Reflections, Directions, and Writing Workshop

I’m writing this prequel to my slice after I’ve finished because I realize that this snippet of my day may make it sound like I’m some kind of strict directions Nazi that lives to stifle children’s innate creativity.  I promise you I am not.  There are so many years when I don’t give an example or leave things vague so that my students have room to create.  If you come to my room you will see lots of creativity and personal zest.  But there are times when kids need to follow the directions and this year I am struggling to help my students see the importance of this lesson.  The following is a true story from the trenches of a very normal day.


4:30 am.  A freshly brewed steaming cup of coffee in hand.  I sit in the dark of my living room listening to the hum of the wine refrigerator (which is painfully empty right now) and click on my keys.  I’m wondering this morning.  Wondering and reflecting.

Yesterday I asked the students to do something simple for me.  At least I thought it was simple.  We are in the middle of a unit on argumentative writing and based on prior writing I noticed that most of my students were struggling to write a simple, clear, and straightforward claim statement.  Through my conferring and monitoring of my small Edmodo support groups I knew everyone in the class had decided on a position, had brainstormed their reasons, and was well into collecting evidence.  So I asked them to post their claim statement to our Edmodo Writer’s Workshop group.  Little did I know what strife this would cause me as a teacher.

Cut to writing workshop.  They smoosh in the door from technology class, a bit of excitement in the air.  Writing notebooks come out.  There is energy in the room, arguing is in the blood of every 5th grader.

“Log in to Edmodo and read the very important message I’ve left for you please,” I say.  I have written what I think are clear directions.  “Please post your claim statement with your three supporting reasons to our Writing Workshop group by the end of class today.  Remember to follow the format I believe ________ because [reason 1], [reason 2], and [reason 3].”  (This is from the Lucy Calkins unit that we are using and we are sticking as closely to it as we can for the first go round.)

This format idea is not new to them but I think to myself…..self, I bet some students are still unsure.  I pull our anchor chart about claim statements out and put it front and center.  I draw an arrow.  I let the students read the directions, and then I clarify.  They have a large Edmodo group and a small one so I repeat the directions and remind them to post in the large group and to please write in a complete sentence.  Just follow the format.

“Is everyone clear on what we need to do today, in addition to our work collecting evidence?”  Heads nod.  Cool.

I’ll be honest.  This is more attention to directions than I’ve been giving lately.  Because following them has been an issue for many of my students I’ve taken to just handing things back to them over and over and over and over as I repeat the phrase, “please follow the directions.”

So, my little writers get to work.  Earnest work.  Hard work.  Many already have their statement ready to go so they decide to post it first thing before they dig back in to their research.  I glance at the postings…uh oh.  Not what I asked for.

“Writers I need to catch you for a second.  When you post your claim statement you need to include both your claim and your reasons.  Not just one or the other.  And please write in a complete sentence, please follow the format I asked for.”  I feel a bit defeated.  I’m not trying to stifle their creativity or mold them into a Pink Floyd-esque school of misery.  I just want them to be able to write a clear, straightforward, simple sentence.  I give it a few minutes and then I check again.  uh…oh.

So my wheels turn.  Give them another example, I think.  I go to the board and write an example next to the anchor chart.

I believe that students should follow directions because it helps them be successful in school, teaches them to read carefully and closely, and prevents their teacher from going bananas.

A few students giggle as I finish writing so they all look.  I turn to see smiles around the room.  Ok, I’ve got their attention.  I whisper…Can you please make sure that you’ve written your claim statement just like this?

By the end of class almost everyone had it right.  Every student with an IEP had it right, every student with ADHD had it right.  But still…..still…there were a good handful who needed a personal invitation to the instructions.  When I checked with them they understood what I was asking for.  They just didn’t do it.  WHY!??!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?

(Please excuse that flagrant abuse of punctuation marks.)

After class I look at my student teacher Amy.  “Why?” I asked.  Why indeed and how to proceed.

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21 Responses to Reflections, Directions, and Writing Workshop

  1. Snow and mo-joe…right now. In other words, we have been in and out of school way too many times this year. It is leaving me fairly exhausted every day lately. It feels like I’m in a battle. Thanks for sharing. I’m glad you were able to get it out of every single child!

  2. elsie says:

    If only we had the answer to why! I don’t believe you are a strict Nazi type teacher because I’ve read far too many posts that prove otherwise. 😄

  3. rosecappelli says:

    So frustrating when that happens! Could it be they just hadn’t decided on a claim statement? Some students may want to write something that shocks or grabs attention and they might think their idea is too simple. Maybe giving them 5 minutes or so to just write “I believe” statements might spark an idea.

    • Katie says:

      It’s a good thought. I actually checked to make sure they had all of the claims and reasons ready to go before I made the request. It was the format that threw them. Keep on keeping on! Thanks for your suggestions!

  4. jarhartz says:

    Oh I am so glad I read your post. I’m right there with ya sista! Why indeed. We always focus on those few that didn’t not the many that did. First of all, sometimes we need to follow structure. You have my blessings on that one. Heck Lucy set the criteria. Second, you got those ever floating feather like learning disable students to hear you. Finally, everybody isn’t present every day and some just take more. There is probably a reason why. But for now you just keep persisting and they will get there too. Awesome job. On another note, I love how you have things posted on Edmodo.

  5. It’s not you, Katie. I blame it on the snow. It’s been a real disruption to everyone’s routines this year. I read this on the Responsive Classroom Blog,, this morning and thought it was pretty good. Figured I’d share it with you too.

    • Katie says:

      Great article Stacey, thanks for sharing. Some good things to think about. I wish it was only the snow with this class, but it’s been a work in progress for us all year. I will keep persisting until we all get it right!

  6. I hear you, and I don’t think asking students to follow directions is crushing their creativity in any way, especially when you’re trying to get them to practice a specific structure. I’m still a believer in mastering basic ‘rules’ or patterns first so we can then explore when/how to break them.

    • Katie says:

      Great point. Seems like the students I encounter these days have been taught to break the rules without ever learning them. Something to consider when planning and teaching.

  7. Kate Schwarz says:

    I’m not a teacher–“just” a parent. And thank goodness there are teachers like you willing to keep expectations at a nice, high (or just reasonable?!) level. That you aren’t going to allow your young writers to just do what they want, rather than follow the directions. It’s as if you’re teaching them to be future artists (which I hope they will all be, in some little or big way): Learn the rules. Then you can break them. Thanks for taking the time to teach them the rules.

    • Katie says:

      Never “just” Kate! But yes this theme of learn the rules then learn how to break them is a strong thread in writing in the intermediate grades. Maybe all grades. Show me you know them and then by all means break them in the name of good writing!

  8. We are in the same unit and having the same struggles and no snow days, so that is not the challenge. My grin kept spreading as I read your slice. I LOVE your claim. You have my gears turning as to what might show up on my board next. I’m gonna blame the hormones as their body chemistry changes.

    • Katie says:

      That’s so interesting Kristi! I wonder what it is that is so challenging about it? I often wonder if I give my kids so much creative freedom that follow strict guidelines becomes a huge challenge.

  9. Tara Smith says:

    Welcome back , Katie! We are having the same conversations in our classrooms…ugh..and smile..and pass the wine…

    • Katie says:

      Thanks friend! I didn’t meet my goal to do it last week. By I’m determined to give this blog the love it deserves and that include slicing every week.

  10. Kim K says:

    I laughed out loud at your writing- in the best way a reader can. Your unique phrasing and honest voice shine through like nobody’s business. This is such a perfect moment from so many classrooms. I totally get it. If I could answer the why for you I most certainly would. Alas I can often be found roaming the halls muttering it to myself. :-)

  11. Tara says:

    Well, it’s good to know I’m not alone in this! Sometimes in life, you do need to follow directions. Sometimes in life, you do NOT want to drive your teacher crazy.

    One day I’ll get them all to follow directions when it’s one of those times that it matters. :)

  12. I guess that is why that old “bell curve” was “invented”…there will always be someone who does really well and someone who well….doesn’t do!

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