Every year, I meet lots of middle schoolers who struggle with writing. And every year, I play around with lots of different interventions to meet their needs. Last year, I made establishing sound writing interventions one of my big goals. I spent lots of time (and money!!) on resources that I could use, and by about March, I had something that I thought I was pretty happy with. This year, I started off with those interventions that worked so well last year and I couldn’t be happier with the results! In fact, I’m so pleased with how they are working, I feel confident enough to share my practice with my blog readers. I can say that these are definitely KID TESTED, TEACHER APPROVED!!
Creating a Time and Space for Intervention within your Classroom
I teach by myself. There are no aides, special ed teachers, BSI teachers… just little ol’ me! So, when I want to create and manage small groups, I’m on my own. This is hard. It would be so much easier if there was another adult in the room to help, but there is not, so I just have to deal! It’s work, but it absolutely can be done!
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the Power of Bell-Ringers. Establishing a quiet and smooth transition into writing class is a great way to get started, but it also provides me with a window of time where I can pull a small group!
By mid-October, my bell-ringer time gets extended to 15 minutes. The kids get started immediately and are clear on the expectations during this time. Now the environment for working with small groups is set: the room is quiet and engaged, allowing me to focus my time on the handful of kids in my group.
I pull my kids to a table that I have set up in front of our classroom library. I have a “teacher station” at one end where I do my instruction.
I usually stream some jazz or piano music during this time so my group doesn’t distract the rest of the class.
In my district, by middle school, there are no longer district-mandated interventions in place. There are no clear resources for teachers to use or personnel to help. So, when we have a struggling reader or writer in 7th or 8th grade, it’s the job of the classroom teacher to meet their needs.
In my tenure of working with middle schoolers, I’ve found that there are two types of students who need more support than my writing curriculum provides (and please remember… I am not a researcher/specialist/writer of books/etc. I’m just a teacher, like you, who loves my job, tries to do the best by my kids, and is compulsively reflective about what I see happening… to me, teachers are the best EXPERTS, but I know that we are hesitant these days to trust a “lowly” teacher and rather find ourselves relying on big publishers and educational researchers to show us best practices… I don’t have lots of “data” to support what I’m sharing with you… just my actual observations I’ve made while working with real, live kids in an average classroom setting!!).
Type One: Students Who Struggle with Structure
The first type of students who need intervention are those who struggle with structure. These are the kids that can’t organize their thoughts in a way a reader could follow. They simply write whatever their brain thinks at the time. They can generally stick with a broad topic, but because they are just writing whatever pops into their head at the time, there are lots of places where their writing veers off track and becomes confusing.
Here is an example written by a former student struggling with structure:
My dog Henry is my most special treasure. He is always there for me whenever I need him in sad times and happy. In many ways, he’s my best friend. He has brown fur and a white chest. He is such a good dog to have around when you are sad because he always knows just how to cheer you up. His eyes are brown, like a Hersey bar. His favorite toy is a yellow tennis ball. Once he almost got hit by a car chasing the ball down the street. I have loved him ever since he was a puppy and we first got him. I was only 4-years old when that little ball of fluff was brought home by my parents to be best friends. His soft fur is always so smooth and warm when you pet him while watching TV on a cold night. He is my best friend and that is why he is my special treasure [sic].
This student is clear about his topic — his dog, Henry — but he cannot organize his thoughts. He is thinking about his dog and writes down everything he knows about his buddy exactly as it comes to his mind. Clearly, he has mechanical and conventional skills, and you can see evidence of where he is practicing what we learned in our mini-lessons and from studying our mentor pieces. But, because there is no organization, it is too difficult to follow and all of the skills he has are lost to the untrained teacher eye.
Kids who write like this need an intervention that focuses on structure and organization. Typically, I LOATHE teaching step-by-step process writing, but in cases like this, I’m left with little choice. The lessons that I put together for kids in need of this intervention consist of learning how to write a well-organized paragraph. Together, we will work on writing topic sentences, creating strong and clear supporting sentences, and finish up with writing a closing that sticks with our reader.
My favorite plans for this type of writing come from Michael Friermood. His Fact-Based Opinion Writing products are geared toward teaching elementary students (grades 3-5) how to write a good opinion paragraph, and they are PERFECT for my struggling 7th graders. They also lack a lot of the “cutesy” images that you find with products for this age group, so my big kids don’t feel like I’m making them do “baby stuff.” (I do not use the stationery he provides for the final writing piece… it’s adorable, but it would be pushing in with my kids! So, we just do our paragraph writing in our intervention notebooks!)
My plan is to pull the intervention group for one week (at 15 minutes a pop, this comes to 1 1/4 hours of learning). Long before I ever pull a group, I work hard to make sure that my lesson is broken down into five succinct 15-minute increments. Since time is so precious, you need to make sure not one minute is wasted! I can say that it takes me much longer to plan for a small-group lesson than a 50-minute whole-class lesson because efficiency is so crucial. The first few times you plan a small-group lesson, don’t be surprised if your timing is mess. It definitely takes practice to be an effective small-group instructor!
After their week is up, then I send them back to completing the bell-ringer at the start of class. I will watch them closely and conference with them lots to make sure that I am seeing a transfer of skills. If I don’t, then it is likely that I will put them back in an intervention group in a few weeks to practice again.
This intervention model will continue all year. Right now, I have 8 intervention students in one writing class, and 6 in another. By the end of the year, those number should reduce to 3-4 and 2-3. Never, in all my years of working with small groups, have I had 100% of my intervention students “graduate” from small group. Don’t be frustrated if this is the case! If you can improve 50-60% of those kids, then consider that a huge success!!
Type Two: Students Who Struggle with Motivation
The next group of kids that I work with are those who struggle with motivation. These are the students who complain a lot about not having anything to write about, spend more time doodling or coloring in their notebook than writing, and who will write the absolute bare minimum for any writing assignment.
Many times, these kids produce too little for me to gauge whether or not they also need help with structure. But typically, once I can get them writing, they will likely find themselves in a small group for structure work 🙂
Come October, after we’ve spent lots of lots of time list writing, the kids who are still struggling to get their pencils moving find themselves using a very special Interactive Writer’s Notebook called “Musings from a Middle Schooler.“
This product contains loads of interactive writing pages that will motivate even the most reluctant writers. The pages can be printed out and glued into a marble notebook. (Most often, I’ll have the kids create their own… I don’t always have them use all the pages, rather I let them pick and choose the ones they like!).
|Table of Contents page|
|Table of Contents cont. and an “All About Me” page|
|“My Life Story in Two Pages”|
|My Favorite Thing|
I created this project just last school year and it’s been an absolute smash! The kids (especially my boys!) LOVE, LOVE, LOVE it! In absolutely no time, they are writing like crazy. And once I can get their pencils moving it doesn’t take me long to get them producing some actual pieces.
So, that’s how I make writing intervention work in my classroom. Phew!! That was long, folks!! I apologize for my wordiness and I am grateful if you stuck it out until the end! Also, I’m sure that I’ve left out some crucial details of my practice, so please do not hesitate to ask me any questions you still have!
Jenna Smith has been a teacher since she was old enough to sneak a pair of her mom’s high heels and play “school” with her rows of dolls and stuffed animals. For the last 11 years, she’s been teaching middle school in South Jersey, where she lives with her teacher-husband and four children. You can learn more about Jenna and her teaching approaches by visiting her blog Musings from the Middle School, following her on Facebook, or stopping by her TpT store (also named Musings from the Middle School.