Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

12.03.12Writing Gap, Slow Play, Show Call (video)

One of the great things about Teach Like a Champion—to me—is how quickly what’s in the book gets improved on and added to by great teachers and educators.   There’s so much I’ve learned since writing the original that I can’t wait to add to a second edition someday.  If there were one aspect of classroom instruction I’d want to highlight as something we are obsessed with now, that I wish I’d obsessed on more in the book, it would be the importance of written work in the classroom—of developing systems to manage student writing and to hold students accountable for the quality of what they write during (and after) class. And, well, ensuring that they do a whole lot of writing.

So this and several upcoming posts are going to address some thoughts on writing in the classroom—how to do more of it, as learned from great teachers, etc.  I’ll start with a technique that we’ve added to our trainings called Show Call.  It is an adaptation of Cold Call that I first saw last spring and that has spread like wild fire. It would begin with a teacher assigning students a period of independent work, especially writing-intensive independent work—completing a response to literature or solving and explaining the solution to a word problem.  Maybe she gives her kiddos five minutes for that.  Maybe it’s the Do Now.  Or a longer period of independent work at the close of class.  Or a Stop and Jot in the midst of To Kill a Mockingbird. All of these are potentially high-value uses of classroom time-if students actually write during the allotted time—if they write well—if they push themselves, their vocabulary, their syntax, to capture the nuance of a complex idea.

If they don’t do these things, then class isn’t half so productive. And recently we had the devastating realization that our kids weren’t doing as much writing as we thought during writing time.  First we noticed that they sometimes appeared to be doing something we called the “slow play.”  During the first minute of independent writing time they would laboriously begin to repeat the question, writing the first half of their first sentence.  Then they would pause. Perhaps they’d go back and meticulously erase, scrubbing the original introductory clause clean. Then write it again, verbatim. Pausing to think. Adding a word.  Three minutes gone and not a sentence completed or an idea wrestled with.  Maybe they weren’t writing so much after all.

To test this we collected notes and packets from classrooms-from some very good classrooms, by the way, where teachers engaged students in lively discussions of literature, where students engaged energetically, appeared to write with vigor for sustain periods and then discussed their thoughts with insight.  Again these were classes that, from just watching, would have made you feel like success was near.  Truly, though, it was in many cases a mirage, as we knew when we looked at what kids were actually writing all that time- half sentences and stilted thoughts and error after error.

So our teachers began to develop tools to manage writing.  In a Show Call the teacher would wrap up the period of independent work by saying, “Let’s see how you did,” or something like that and take a paper (or two) right off of a student’s desk.  She’d put the work the student (or students) had done during the independent time up on the LCD projector (aka the ELMO).  They’d look at it, analyze it, point out its strengths, and improve its weaknesses.  You got Cold Called for your written work.  Pow! All of a sudden students were accountable for what they wrote as much as for what they said.   Game changing.  And it made editing and revising far more rigorous and real. And like Cold Call, it was, in the best teachers’ hands, surprisingly positive. Here, for example, is Paul Powell, the principal of Troy Prep using Show Call while teaching a math class.

Show Call


Enjoy. And watch this space for more on managing written work!

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