Pinch Points and the Panicked Teacher

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I’ve spent this week leading lesson studies with primary level teachers who are just beginning to implement writer’s workshop. Nearly every step of our journey together reinforced an important realization that I made quite a few years ago: the most gifted teachers I’m acquainted with know how to help students navigate their own learning without creating pinch points.

In the midst of every learning experience, teachers must recognize the opportunity to step back and completely release responsibility to their students. Figuring out when this should happen is tricky, and the moment we let go, we often begin to worry that allowing choice and independence will send learners careening into oblivion. Those who panic typically straighten and narrow the paths that their students are on in an effort to ensure their success.

I wonder: when do you think it makes sense to step in and save the learner from failure? When does it make sense to allow failure to save the learner? These questions often come up as we begin lesson studies. I don’t know that there is one correct answer for either of them, incidentally.

I do know that the most talented teachers I work with give great thought to them before they rush to any learner’s assistance, though. Then, they think through potential responses, seeking interventions that serve learners well without creating pinch points.

Here’s how this played out in second grade writer’s workshop today: The writers we’re working with have been happily immersed in their studies of Space-related topics. Each writer chose a subtopic of great interest and began investigating by exploring a variety of texts. We’ve been realizing the power of the sticky note all year together, so I wasn’t surprised to see these writers making fine use of them. At the start of my lesson, they had already captured a variety of facts about their topics: one per note.

pinch points
Then, writers began clustering connected facts by moving sticky notes into purposeful piles (on yellow notes in the example below). They created a category for each cluster (on pink notes below), and then, they placed the clusters in a meaningful order. Each writer typically created anywhere from two to five clusters, and each cluster included several relevant facts. This enabled them to begin writing paragraphs by unpacking one cluster at a time.

pinch pointsSeems like a fairly linear and seamless process, doesn’t it?

Well, not so much.

It’s actually a gloriously messy process, and the teachers I worked with recognized this as we prepared for the lesson study experience. Before we even went into the classroom, we began predicting where we might be tempted to create pinch points. Then we considered how we would support writers without becoming far too directive.

For instance:

Teachers predicted that some writers gathered too many facts from their research while others may not have gathered enough. A quick skim of the room helped us check for this, and sure enough, a handful of writers didn’t have enough facts to cluster. We asked them to put their short stack of facts in order instead, and from here, writers pointed out which facts they were eager to investigate more.

We predicted that some writers would find facts that did not belong to any cluster. In this case, they were coached to ask themselves whether these facts should be left out of the writing piece altogether or whether they should do more research to find “friends” for these facts. The choice was theirs to make.

We also predicted that these seven year-olds would tire easily when asked to transform each cluster into an informational paragraph. We were pleasantly surprised to learn that we were wrong here, and in fact, little Sienna taught us something important about how she persevered: each time she added a fact from a sticky note to her paragraph, she tucked the note away behind the category title. This helped her organize her writing efficiently, and it also made her feel accomplished. You can see her work below.

pinch pointsRather than celebrating our work as writers at the end of the session, we enjoyed a quick exhibition instead. Sienna modeled her strategy for her classmates. They appreciated learning from her!

Troubleshooting before we began teaching helped us plan least restrictive responses. This prevented us from creating pinch points when kids began to struggle. Teachers did not assign texts or rigid procedures. They did not require writers to use pre-fab graphic organizers. And when we came upon struggling writers, they were presented with additional choices rather than singular solutions.

Nearly every seven year-old in the room drafted 3-6 coherent paragraphs of research-based text about a beloved topic with very little assistance from the teachers in the room. Can you imagine how proud they were?

Think about the next learning experience you’re planning to lead. Where are the potential pinch points? How can you help learners navigate them successfully without becoming that teacher at the front of the room who tells them exactly what to do next?

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A former English teacher, Angela Stockman is the founder of the WNY Young Writer's Studio, a community of writers and teachers of writing in Buffalo, New York. She is also an education consultant with expertise in curriculum design, instructional coaching, and assessment. Read more from Angela at

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