Balance in the ELA Classroom: Reading the Room

My inspiration for seeking balance this year. On the left, my plant in June. On the right, August.

My husband is fond of using the phrase “Read the room” with our children. 

Have you seen your mother’s face? Now isn’t the time to whine. Read the room.

Did you notice the dishes in the sink, laundry piled on the couch, and overflowing garbage can when you asked if you could go to your buddy’s house? Read the room.

It’s become a running joke, but I think he’s teaching them a great skill. They’re learning to recognize what other people in their orbit need and how they can be responsive to those needs. Trust me–they’re not there yet–but as they work on it at home, I’m working on it in my classroom this year.  As I think about balance this year and creating conditions where my students (and I) can thrive all year long, I think reading the room and responding to everyone’s needs must be a part of that balance.

How can I better read my writers? How can I be responsive to their needs on a daily basis? How can I read myself and our classroom community so that we all stay healthy and functioning? 

Here are some recent reads I made in my room and how I responded. 

Read #1: Hesitant Writers

Some of my students were hesitant to tackle a revision assignment I’d given them without step by step instructions on what to fix. We had conferenced extensively about their drafts, and now I was asking them to do some revisions.

Many got right to work, but others were paralyzed. They were not confident enough to strike out on their own despite the fact that we had had individual conferences, we had looked at countless mentor texts, and we had practiced all kinds of writing strategies. Without a to-do list of teacher-approved “corrections”, they were stuck.

I know in past years I’ve been frustrated by their hesitation and just hoped they’d eventually be swept along. This is AP, after all. The nervous ones will calm down, right

My response: Add in extra, targeted support

Maybe. Or maybe I needed to add in some extra support to make this less scary. I didn’t want to swoop in and just tell them exactly how to revise, but I could provide a little on-ramp to the assignment.

In this situation, it was as easy as showing them my conference notes. I take notes during conferences to help me remember what each student is working on. Showing them the notes I had taken reminded them what we had already talked about. It was the confidence booster they needed to get started. 

Other supports could be strategically pairing the student with one who has already begun and asking that student to share one-on-one, or helping the student break the task into smaller chunks by marking one paragraph to begin revising. 

The key is reading those hesitant writers and finding a specific way to help each student break through. If we truly want our rooms to be thriving writing communities, we have to recognize and accept that it will simply take some writers longer than others to feel confident. 

Read #2: Procrastinating Writers

The day before our first major research essays were due in AP Seminar, some panicked students showed up during Academic Advisory (a period for extra help). As unbelievable as it may sound, some were asking for feedback for the very first time! Procrastinate? High school students? I know. I was shocked, too. 

Though it was tempting to turn my sarcasm on them full blast, I pushed myself to read that moment a little more carefully. To be sure, they need some help with time management and that is definitely something we will work on together. But in that moment, what did those writers need to be as successful as possible? 

My response: Focus on one thing.

The essay was due the next day, they’d had plenty of support along the way, and part of the AP Seminar class is learning time management.  I couldn’t just push back the due date. Still, I could help lessen their stress in the moment and help them strategize a way to make this the best it could be in the time they had left. 

Now is not the time for a mini lesson on comma splices and citation and argument structure and academic diction. Instead, they needed some triage. What is the ONE thing that will make the biggest impact? 

For one student, I pointed out where he was missing research. Another had lots of good pieces but needed to reorganize. In each case, there was certainly more I could have suggested, but that would have overwhelmed an already overwhelmed kid. Do this one thing, finish the task, and then we can talk about how to avoid this happening again. 

Students who have procrastinated themselves into a corner need us to offer a path out of that corner or they might just give up all together. Giving specific, manageable feedback can be that path.

Read #3: An Overwhelmed Teacher

We’ve all had the stacks I had last week: 50 research papers, 60 rhetorical analysis essays, and 60 narratives. I’m sure that’s nothing compared to some of the stacks some of you are currently avoiding by reading this blog post. I planned poorly and overestimated how quickly I could grade things. Though it is tempting to wallow in the “woe is me/what have I DONE by assigning all this writing??!” that’s not necessarily helpful in the moment. If I’m truly committed to finding the balance for myself that I want for my students, I need to apply the same thinking I would to my students. 

My response: Treat myself like I’d treat my students.

If my hesitant students need on-ramps to make scary tasks less daunting, maybe I do, too. 

Clear rubrics can be that on-ramp. New rubrics from The College Board in AP Lang this year have forced me to spend lots of time up front figuring out how my students will be assessed. The benefit to that time is that I have (I think) a firm grasp on what I’m looking for. I’ve leveled samples with my colleagues and we even have these sweet grading stamps.  When I know what I’m looking for, grading goes a lot faster. 

But there is still so much and I just want to pretend it’s not there!!  I’ve been known to take my stacks for rides in my car every night. “Let’s go visit my house, guys! You’re not getting out of the bag, but you can come in, I guess!”

If my response to my procrastinating writers was to focus on one thing, this is probably something I could do for myself, too. This year, when faced with those giant piles of essays, I hid them. No joke. Out of sight, out of mind. I figured out how many papers were reasonable each day (10 seemed acceptable).  I counted out ten, put those in my bag, and stuffed the rest in my filing cabinet. Shockingly, I got ten graded that first day. Then I did ten the next. Then ten more. You know what I didn’t do? Avoid them all week and then chain myself to my kitchen table all day Saturday. A week in and I’m done with the research papers and cruising through the rhetorical analysis essays. 

There’s no easy answer to any of these questions of balance. Our jobs are demanding. Growing writers is not easy. But I think if we slow down and read what’s happening right in front of us, when we respond to the daily needs of our writers and ourselves, we have a lot better chance of staying healthy and happy. 


How do you read your writers? What do you do to adjust to their needs? What about your own? Let me know in the comments below or connect with me on Twitter @TeacherHattie or on the Moving Writers Facebook page.



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