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Teaching Writing In Progressions

What is the best advice you ever got?

My daughter asked me this question last week, and I’m still thinking about it. At the time, I was surprised at how long it took me to decide how to answer her, but in hindsight, the stakes were pretty high! After all, she was listening with such intent; I didn’t want to blow it. I needed to be swift and smart.

You’ll be happy to learn I rose to the occasion–another feather in the parenting cap, if I do say so myself! In the heat of the moment, I reverted back to advice my own parents had given me. I sifted through all the wise tidbits, sorted the practical from the profound. I landed on the advice of my dear ‘ol dad: “Take it one step at a time.”

I love this advice because honestly, it can easily be applied to just about anything. It is especially meaningful to those of us that rely heavily on checklists and like to see our steps toward achievement, no matter what the final goal might be. Taking it one step at a time has been so ingrained in me, it tends to comes out in everything I do–even my teaching.

I heed this advice every time I plan a unit using a teaching progression. I break down what I want to teach over the course of a unit into small, progressive steps, then move through the steps until I see the growth and achievement demonstrated by all of my students. I love planning this way. Progressions help me focus on one skill in isolation, categorize and prioritize the needs of my students, and visually reflect on the effectiveness of the unit.

Progressions can also become tools for students. This idea was new to me when I heard Kate Roberts speak about it last year. In her book, DIY Literacy, she talks about the use of micro-progressions as a reflection tool. As a small group aid, progressions help kids see how small shifts in their thinking can “level-up” in their understanding and work products.

After hearing Kate Roberts speak, my teaching partner and I put it to immediate use. We wrote a few progressions together, and when we got used to the idea, we started writing progressions specific to the needs of our writing classes. I started using progressions in small groups to help students reflect. Then I started using them with individual students to guide their plans for revision. And now, I have graduated to using progressions as a whole group to help us create. Writing progressions are the basis of my weekly independent writing workshop.

Some day, I might fancy this up, but for now this is my latest writing progression:

Using a micro-progression that showcases the depth and complexity of one writing skill at a time, students choose from where on the progression they want to work during their independent writing workshop. During practice time, students have adequate space within the progression to test drive their independent writing skills; the progression becomes an on-demand differentiation tool. With one tool, students can slide back and forth freely between progression levels and try a variety of skills in a writing piece of their choosing.

How I Use Progressions In Conferencing

This tool has helped both the students and me keep focused during writing conferences. I keep the weekly progression by my side as I plan and teach small groups. I can initiate small groups, differentiating writing instruction by teaching through a lens of progressions. Or, I can allow students to take the lead. 1-1 conferences go much smoother now that students come with the language of the progression to ask their questions or seek support.

How I Use Progressions For Revision

Students using a progression have a clear direction on how they can revise more independently. During reflection time, it becomes easier for them to see their efforts and decide where to focus next because they have the progression to inspire them.

I Finally Understand What Ownership of Learning Looks Like

A progression organically leads students to self-assess and take ownership of their writing growth. It gives them a visual cue to where they currently stand on the progression, and prompts them to take ownership of where on the progression they want to be next. They can see– one step at a time— what it will take to make their writing better.

In my experience, students are more driven when they can see where they have been, where they are now and where they are headed. They also love to tell me when they’re “off the chart”. They like to see me sweat it out as I come up with a new addition to the progression because someone’s writing was so good it exceeded what I thought anyone could do.  

Writing progressions have really helped me streamline my focus during writing workshop, and the kids like the simplicity. No matter where they start working on the progression, they feel successful at the end because it is simple to see how much they improved as a result of practice and–perhaps more important for growing reflective writers–HOW they achieved that success.

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