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Monthly Archives: May 2016

A Risky Business          

Mary Osborne is one of my earliest and most influential educational mentors. She influenced the way I taught writing to my fourth graders from my very first year of teaching and beyond. She influenced my passion and love for the work, and always directed me to the very best educators (she included me on yearly dinners with her close friend Don Graves—Donald Graves! I had dinner with him. He talked with me about running 7 miles a day. To little old me!). She influenced the way to be around teachers—love and honor all of them, and always try to walk in their shoes. When I left Pinellas County ten years ago, the hardest part about leaving was saying goodbye to Mary. There isn’t a day that goes by in my work that Mary isn’t a part of my words, a part of my actions, a part of my thinking…her presence is constant. So you can imagine the joy and honor I have in sharing this post from the educator to whom I owe everything. Enjoy, readers. Let Mary impact you, too. She is a gift.            


When my daughter Maggie was three years old, she began taking ballet lessons. At about age five, she took swimming lessons in a friend’s pool. Next came cheerleading. That lasted the longest, almost six years. At age sixteen, she became engrossed with her acoustic guitar. Each time my daughter ventured into some new passion she was fortunate to have instructors or teachers or coaches who were willing to take risks. You see in each instance whether ballet or swimming or cheerleading or guitar lessons the teacher actually modeled that skill for the students. This takes bravery and so could be considered risky business.


The first time I felt at risk was when I attended Writers Camp in 1983. I hadn’t written like that since high school and even then I didn’t exactly write the way we did at camp. In high school writing seemed more technical somehow–more focused on form and correctness than on ideas and personal meaning. At camp the first priority was choosing a topic we cared about. That left us vulnerable. It put us at risk. If we truly wrote about subjects close to our hearts, colleagues we barely knew would become familiar with us at a rapid pace. And then we were told that this behavior wasn’t just for camp but in fact was a behavior we should adopt in our daily lives in the classroom–in our classrooms with our students. Not only did this mean opening our true selves to our students but it also meant revealing to them our weaknesses as writers. Huge risk.


In her book, The Writing Workshop: Working Through the Hard Parts (And They’re All Hard Parts) Katie Wood Ray says, “I believe that to set the best tone in our writing workshops, then, our students need to see us as people who write, just as we see them in that same way. Now take heart. It is not at all necessary that they see us as great writers. It is fine for them to see us struggle as writers, to see us write things that make us (and them) say, ‘Oh my, that’s awful!’ What is so much more important than that we be great writers is that our students see us as people who think writing is a worthwhile thing to do, as people who believe in the effort it takes to write things that really matter.” I know Katie’s words speak the truth, but that doesn’t lessen the risk.
One day a teacher I had modeled a lesson for commented, “Some of the kids were not writing while you had your back turned during conferring.” I reassured him this was not a problem, but rather it was a behavior writers of all ages exhibit. It’s called thinking. I realize this may not have been completely true for all of those students that day but I can pretty much guarantee it was true for one or two of them. I told him that when students finish their stories and proclaim, “I’m done,” what they really mean to say is, “I don’t know what else to do.” Students have to be taught through mini lessons and conferences those things writers do when they too are done getting their thoughts onto paper. The problem begins here for teachers who don’t write themselves. How can they know what writers really experience if they never put their own thoughts to paper? This teacher couldn’t understand why some students weren’t writing that day, but teachers who do write know that they sometimes have long gaps in the physical act of writing because they are thinking about what they’ll say or do next.


The most important thing teachers can do for themselves and for their students is to write. Writing with students creates a supportive tone in the classroom. Composition researchers and practitioners have generally agreed that, as effective “facilitators” in the writing process classroom, writing teachers need to engage in writing activities themselves for two important reasons. First, as teachers of writing, they should practice what they preach. Second, when teachers really do write with their students, they develop better insights into the challenges and rewards their student writers face. Teachers must write in order to inspire their students to write. Students learn from watching. In addition, when teachers show their excitement about writing and write alongside their students, students realize and react to that energy in positive ways. It has been said that there is no more powerful way to inspire our student writers. However, most teachers feel inadequate themselves as writers.


Many years ago, a Writers Camp teacher reflected, “Never have I expressed a passion for writing. My commitment dealt with reading others’ writing, “teaching writing’, and pretending to write when my students write. Now, I ask myself how it is possible to get anything out of another’s writing when I have never experienced real writing? How in the world could I have taught writing all these years when I never wrote myself? Most importantly, what did I learn from pretending to write? Reflection on my prior commitments finds emptiness, shallowness, absurdity. ‘Snippets’ of writing strategies have guided my teaching. These fragments developed from a thirst to find a better way to help the young writer who also hated the process. I now know that personal real writing is invaluable to the teacher. Students imitate their role models. Effective teaching stems from effective modeling. Teachers can’t model what they don’t do.”


Downhill skiing, bungee jumping, and most certainly sky diving can all be considered risky business, but there is no riskier business for anyone, especially a teacher, than putting yourself on the page in the fragile form of words–however the brave teachers who do, know the rewards.


By Mary Osborne

Instructional Staff Developer

Pinellas County Schools, Florida



A Distributive Leadership Model

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I had the great fortune of meeting and working with our guest blogger, Keryn Dowling of the Zurich International School, earlier this year. Keryn and her colleagues in Zurich introduced Writer’s Workshop to the teaching staff this year. The way they decided to do it was through a Distributive Leadership Model. Keryn so passionately explains it all below. Great model—one you might want to try.


Whilst I am not new to instructional coaching, I recently added the area of literacy to my list of responsibilities when our school decided to implement Writers Workshop this year.  Given that this was not my ‘real job’, and I had other content areas I was still responsible for, I quickly realized I could not do this alone and would need to establish a distributive leadership model within our building.  This team of literacy leaders quickly proved to not only be my lifeline in ensuring our new approaches to literacy, using the TC writers workshop model, could be well implemented, but also my favorite time in the week.

Teacher literacy leaders’ are smart. These teachers are at the front line.  They haven’t become diluted in their understanding of the demands placed on teachers today, and so they get it.  They know what needs to be done in the building, and more importantly know how it needs to get done.  Following the advice of these teachers, I know when to push, know when to pull, know when to advocate to the building administration, and know when to back right off!  Relying on their advice and really listening to what is happening in their teams has given me a deeper understanding of both practice and needs within the classrooms.

However, this role is not their ‘real job’ and so their time, their input, their support and their leadership needs to be carefully monitored and appreciated to avoid burn out and frustration.  Any school thinking of implementing this model should be very clear on the criteria for selection of these literacy leaders, as well as expectations and support for the role they will play.

I think we got super lucky with our fabulous group this first time around, but for schools heading this way its important to consider not only their professional abilities, but also their personal relationships and connections.  These leaders need to have the respect and trust of their colleagues and so that may mean that the best literacy teachers in your buildings are not always the best choice.  Trust and relationship building takes time, and this has to be the foundation for any coaching, literacy or otherwise.

Balance, particularly gender in the make up of this group could help.  We are all women, although that hasn’t actually held us back!  A final key factor in selecting this group is to be clear and transparent with groups’ purpose.  Other teachers may experience hurt feelings as they observe literacy leaders meeting, and by default, receiving more professional development around the area of workshop.  If you are intentional with communication and expectation, everyone in the building can come to understand that this is intentional, so these teacher leaders could in turn, support others.

So at our school it has become a cycle of support where I support the literacy leaders, the literacy leaders support the teachers and the teachers support the change.

We put in a plan where one literacy leader from each grade level (K – 5) is released from teaching for a 2-hour block per week.  In that time we come together to meet, to plan, to develop our own coaching and leadership skills, and most importantly to talk, share and celebrate.  Then these literacy leaders go back to their own teams and lead their literacy planning meetings and professional development.  At times we also have planned for team teaching as well as conducted our own lab-sites where we are observing one another’s teaching and conferring practices and providing feedback on these.  This practical professional development has helped make the most gains in transferring excellent workshop teaching strategies into more classrooms, pulling apart the architecture of a mini-lesson as well as trying out coaching moves such as freeze-framing and voicing over.


Zurich teaching

The conversation at these literacy leader meetings is intense.  It is high level, fast paced and can even get heated; teacher leaders are typically type ‘A’ individuals.  Whilst that is not a bad thing, it can mean for incredibly fast and furious paced work.  This is mostly because these teachers care and want to make a difference.  And this all works for us, because we have established a community of trust; the more these teachers talk, and share, the greater the opportunities they have to support one another, and me, as we try to implement change in our building.

Distributed leadership works, because it is teachers who care leading their colleagues.  Accountability is becoming high. Threat and insecurity is slowly becoming minimized and this is helping bring everyone on board.  Sure we have some bottom lines in our building, but for now, these are less important in this crucial initial year of implementation as everyone giving Writers Workshop a go.  Yes, we are approximating; our whole building is approximating – but we are moving forward and changing – and with the literacy leaders leading the way from within, this is working.