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07.29.14TLaC 2.0 Excerpt: On Building Stamina

stamnia2Our Grab And Go resource is about handy phrases you can use to build stamina in student writing. I hope it will be useful in helping teachers do what I think is one of the the most rigorous things they can do in the class room–ask students to write more.

Posting materials on Building Stamina made me realize it might be useful for folks to have some context, so here’s an excerpt from Teach Like a Champion 2.0, in which technique number 40 is called Build Stamina–it’s part of a full chapter on increasing rigor and ratio through writing.

Building Stamina

When students write answers to your questions, one of the big benefits is that everyone answers the question, and answers it with a significant degree of depth and rigor. When you say, “Take six minutes to explain what the Constitution’s Establishment Clause was and why the framers included it in the First Amendment,” every one of your students is answering your question and thinking about it for six sustained minutes, pencils scratching industriously away.

At least it’s supposed to work that way. The benefits depend on student stamina, a term I use as a proxy for students’ ability to start writing when you say “Go,” sustain their writing throughout the allotted time, and write with intentionality and diligence all the way through to the end. If students come to make a habit of spending much of their “writing” time staring at their paper or starting to write only to erase, brush off the paper, erase and brush again, and so on, then the benefit is lost. The goal is to Build Stamina—to develop in your students the habit of writing productively, and the ability to do it for sustained periods of time.

Lauren Latto was at work Building Stamina in a recent lesson in her ELA classroom in Brooklyn, increasing her students’ capacity to write reflectively for sustained periods, even though they were already able to write steadily and without much interruption for eight full minutes during the lesson in question. The focus was on the finale to Romeo and Juliet, and before they began writing, Lauren called on students to read the three different prompts they could choose from. Although it’s also important for students to be able to write about one specific topic (it often makes for a better discussion if they have!), choice can be positive as well, especially when the goal is to motivate all students to write and to sustain their energy while you are teaching them to write for increasing durations. In Lauren’s prompts there was something to interest everyone, though a student who’d written himself or herself out on one prompt could always go on to another. There was no excuse for sitting idly.

As she set her students to writing, Lauren headed off potential excuses that might be used to stop writing: she asked students, in advance, to recall what they should do if they felt as though they’d finished or were stuck. By doing so, Lauren ensured that students understood the expectation that they would write “wire to wire”—from when she said go until she said stop, with pencils always moving—the full eight minutes. Four minutes into the writing, Lauren spotted a student who was no longer writing, and used a minimally invasive positive group correction (“All pens should still be moving”). To help students manage their time, she then let students know they had four minutes left. She also circulated steadily to gently remind students to keep writing, usually with just her tacit reinforcement—a light touch on a desk, a slowing of her gait as she passed–and no words. In some cases, she glanced over students’ shoulders and read briefly—nodding, perhaps, to show that the product of their labors was important to her. Finally, the beeper sounded with her students still hard at the task.

Lauren signaled for students to stop. She noted that they’d run out of time and would have to hold their discussion until another day. But before she introduced the homework, she mentioned how excited she was to read what they wrote—a double whammy that both established her appreciation and added a layer of accountability by making it explicit that she would be reading their work.

A subtle but critical point might be easy to miss in this moment. Typically, when we run out of time in our classrooms, we drop what comes last—the independent work. It’s worth reflecting on this. We run out of time a lot. Ask yourself: When was the last time everything went exactly as you planned and you had just as much time as you anticipated in the waning moments of your lesson? Sometimes the last chunk ends up shorter than we anticipated; sometimes it gets cut off entirely. And that squeezed or preempted chunk is almost always where we plan the writing; compounded over the course of a year, this lost writing time is hugely important. One great response to this problem is to intersperse writing prompts, especially shorter ones, steadily throughout your classes so it’s not all predicated on a bet that the timings will work out.  However, there will always be a bit of a tendency, for utterly logical and sound reasons, to put a chunk of writing at or near the end of class, so it’s worthwhile to note Lauren’s decision: short of time, she decided to skip the discussion and do the writing instead, rather than vice versa. If something is going to get squeezed out of a lesson, she decided, it was not going to be the time for students to write.

So how do you make your students able to write steadily for eight solid minutes, as Lauren’s do? Here are some thoughts on implementing Build Stamina.

Practice Success

Chances are, your students will struggle to write wire to wire if you ask eight nonstop minutes of them the first time around. Build up their stamina for writing just as you would build stamina for running or swimming: start small and scale up. Ask for a minute the first time. Then a minute-and-a-half. Then two. Try to take the long view. The most important thing is to have students practice being successful at writing steadily through a block of time when asked to, not only because seeing themselves succeed convinces students that they can, but because it makes a habit of writing steadily through the time allotted whenever asked. The idea is that when you say go, they write straight through because they can’t imagine anything else!

Pencils Moving

Start with the expectation that the student’s pencil should be moving the whole time. This is useful because it’s visible and therefore clear and easy to manage on your end. You can eliminate one significant distraction by outlawing erasers during stamina writes. Erasing is easier than writing: it doesn’t require students to create or develop any ideas, but it can certainly be done to a high standard. Students can appear to be actively engaged in writing when in fact they are exactingly, laboriously, tediously erasing every last bit of graphite from their page before going on. Whoops, out of time! Or perhaps some students try the “slow play”: Write the opening of the first sentence repeating the question. Add a word. Nope, erase. Add again. Look inquisitive. Nope, erase. Time’s up!

By the way, one very fair objection to Build Stamina and Pencils Moving in particular is that when writers who are fully developed and accomplished put pen to paper, they stop regularly to think and reflect. I agree with this point, and recognizing it helps clarify the purpose of Build Stamina and the application of Pencils Moving. The purpose of the technique is to develop students’ ability to write steadily and productively for significant stretches, but this does not imply that you need not be working on that goal or enforcing the pencils moving rule every time students write. I want to do enough of it to show my students that they can write for ten minutes without stopping and build their capacity to, sometimes even at the expense of maximum reflectiveness, so long as I also invested in writing when I was concerned with slow intentionality as much as stamina. So, for example, I’d hope to see an Art of the Sentence prompt in just about every lesson and a stamina-based prompt every couple of days, perhaps, possibly more often at the outset of the year when you are training students to sustain their writing. Once you’ve established your student’s stamina, you can always modulate your expectations or remove the explicit stamina-building exercises until you need them again. As with so many other classroom systems, just because you can doesn’t mean you must.

Prime the Pump

Another way to make sure students hit the ground running is to make sure they have some decent ideas to work from, making it all but impossible to fall back on “I can’t think of anything.” Before you say go, say something like “Okay, guys, let’s hear three things you might write about” and ask students to do a lightning-quick brainstorm. Then, very quickly, say “Now that you’ve got some ideas, you may begin. Go.”

Valorize Student Writing

Motivate students to want to write by using Precise Praise for specific elements of their writing that you want to see other students replicate. Or even more powerfully read writing aloud.  I still remember the day when, as a seventh grader, a teacher read my journal entry to the class in a slow and reflective cadence.  He didn’t say a thing afterwards. The way he read it—lingering over words; nodding at a certain sentence–spoke volumes about what he thought about it.  Writing is meant to be read and in publicly putting student work to its purpose you stress its value. You can do this by reading student work your self—little pieces off it or whole compositions; informal work or polished; for the quality of the final product or of the edits that made it better; for word choice or sentence structure or imagery. You can read it orally or use Show Call (technique #39). And of course you can ask other students to read their own work aloud- or another a student’s.  In so doing you make students want to write by making writing seem like the most valuable thing on earth.

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