August 20, 2015

5 Tips and Tricks for MS Teachers to Fitting it All In

The most common question I get asked on my blog, when I'm doing consulting work, and when I'm coaching is: I'm a middle school ELA teacher and have ____ amount of time each day.  How do I fit it all in?  This is a completely legitimate question.  As middle school teachers, I often feel we are like the middle child: forgotten.  Our reality is unlike that of an elementary teacher who has one group of students for the entire day and two or more hours to teach the literacy block.  We are in the world of multiple groups of students, short time periods, and high expectations.  Simply put, middle school is a different beast.  Just because something is difficult or no clear-cut though, doesn't mean it's not possible.  With some tweaks, tips, and tricks, I'm confident that you'll be able to accomplish your curriculum goals while providing your students with literacy best practices.

1.  Know Your Curriculum Goals

What is it that your students will learn and accomplish as readers and writers this year?  For example, I am teaching 7th grade this year, and I would like my 7th grade students to accomplish the following:

-Read at least 40 books between independent reading, guided reading, literature circles, and interactive read alouds.
-Write and publish a narrative, persuasive, informational, and literary analysis piece of writing.
-Write a free choice piece of writing in any genre that is published once per month.
-Become more aware of word usage and grammar usage in any form of writing.
-Write in a variety of genres in response to their reading and be able to identify and analyze literary elements of a text.
-Speak comfortably in front of classmates to clearly communicate an idea.
-Participate in group discussions by actively listening to other classmates and extending ideas to generate intelligent, valuable conversation.
-To be able to summarize, connect, predict, infer, critique, and analyze their reading.
-Give meaningful feedback to peers when critiquing writing and during conversations about reading.
-To apply what is learned in class to the reading and writing they are exposed to in life and transfer the skills to real life situations they are faced with.

Now that I have articulated the WHAT, I will be able to more meaningfully determine the how.  Based on goals for my students, the instructional contexts that I think will be the best vehicles to help me get there are: Interactive Read Aloud, Sentence Stalking, Word Study, Writing Workshop, Guided Writing, Writing Conferences, Reading Workshop, Guided Reading, Literature Circles, and Reading Conferences.  Inputting these instructional contexts across the course of the school year to reach the above goals will help my students get to the destination.  Working hard without a vision means you're just working hard.  You're a hamster running on the wheel with no destination.  Articulate your goals for your students and let the vision you've set drive the instruction that you provide.

2.  Have a Schedule

Now that you have your goals and know what instructional strategies you will have to use in order to attain those goals, it's time to make a schedule.  For many of you with MAJOR time constraints, it's time to get creative.  Think day one/day two, alternating days, etc.  Below are some mock schedules that I came up with based on varying amounts of time.  To download this in a PDF document for free, click here.

3.  Set Routines and Expectations

You can have the most beautifully written goals and the perfect schedule laid out to achieve those goals, but if you don't take the time at the beginning of the year to set routines and expectations, you have nothing.  I sometimes hear, "I can't do guided reading/literature circles/guided writing/reading conferences/writing conferences because the other students just slack off when I'm working with small groups or one-on-one."  The answer is clear, no you can't do small group and individual conferencing with students in your class until the routines and expectations of what independent reading or independent writing looks like a crystal clear without a smudge.  If you have the attitude of, "They're in middle school, they should just know and do all that stuff," and end up skipping over building routines and expectations, the workshop model will most likely do a painful year-ending belly flop.  Students like clear structure, predictability, and order within a classroom.  Setting these things up will allow you to provide choice, independence, extension, and intervention for your students.  My Reading Workshop Kick-off and Writing Workshop Kick-off products will help you lay the needed foundation for both of these workshop models to run the way they're supposed to in your classroom.

4.  Use a Timer

I'm going to let you in on a little secret that you're not going to like.  More often than not, the reason you don't have enough time to get done with students what you intend to get done with students is because you're talking too much.  Whether we'll admit it or not, most teachers who enter the profession love to talk about their subject area to students, and we can go on, and on, and on some more.  You remember that schedule we talked about in Tip #2?  There are time frames for each part of the schedule in there for a reason.  USE THEM!  Especially at the beginning of the year when you're setting up the routines and expectations, use a timer to help you stay on track and make sure that you're allowing students TIME to independently read and independently write while you are meeting with small groups and individuals.  What you say during the minilesson is extremely important, but the TIME you allow students to explore that minilesson independently as readers and writers while you are instructing small groups of students and individuals at the level they need is when the true learning is going to occur. I guarantee most of us would grossly underestimate the time we spend in front of students talking.  Hold yourself accountable and stick to the schedule you committed to.  If you don't have a timer, now is the time, click below and order it now.  No excuses!

5.  Put the Balance in Balanced Literacy

We all have our niche.  For me, I LOVE writing and could spend endless time immersed in the writing process with my students.  Balanced Literacy is reading, writing, listening, speaking, words, grammar, discussion, etc.  Does your niche out balance all the other pieces that you'd like your students to accomplish in your class this year?  Be reflective, and not to sound like a broken record here, but stick to the schedule you have set.

Don't give up on being able to do it all at the middle school level and settle for sub-par instruction.  Use trial and error until you find a schedule that allows you to meet the goals you have set for your students.  They will be better readers and writers for it!


  1. Great reminders! It is so important to plan things out in advance. In middle school, it is tempting to fly by the seat of your pants, especially on "those days." I have timers placed all around the room to keep them in easy reach.

    1. That's a great idea to keep multiple timers around the room to keep you on track. Totally going to think about that, too!

  2. I've implemented your schedule over the last week and now I'm really happy with getting in both reading and writing every time we meet. However - as you point out - ELA is more than just reading and writing. How do you fit in the attention to speaking & listening too?
    PS I've just asked the PE department for a timer :)

    1. I'm glad that the schedule has been working nicely for you! If you're using a balanced approach and having students share out with groups and partners and the end of each minilesson, speaking and listening should be incorporated all throughout Reading and Writing Workshop. Sometimes we cover standards that we don't intentionally incorporate.

    2. I agree about the unintentional coverage. However, I want to give them variety in their speaking roles and include formal presentations (e.g. a la TED Talks) as well as leading discussions. I'll have to consider how to ensure this balance is reached across the school year, but certainly the more I read of your approach, the more ideas I have. Coming from an enquiry background, all this workshop stuff is new to me and I'm trying to integrate the best of what I know from my experience. Thanks for all your support and interactions.

  3. Thank you for the variety of schedules! Does anyone here have suggestions for how to use the workshop model in a middle school classroom where we meet four times a week for an hour each time? I struggle with fitting in adequate time for reading, writing, grammar and vocabulary. Thank you!

    1. Download the freebie from Kasey's store. It covers an hour model and it's great!

    2. Hi Sonam,

      As Abena mentioned above, I do have a freebie in my TpT store that has several suggestions for how to format the workshop model with varying amounts of time. Here is the link:


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...