics event realized her story was really about “how hard her team and coach worked together” and not just herself *another little girl who wrote about playing a board game realized she was “making memories out of normal, everyday things like spending time with her family” *another little girl writing about a Birthday party and not getting what she wanted said “you shouldn’t get upset by small things and let them ruin your day” so cool to see them come up with ideas like this!! Granted, other students wrote things like “it could really be about skateboarding”…but we are approximating!  That was the third grade class at school “B”. From there I went to school “A” to work with the second grade teacher, and we did the mini-lesson using the narrative checklist and working with partners.  I will say..I have not been to this school in over a week and I was BLOWN away with the progress they had made (not necessarily in “the writing”) but in the ability to take risks and the confidence and in how PROUD they were of their pieces.  This teacher in particular has set such a positive tone around writer’s workshop and her kids are like little sponges that just soak it up, it is really cool.  They did an incredible job of supporting their partner using the checklist and as I walked around it was really amazing hearing them use “writing language”, like “I think you could say more about this character, like were they nice or annoying”…and I think you should add in what they were saying or doing here.  Really cool!  One little boy loved the lesson suggesting creating an “lol” or “poor me” feeling and chose his moment to be about being stuck in traffic on the way to a baseball game…it was hilarious.  Another boy wrote about fireworks and had used his sketches and labels so well to say more, he was SO PROUD of it, I almost cried.  I think these second graders are “getting it” more than the third, or at least enjoying it more and growing as confident writers. We are moving towards celebrating and probably have to cut out a few lessons in the third grade class since it is so close to the end of the year.  Just to clarify..there is never “re-writing” in the publishing part, just celebrating the revisions and the process?  Thank you so much for all of your time and support, I CANNOT wait to learn more and be a part of the summer training!!! #7 Hi Christy! Today is our last day of school!  Yesterday we celebrated the publication of our narratives with second graders at school “A” (this is the school that just got kits yesterday but the teacher borrowed one to launch the unit after she saw you at school “C”!).  What an amazing time we had…the kids were SO PROUD and genuinely excited to celebrate and share their writing.  We followed the same format as the third grade class..arranged the students into groups of 5-6 and each student shared and wrote a compliment on a post-it; then we had punch and doughnuts and had a reflection discussion and made an anchor chart of what they liked and didn’t like about writers workshop..I was so amazed at how insightful they were…ESP considering we were pushing them to do this during the last few hours on the second to last day of school!  All the kids gave me cards, which of course make me tear up because I miss the classroom so much; but more importantly wrote things like “I never knew I liked writing so much”; “thank you for making me be confident about writing”; “now I am a proud writer”…priceless. I really think we accomplished our goal of building up the “writer” and not focusing on the “writing”. I am confident that when these students enter third grade they will cheer when the teacher announces the start of writers workshop. IMG_4897 IMG_5295 IMG_1346 A few trends I noticed about their “writing”

  • They love to try out dialogue….almost too much!
  • Most students incorporated thoughts and feelings (something they were not doing before)
  • Most students tried to wrap up their stories in a creative way
  • A lot of students struggled with focusing on just a small moment, some of them trailed into the “whole day”
  • Most students need help with descriptive words and phrases

We ended with encouraging them to take home their “tiny moments” notepad and record all of the awesome small moments they will have this summer so that next year they will have plenty of ideas.  As always thank you so much for your on-going support and advice, I appreciate it so very much.  I hope that during the summer week we can discuss how to best “launch” this with teachers…at SES the principal told me yesterday there is about 50% buy in…anyway have a great day, many thanks! Seriously?! Seriously—a gift. So what does Michelle do?

  • She asks for help—true learner. And you better believe she does that in front of her teachers.   It’s genuine. She wants to learn and she is wearing that learning vibe right out in the open for all to see.
  • She takes tips from the expert and does it. I’m sorry, but that also goes with being open to learning and letting your ego go a bit. Not easy. It must be the yogi in her:)  Great model for teachers and a building –especially from a leader.
  • She gives me specifics around the work that’s happening. This shows me how seriously she is taking this, and how important attention to detail matters.
  • Going along with above, she celebrates approximations (“getting the heart”). She is not only trying to learn and embrace the content but also the philosophy around it.
  • She is always positive. You hear it when she talks about the work, the kids, and mostly the teacher she’s working with.
  • She is looking at data—the positive and next steps. And she is having the kids do that as well. What’s working around writer’s workshop? What’s not?


  1. The district leader had a vision and everyone agreed to it
  2. She trusted the consultant and let the consultant do her best work.
  3. The district leader rolled up her sleeves and made sweeping changes immediately. Striking while the fire is HOT!
  4. The district leader was positive about my work before she even knew me (sure she had a referral but she still didn’t’ know me).  Then once she did, she continued to be a vocal and positive support helping with supplies and anything that could get in the way.
  5. Coaches were on board—Michelle emailed me yes,  but ALL of the coaches were passionate, learners, positive, respectful and empowering with teachers and even got on twitter to start tweeting the powerful work happening in the district.

 Many people in education feel as if the only way to influence, the only way to make change, the only way to create excellence is through fear and mandates. I guess that’s where the stars and I scatter. I don’t believe that’s the best way to lead and I will never lead in that way. This is only the beginning. This district is going to teach our nation how to lead and how to lead where educators can feel proud and dignified and passionate about teaching again, actually. Christy & Monique      


12 responses »

  1. moniqueknight

    Christy!! This is truly the power of positive- when good teaching pushes you to write, write, write! Michelle’s letters are a testament to this. Both of you are rock stars! Love this 🙂


    • christycurran

      Thank you my friend. So true about good teaching and writing. Teachers out there–write about your great work! Let’s remind the leaders of our country how great teachers are!


  2. Christy- Your remarkable year of Teaching, Learning and Growth is a great reminder and inspiration for the start of the new school year! Thank you for being so open and candid!
    I’m sure ” Creating a Curriculum of Change” will give educators a different perspective on a Leading!


    • christycurran

      Gina! It is a thrill hearing from you. You have always been a true inspiration to me and my work. Thank you for this–means so much.


  3. Wow, Christy. There is so much fabulous-ness in this post, I am not sure where to begin! I love the ‘take-aways’ you share about what makes Michelle so effective–asking for help, taking tips, sharing specifics, embracing approximations, being positive and using data. That’s a powerful and transferrable list. Thanks!


  4. Michelle Harr

    I can’t thank you enough Christy for your kind words! The transition from classroom to coach has been tough for me and I am so grateful to have your guidance and support! You have inspired and invigorated me and many in our district to embrace not only this framework for teaching writing but a whole new approach to teaching and learning. It is so powerful to witness such amazing results in a few short weeks when you embrace the philosophy, celebrate the positive and just take a step back from standards and testing. You are a gift to education and our district-can’t wait to learn more from you. : )


    • Cathy Woodland

      I just want to say how thankful I am that I reaped the benefits of observing both Christy and Michelle. I was very fortunate to be able to attend a workshop with you Christy as well as observe your modeling in different classrooms. I was also lucky enough to teach at one of the schools Michelle is a coach at. During my 20 years of teaching I have never been so excited and inspired to teach writing! This summer I participated in the Eastern Shore Writing Project at Salisbury University. A colleague and I were so excited to share the great changes happening in our county! As my final project I was inspired to write a fictional story about how “Writer’s Workshop Land” came to be.I can’t wait to share it with you as well as this year’s class as a way to introduce writing in my classroom. I am really looking forward to continuing my journey with both of you!


  5. christycurran

    Michelle- Thank you! You are such an inspiration to me, coaches, administrators, and teachers. I can’t wait to continue our learning together:) I was thrilled to write this post. Coaches are passionate, persistent, and have an impeccable work ethic. They are often the unsung heroes in our profession.


  6. Pingback: Your Heinemann Link Round-Up for the Week of July 12–18 - Heinemann

  7. I am re-reading this post 6 months later.I needed to read it again through new eyes. Christy, Michelle, and the other coaches I work with have become a lifeline to me as I navigate this amazing, difficult work. It is so true–we cannot do this alone.


  8. Ali~ thank you my friend. You inspire me so much. You definitely remind me that I am not in this alone:)



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