Purposeful instruction matters

As an instructional coach, I have the privilege of visiting classrooms all over districts and schools – every content, grade, socioeconomic background, etc. And here’s what I find: We don’t instill the value of education and thinking; we assign it. Answering the questions in the back of the book, taking notes on a lecture (or just staring at your teacher and zoning out), and filling out a graphic organizer don’t help students to see the power and value of thinking  and its correlation to writing. It makes writing seem like a chore – a means to an end. They copy and paste information from the teacher or book onto a page without much thought of the words they are choosing. They are rarely asked to do something with these words beyond memorize them. Teachers are so content driven come middle school and thereafter that they lose focus of what made them love the subject they are teaching in the first place, and thus take the love out of it for their kids as well.

What if we were to take the time to delve into the greater purpose for the learning?

We study Ancient Greece because their government has drastically influenced ours. However, Ancient Greece fell. Why? How might we be able to prevent succumbing to their pitfalls?

We study scientific theories, like motion. How can studying this help us improve at something we are passionate about? Or better understand the world around us? Affect our choices?

We study novels for their themes. Why not look at how this can better help us understand the world around us? Or ourselves? Or make choices in life?

What good is knowing something but not being able to do anything with that knowledge? 

If kids are being asked to use their knowledge and produce something purposeful and meaningful, they now will not only better understand the knowledge, but it will also become transferable. And when we write, and really think about what we are writing, we are more likely to commit something to heart. Understanding is “doing”, which is far more than just knowing.

For example, I know how to measure. You take a ruler and count how many notches long or wide the object is. However, I literally cannot measure correctly! In school I was asked to measure objects that were on worksheets. However, in real life, OBJECTS MOVE or are longer than the ruler, or sometimes come between the notches, or you have to then convert the measurement…or, or, or…!!! So, yes, I know “how” to measure, but I LITERALLY CAN NOT!! (Sorry, husband…)

Look familiar??

Image result for worksheets with rulers

We have to get our kids to go past knowing and get to DOING. And sorry to break it to you, but answering questions where there is one right answer is NOT doing!

But, this is old news! Middle school teachers have been lectured on “the need for kids to write across the content” or “we are all literacy teachers” or “raise your DOK” eight million times! So why is this problem still so prevalent? Maybe it’s because of the old myth that “When your kids are silently working, an angel gets its wings“? Or, “If you cover all of the content in your text book, all dogs go to heaven“? (Great movie, btw! I mean, depressing as all get out, but real movie magic.)

So the million dollar question is: How do we get change to occur?!

First of all, we need to realize the repercussions of us teaching the way we currently are. Think about recent events on social media platforms like, say, oh…Twitter?! I mean, not being specific or anything, just saying that maybe the news has been following someone who uses their Twitter account to bully others? But that could be anybody, really. But regardless of which incident (of many!!) I am referring to, Twitter rants and Facebook bullying are kind of rampant these days. Why might that be? Well, at what point in their educational career were these people taught the power of their words? Or taught to understand the world around them? To challenge their perspective? Or understand the consequences of their actions by seeing themselves in others? Probably never. They “read” MacBeth in school, and took the test. They “studied” the rise and fall of the Roman empire, and took the test. They wrote that “really profound” essay explaining what the scientific process is. But do they understand any of this? Clearly not. And they don’t respect them either.

I am not saying that having purposeful learning will solve the world’s problems. That would be a lie – OR the easiest in for the Nobel Peace Prize ever! But perhaps it could help curtail some of these issues in the future. And, knowing how middle schoolers work, it will probably help create buy-in for learning as well, because the learning will be purposeful beyond a test.

So what about the time factor? Let’s be honest, doing takes more time than memorizing. And I could argue all day long that the investment is worth it, but that will win over like .01% of you (if anyone actually even reads this…). Yes, time will be an issue. It’s a matter of prioritizing what your kids need to know and determining how to best get them there.

Example: You may loooove discussing all of the nitty gritty details about some scientist and his/her (yes, her!) work on [fill in the blank], but will all of these details help your kids understand the theory? So you may have to pair down this learning. Focus your roadmap of instruction.

Another time saver that a lot of teachers take for granted is wasted time repeating information. Teachers regularly assign reading, then their kids come in the next day and the teacher lectures on the reading, reiterating every single detail that was already supposed to have been read. There goes an entire day of instruction that could have been used for DOING instead of KNOWING! Yes, it is our job to curtail misconceptions, but couldn’t you use a bellringer to determine if there were any misconceptions in the first place? Or circulate during the lab to determine which groups may need some remediation before they continue? Or allow kids to discuss parts they were confused about and try to come up with a greater understanding?

In my classroom, I made this mistake numerous times early in my career when I was trying to imitate the “greats” of my past – or at least do what I thought I was supposed to do so I didn’t get fired.

Some of my top moments included:

  • having my kids spend a week drawing pictures to recount a chapter of a story, comic book style (Bye bye, instructional time!);
  • giving my kids a laundry list of questions of basic recall level about their novel due on such-and-such unreasonable a date for a test grade (What was I really testing here?!);
  • and, my personal favorite, throwing in random activities because they seemed “cool” – like the time we built imaginary temples for gods and goddesses during our mythology unit. (WHY?!)

We are all victims of our preconceived notions about what teaching should be, but it’s time to become what teaching can be. We need to trust our students enough to allow them to think for themselves as opposed to us being the keepers of the knowledge. Dude, did you forget about Google?!

Using purposeful instruction, mapping ourselves towards our standards and goals, and having our kids DO something with their knowledge will change these results. And hopefully our kids will be able to think before they speak (in person or virtually) because they will see the world and others just a little bit differently and better understand the power they have over their thinking.


** On a side note, if you have never heard of UbD (Understanding by Design) or PBL (Project Based Learning), these may be places to start. They have planning resources, sample units, etc. that can help you to see a different way of thinking about your units of instruction. If nothing else, I highly recommend thinking about the following:

  1. What is my content?
  2. Why am I teaching it? (NOT just because it’s in the book/stds.)
  3. What do I want my kids to be able to do/know at the end of the unit? How will they demonstrate this understanding? (Knowing your end task and rubric help focus and narrow your instructional path)
  4. What background knowledge/skills are required of my kids to access this?
  5. What knowledge/skills will they need to acquire along the way?
  6. What roadblocks might my students encounter? How can I prevent these? What resources do I have when we come upon them?

“There is nothing I enjoy more than having someone read my writing.” – Said nobody ever!

Even as I sit here typing, I am silently hoping no one will read this! There is literally nothing scarier than putting yourself out there, in black and white, for others to read, think about, and …judge!

This reminded me of a quote:

Image result for comparing ourselves with others' highlight reel

This dude is on point! No truer words have ever been spoken! (Don’t quote me on that…)

Having coached many teachers on teaching writing, the number one roadblock I hear from teachers is, “I’m not a good writer.” But since they all hold college degrees, I am assuming they wrote well enough to pass their courses. What they actually mean is, “I am not as good as [fill in the blank].” This could be a peer (past or present), an author, a role model, or a mentor. Whoever or whatever they are comparing themselves with, however, is an unfair comparison. But I believe it stems from how we used to teach. We didn’t “used to” teach skills. Things were either right or wrong. Good or bad. There was no grey area. And teachers didn’t offer constructive feedback. It was either a bleeding carcass of what we originally constructed or had a big fat A+ on top of it with “Great job!” scribbled in cursive nearby. What was good? What specifically was the source of the errors? No one cared, so we never improved as writers. And thus we began to think of ourselves in one of two camps: as either good or bad writers – based on arbitrary standards set forth by some teacher’s aesthetics of writing.

Eventually rubrics became all the rage. But we received our papers back so far removed from when we wrote them, that the scores were literally meaningless. ‘Oh, I got an A! On a paper I wrote about something two novels ago?! Cool! I wrote that at 10 o’clock at night! “O’Doyle Rules!”‘

And when good writing was “modeled” to us by our English teachers, it was from a pre-scripted sentence or paragraph that the teacher used for each class probably from the grammar book’s blackline masters. And if it had a typo, you had better keep your ever loving mouth shut and just assume that you were wrong and stupid and bad for noticing!

So we as teachers have never seen our models actually model the vulnerability necessary to be a writer – good or bad! So how can we expect our students to improve as writers if we aren’t willing to show them the struggle? Writing is hard. Sometimes it’s hard to get our ideas on paper. Sometimes the struggle stems from finding that just right word. Regardless, no one ever said writing was easy! (Or at least that’s my assumption.) Because it shouldn’t be easy! If it was, then everyone would be doing it. J.K. Rowling would literally be meaningless because we would all be able to whip out novels with ease.

So how do we shift this paradigm? Well, first we need to start by allowing our insecurities to be visible as opposed to only demonstrating our “highlight reels”. Middle schoolers are super vulnerable and uncertain. According to a 2005 study by Yurgeln-Todd, published in Developmental Neuroscience (Vol. 16, No. 15, pages 1,671-1,675), while studying the amygdala (the fancy word for the part of the brain that deals with emotions like fear), she found that “A lot of teenage behavior is about avoiding this anxiety of feeling left out and not being a part of things.”* Meaning that teenagers are going to make decisions that allow them to feel part of the group. So if our classroom environments are ones where students can take safe academic risks, then our students are going to be “part of things” if they allow themselves to be open to the writing process. However, if we shut down errors and only model perfection, our kids will not buy in to the process and lose confidence in themselves, just like we have over the years for the exact same reasons!

So where do we start? Here are some suggestions, but pick the one(s) that fit most naturally into your personality:

  1. Create a safe classroom environment: What does that sound like? Look like? Setting norms at the beginning of the year, and having kids help to establish those norms often helps. In my class, kids couldn’t even say, “Shut up!” to one another. And I am talking thug life kids weren’t allowed to. And we praised resilience and bravery. I used the “no opt out” method and lots of cooperative structures so kids knew that their thinking was always required and that it mattered. Having a safe classroom also stems from clearly communicating your expectations for learning (and not just watering them down). Hold kids to a high yet attainable standard. State this expectation from the beginning. Then show them the path to get there.
  2. Have protocols in place for noticing and noting: When you make an error, what are kids allowed to do? When you do something they like, what are kids allowed to do? What about when your kids make an error in front of each other? Or when they do something that impresses a peer? You can offer time for students to take two-column notes and then round table feedback and come to consensus for open discussion time. You can use the praise and polish format. You can have kids ONLY look for the positives or improvements based on the specific thing that you guys are working on (e.g. active verbs, descriptive language, relevant quotes, etc.), as opposed to having feedback come from all over the place.
  3. Put YOURSELF out there: Be willing to write with your kids. Allow for their input on word choice. Allow them to see you struggle to come up with the “best” word or even see you revise an error while you write or proofread. If kids see you as a writer, then when they go to you to discuss their writing or receive feedback of any kind, they know it’s not just coming from “their teacher: the keeper of all the knowledge.” It allows for a more genuine conversation.
  4. Conference with your kids WHILE they write: There are TONS of structures for conferencing while writing. It could be during writing workshop and freewrite time, it could be during portfolio conferences, it could be during the writing of their summative pieces. Regardless of the format you choose – DO IT! Kids need IMMEDIATE and SPECIFIC feedback WHILE they write to ensure that they don’t keep duplicating errors and continue to intentionally make the “good” choices they have already made, maybe even subconsciously. This is not make their papers bleed time. This is feedback based on clear goals for that writing time and/or piece of writing. Reinforce the good. Support room for growth. Period. And always ask questions to help kids think about their intentions. Not just questioning the “bad”, but also allowing them to think about the “good” choices they’ve made.
  5. Make writing about playing with language: Writing should be exciting! How can I make my piece sound different from yours? We don’t want all of our kids to write the same. Poe and King both have similar tones to their writing, but in hugely  different ways. Really, Poe is more like Tim Burton on a page. Challenge your kids to be adventurous and play with their words, their syntax, their everything! Don’t just teach grammar rules: Uncover ways for students to know enough about the English language to be able to utilize and break those rules in order to develop their own unique voice and style.
  6. Stop thinking YOU can’t write well, but expecting your kids to: You have your own unique voice that you are still honing, and, with the help of your community of writers, you too can improve your craft and confidence alongside them.


* http://www.apa.org/monitor/apr07/teenage.aspx




“Bless your heart! I don’t know how you deal with …teeeeenaaaagers!” with the look of someone who acts like they found out I am a dumpster diver for a living. Well, lady/sir/child/random stranger in line at the grocery store, you don’t have to! (Note to self: Avoid making this actual statement and say something along the lines of how teeeeenaaaagers are eloquent enough to have meaningful conversations with, yet youthful enough to have fun with.) (Also avoid making any comments about their judgy wudgy faces)

Let’s be honest, middle schoolers are walking sticks of smelly, confused, emotional dynamite. But as Rachel explains in the story Eleven by Sandra Cisneros, “What they don’t understand about [middle schoolers] and what they never tell you is that when you’re eleven, you’re also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one.” As we all are. Don’t we all have those moments when we want to burst out crying or scream across the room because someone was straight up mean to us? Don’t we all want to believe and have hope for our futures? Don’t we all feel confused? Don’t we all want to take risks? And don’t we all just want to break out into a random dance party in our desks, forgetting others can clearly see us? But we can’t. Because we are adults.

That’s the beauty of middle school. They are still 14 or 7 or 2 at any given moment – sometimes they even think they are 32… (Sigh.) And it’s something we all should leverage, both as parents and educators.

For 9 years I taught middle school ELA in Tampa, Florida, before becoming a site-based middle school instructional coach. Last year my family relocated to Birmingham, Alabama (we will get to this later), where I continued to work as an instructional coach for MS, but at the district level. In this blog, I hope to offer some strategies for teaching literacy in the middle school classroom – some of which are from my classroom and others are inspired by the peers I coach or have coached throughout the years. I hope to make you smile, feel, and maybe even chuckle at times! But most of all, I hope to offer some inspiration on how you can make your middle school classroom a place of joyful, rigorously engaged (AH, OVERUSED WORDS!!! PUT THEM IN YOUR WORD CEMETERY RIGHT NOW, MRS. FOX!!!) learning for all of the students in your room, whether they are feeling 5, 8, or 12 that day.