Sunday / July 21

Teach Like a Hummingbird

In a recent trip to western Maine, my family sat mesmerized by the glorious visits of a group of hummingbirds to our home in the woods. Visit after visit, each little jewel-colored shimmering bird, eating from the jar of nectar or hovering to look us in the face, captivated our minds. These tiny, miraculous creatures. Brian Doyle describes them: “…each the most amazing thing you have never seen, each thunderous wild heart the size of an infant’s fingernail.” The visits never lost their magic, but drew us all back to the deck from sunrise to sunset in hopes of again encountering these tiny winged gems. We found myriad ways to soak up their presence: simply stared at them, took slow motion videos, sketched hummingbird portraits, named them (Lucy and Bethel—the town we were in), kept track of the longest drinks of nectar, recapped stories of their quick visits, researched and discovered their resilience and power (they can fly for 500 miles without rest). And, for me, as I inevitably do in these powerful life moments, tried to learn from them in a way that would strengthen me as an educator.

I came to realize that these tiny creatures held the answer to a burning question many of us ask when giving feedback in writing: How do I give customized feedback for writers when I have so many students to nourish and so little time?

Teach like a hummingbird

A few ways:

  1. Fly like a hummingbird: Because of their wings, hummingbirds are able to manage multidirectional flight–they have the unusual ability to hover in one spot, fly backwards, side to side, straight up and down, and even upside-down ( Somehow, though, when you watch them closely, they are not rushing, simply visiting.  Their visits differ in length and purpose.  We as teachers can do this as well.  Feedback for writers can be brief.  We may visit with one writer for a five minute conference, walk the room to briefly visit others, share pointers, and then settle with another student for five minutes or so.  Visit, explore, visit, explore—a lovely and generous dance of presence, thoughtfulness, and instruction.
  2. Think visit by visit: Perhaps five minutes sounds like a very brief amount of time (and it is!). Yet, having quicker, more frequent conversations with writers is the key to ongoing, writer-centered feedback. So, essentially, as writing coaches we may need to switch from a mindset of “in this conference I am going to teach all this writer needs to know” to “in this conference I am going to teach this writer one strategy that s/he is most ready for.” Trust that, visit by visit, conversation by conversation, you will teach the writer. In Bird by Bird, author Anne Lammott’s father captures this best. If you have not had the pleasure of reading this collection of essays, I quote this part directly:

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

We, too, can think of feedback in this way: bird by bird, visit by visit, five minutes by five minutes. Imagine that feedback is strung together like pearls, adding each bead one at a time, letting feedback settle and sink into the writer’s repertoire of strategies, and then later to return to add another bead. Think coaching writers toward success in a string of visits.

  1. Hummingbirds are pollinators: Their favorite food is the sweet nectar from flowers and they bring the pollen from one flower to the next, on their wings and body and needle-like beak. We know that from pollination there are seeds and those seeds become the next flower. For us hummingbird educators, we can think of our conversations and feedback in this same process. I will often hold conferences that take this shape:
  • Model one strategy that the writer can try
  • Coach the writer to try it
  • Ask the writer to teach it to another writer (the seed is formed)
  • Support the writers in giving feedback to each other using this strategy in upcoming writing sessions (and the flower blooms)

We remember, as Joy Kirr shares in Shift This, that there is not one writing teacher in the room (the grown-up), all of us are writers who can give feedback that pollinates.

As we consider the hummingbird approach to feedback, here is one last fact to inspire you. When the first European explorers saw a hummingbird, they called them Joyas voladoras, flying jewels. A jewel is certainly what you are to your students and the world of education.


Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Brian Doyle, Joyas Voladoras

Joy Kirr, Shift This

Written by

Patty McGee is a Literacy Consultant whose passion and vision is to create learning environments where teachers and students discover their true potential and power. Patty’s favorite moments are when groups of teachers are working with students collaboratively in the classroom. She does her best literacy research by practicing on her two children. Prior to her work as Literacy Consultant, she was Coordinator of Professional Learning in Literacy with the Northern Valley Curriculum Center. Previously, Patty was a fourth grade teacher, a Library Media Specialist, and a Literacy Coach. Patty received her Bachelor’s Degree in Elementary Education at Loyola University in Maryland, an Associate School Library Media Specialist certification through Rutgers University, and her M.Ed. in Teacher Leadership through Montclair State University. Patty has also studied literacy and literacy coaching through Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project and Iona College. She has received the Milken Educator Award (2002), worked as a consultant for Workman Publishing, Scholastic, and Corwin, and served on several committees for the New Jersey Department of Education. Furthermore, she has been an adjunct professor at Montclair State University and presenter at the ILA, NCTE, ASCD, and Learning Forward national conferences. Patty is the author of Feedback That Moves Writers Forward: How to Escape Correcting Mode to Transform Student Writing.

Latest comments

  • Patty,
    Ralph Fletcher and JoAnn Portalupi’s “Writing Workshop, The Essential Guide” is a very good resource for starting out in the workshop model. Good luck!

    • Thanks, Pam! Yes, that was one of my go-to resources when I was just starting out!

  • Patty,
    Beautifully written advice! What would you say to a teacher who currently teaches writing in a more traditional manner, of a series of assigned writing projects throughout the year, but she or he wants to
    try these 5-minute conferences as her students work? How does the teacher know what strategy to model? And if the teacher wants to have her teaching evolve to writing workshop the next year, in addition to your book on Feedback That Moves Writers Forward, is there another book you’d recommend?

    • Patty,
      Ralph Fletcher and JoAnn Portalupi’s “Writing Workshop, The Essential Guide” is a very good resource for starting out in the workshop model. Good luck!

    • Wendy, there are so many that I love! Hidden Gems by Katherine Bomer is what has inspired me the most over the years and specifically, Feedback that Moves Writers Forward. I also find that teachers discover their own writing strategies that they share with students when they write. Jennifer Laffin supports teachers in writing to be stronger writing teachers at I also love the Two Writing Teachers blog– both archived and new posts that are filled with strategy teaching!

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