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Teaching Writing is Like Coaching High Jump

My daughter began competing in the high jump event as a freshman in high school. She seemed to have a natural talent for the event, as she did not have a coach who knew anything about the high jump, yet she broke the school record in one season!


Although she did well her first season, her father and I knew that Kallie was somehow jumping well despite probable errors in her form, and if she was going to continue to improve, would need some proper training. We signed her up for sessions with two highly qualified and experienced trainers, and she gained much knowledge in the art of high jump.


As I watched one of the coaches work with my daughter and the other jumpers throughout one session, I couldn't help but relate it to, you guessed it, writing instruction! The parallels were numerous and provide a clear understanding of how teachers should get to know, set individual goals for and coach their writers towards success.


The Trainer's Process


Getting to Know His Jumpers


The first thing the high jump trainer did with each jumper was question them on their PR (personal record) and approach (distance from the bar and number of steps in run). He then knew the appropriate bar height and approach mark for each jumper.


Next, without any direction other than "go ahead and jump", the trainer observed each jumper in action, with the bar placed at their appropriate height on the standards (aka, the poles that hold the bar!). As he watched, he analyzed the jump from beginning to end.


Choosing a Skill


The trainer then quickly identified the skill most needed for the jumper in order to increase their height. This skill varied with each jumper in the session.


A coach cannot expect each jumper to clear the same height, but they can support them in learning to jump higher.

In my daughter's case, he identified two areas for improvement. The first was the distance of her approach. The trainer felt as though she would benefit from a further starting point, as she needed to gain more speed prior to "take-off". This was an easy fix, and my daughter caught on quickly. The second area was in regard to the position of her legs during take-off. She was keeping them too wide as they should be shoulder-width apart.


Now I don't know for sure, but I would bet that the trainer saw several other items for improvement in Kallie but chose what would be most helpful at this time.


Coaching


In order to support Kallie in improving this issue, the trainer did a few things. First, he explained and demonstrated himself how this stance will look, and at which point in the jump it should occur. He then had her try this in a jump and observed her. He also showed Kallie a photograph as a second model of the correct stance. The trainer then had her jump a few more times, asking questions about how she felt and providing feedback as to her progress after each jump.


There was a distinct cycle of demonstration, learner practice, and feedback.


What is important to remember is that the trainer did continue to discuss other things about the high jump throughout the session, whether to Kallie or the whole group. However, each jumper has one goal identified as their main focus, as it is foundational to their improvement and success. After that goal is met, a new one will surface, each goal making progress toward raising the height of their bar.


A Teacher's Process


Getting to Know Their Writers


Just like the trainer got to know his jumpers by asking their PR and approach and watching them jump, we as teachers can gain the same sort of information from our writers through observation, conferring and analyzing writing pieces.


We need to know our students' bar height-their highest level of writing skill-and their approach-what they know and do as writers-by allowing them to independently write, just as Kallie jumped for the first time for her new trainer without any instruction or guidance. As they do so, we will gather the data we need.


Observing our students as they write will provide us with information on their writing behaviors such as engagement, attitude towards writing and revision, which are crucial aspects in a students' writing ability.


When we confer, we are able to ask questions that provide insight into a writer's identity, ability to generate ideas, planning process and more. Finding out how a writer is feeling about the writing process or implementing a new skill is important in our decision making for future coaching.


Finally, taking a close look at a student's writing piece or pieces shows us where they fall in the area of skills such as organization, elaboration, and conventions.


A teacher cannot expect each writer to produce the same level of product, but you can support them in learning to write with greater skill.

Choosing a Skill


Although we will continue to model and discuss all aspects of writing with our students, we need to identify the most foundational skill in which our writers need improvement.

Kallie still needs to improve the position of her legs as they cross the bar, as well as her chin tuck at this point in the jump. Her trainer knows, however, that she needs to use proper position in her take-off prior to worrying about making adjustments in other parts of the jump.


Most often, when teachers analyze a writer's piece, things such as sentence structure, lack of details and poor spelling make themselves known, and are therefore the area chosen for a student to work on.


Unfortunately, when only these areas are noticed, the student will continue to struggle with growth and development of their writing if they are in need of strategies in more foundational areas.


If the student whose writing was showing a lack of details and poor spelling also struggles with staying on task during writing time, focusing on one topic or generating ideas, that would be the skill needing support and growth. You see, if a student is unable to engage in writing, that will continue to be a struggle for them, therefore always inhibiting their progress in other skills.


The Hierarchy of Writing Goals from The Writing Strategies Book by Jennifer Serravallo is an excellent tool for understanding the process of choosing the most impactful goal for students.


Coaching


The cycle of demonstration, practice and feedback is the same for our writers.

Just as Kallie's trainer explained and demonstrated his jumping stance, you will choose a way to do the same for the skill chosen for your writer. You may explain a strategy for using a resource to a writer who has trouble generating ideas. You may show them how you read over your writing to be sure you haven't strayed from the main idea of your paragraph to a writer who loses focus on their topic.


Once you have demonstrated the strategy for a specific skill, the writer should have a chance to try it out. We want to provide explicit instruction, and then get them back to "jumping" as soon as possible. You then have a chance to observe and check for understanding of the new strategy. They may need another demonstration using a different tactic, such as showing them a mentor text that utilizes the strategy, just as the trainer showed Kallie a picture. Then, they will continue to practice this strategy in their writing.


Raise the Bar


Writing teachers and high jump coaches have the same goal in mind for their students-to Raise the Bar. We want our writers to reach a level of skill that is expected, and even surpass it. In order to do so, writing teachers need to know their students' highest level of skill, as well as the skill most impactful to their growth.


Just as the trainer couldn't work on the same part of the approach or jump with every jumper, we cannot only work on the same skill or piece of the writing process with each and every writer. This approach will not improve writing for each student.


In order to reach goals and move students towards a higher skill level, teachers need to provide time for continued practice, reinforcement, and coaching new skills.


Alright coach, let's raise that bar!

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