You have to see it to believe it. (Or learn it.)

When I was a kid taking math, I had a bad teacher. It wasn't just that she hated children (she did), or that her lessons were written in pencil on crumbling yellow paper (they were). It was more that whenever I was confused about a math concept (read: everyday), she would stand before me and repeat the steps over and over again as if loud repetition would do the trick. "Volume! You just do blah and blah and then you get the Volume!"

The thing is, even though I consider myself a decent teacher, I fall into the same trap in writing every day. I see a kid struggling to elaborate on their evidence in an essay, and I kneel beside them and say "Say More! You just do blah and blah and then you Say More!"

It really helps to see things happen in front of us in order to learn (esp. if we are struggling with something). Certainly we can learn without demonstration, but it is way more efficient if we get to watch someone have a go at a tricky skill first. Brian Cambourne, in his decades long research on what helps people to learn efficiently and effectively, found that demonstration was one integral move in helping learning "stick."

(For a really clear view of Cambourne's Conditions of Learning, here is a great link from Heinemann:

When we talk about differentiation, when we talk about scaffolds, we are not simply talking about grouping kids and giving them different jobs to do. We need different tools to help young writers to take steps forward, not just stay where they are. We need to make things visible. (Check out John Hattie's Visible Learning for more.)

We have been using sketchbooks. And sharpies. And Post its. Making pages where we can help students see and practice the strategies that will help them in real time, and in full color.

Here's how it works:

Step One: Name the really predictable problems you know your students will face in their writing. Maybe you look at their writing to figure this out. Maybe you ask your colleagues. Maybe you already know because kids struggle with the same darn things every year.

Step Two: Write like that. It is so important that kids get to see writing like their own get better, not just great writing that they are not sure how to emulate. Practice writing like your kids, so that you can show them how to improve. (It is a little scary how good I have gotten at writing like a sixth grader.)

Step Three: Name the strategy(ies) that will help.  If you are not sure, ask people, research, find out. Whenever I don't know the thing that will help my kids, I feel all anxious and gross inside until I find out some possibilities. Oh, and most importantly - WRITE THE STRATEGY IN DIFFERENT COLORS, possibly with graphic novel fonts and features. I can't say enough how much this matters, though I cannot exactly say why.

Step Four: Create space for repeated practice. I use Post-its, cut up half pages taped to the book, and index cards. The important thing is that you can write in front of your kids, or give them something to write on, or hand them a note with instructions.

Step Five: Teach! Maybe you will demonstrate in front of your small group how you make your writing better using the multi-color strategy. Maybe they will talk it out and you will write down what they say. Maybe they will write it out and share what they think. You can't really make a mistake; just play around with how your small groups go best!

Take this page on playing with our syntax using different punctuation:

The teacher I was working with pre-assessed her kids (by walking around the room and looking over their shoulders) and gathered some kids who seemed to be in "syntactic shackles" - they could only write in simple sentences, afraid to make a mistake. We gathered them together after the lesson while the class worked. I gave a quick blurb about commas, and then I demonstrated how I could grow one sentence of my piece in a bunch of different ways by using those strategies. Then the kids tried the next sentence on their own. And then I gave them a little post it to mark one sentence in their writing that they thought they could grow, and they jotted the strategy they would use to do it.


Dive in. Try it out. Pick two things that are driving you nuts in your kids writing and make a page. Use sharpies.

And have fun.

(Big idea: Differentiation. Tiny Detail: Making strategies visible.)

- Kate and Maggie