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Gradual Release

October 26, 2012

Teacher Musings:

When I first heard about the concept of “gradual release” in teaching it made so much sense to me.  At its heart, “gradual release” means that student become more independent at a task or skill over time.  At the start of teaching a skill a teacher may guide students explicitly, or use specific “scaffolds” to support them.  A great example of this is something I (and many others) have done when teaching students to write.  When my students start writing analytical paragraphs I give them very clear models and I have even numbered and named each sentence of the paragraph, and then expected students to follow that formula.  Then, over time, students might simply use sentence starters, but will organize the paragraph on their own.  Ultimately students should be able to write an analytical paragraph without any of these scaffolds, but this skill develops over time as I “gradually release” them from the scaffolds I give them.

I still believe in the core of the gradual release model.  I believe (from experience) that students need to build up to independence over time and with support, but that the support I give them in September should be vastly different from the support (if any) they need in June.  However, I first thought that the gradual release model would lead to a very clear, linear growth in my students, something like this:

However, when I reflect on how my students have grown and improved over time, I realize that their development was never this clean and linear.  Instead it is a messy process, with lots of backsliding, adjustments and even failures.

I had this realization very clearly when trying to get my new baby to sleep through the night recently.  First of all, for all you non-parents out there, “through the night” in baby land really means “6 hours MAX.”  Eight weeks ago all I was praying for was 90 minutes.  When my baby slept, on her own, in a crib, for 90 minutes, I could at least take a power nap.  However, she was often only sleeping for 30-40 minutes at a time, or only sleeping if she was cuddled with me in a rocking chair.  Neither situation was sustainable.  So, I started using a variety of sleep “scaffolds” (like rocking her to sleep, putting her down slowly, nursing her to sleep, using a white noise machine, etc.)  Over the past two months I have been able to remove some of those “scaffolds” but not in any linear manner.  For example, sometimes I would be able to put her in her crib fed, but awake, for several days, only to have one night where she wouldn’t sleep unless I rocked her to sleep with a pacifier first!  She still is not sleeping as well as I would like, but she does now have a pretty solid bedtime routine, and she usually sleeps for two 4-5 hour stretches at night – except for those set-back nights when she is up every 2 hours.

What hit me one morning at 3am was that this non-linear sleep improvement, this “two steps forward, one step back” feeling was very much like what I see in my classroom.  Not that I have naptime in my class (if only!) but when it comes to learning the gradual release model is anything but linear.  Students who need graphic organizers in September may not need them as much in June, but the path to get there is rocky.  Sometimes they won’t need a graphic organizer for several assignments, only to need it again later.  Sometimes they don’t seem to need help with the vocabulary in one reading, only to need help with “seemingly” simple vocabulary later.  There are many reasons why this happens, but the bottom line is that I can’t view gradual release as a linear process anymore.  Instead it is messy, with lots of detours along the way.  This is why I have to get better at recording my students skills in September and then comparing them to how the students are doing in June.  I can get really caught up in the smaller increments (like comparing one assignment in September to a similar one in November).  That kind of analysis and tracking has it’s merits, but I also need to look more at the long game.  As I’ve said to my student-teacher “Teaching is a marathon, not a sprint.”  Not only is it a marathon, it is a course with hills and valleys, not one steep incline.  And apparently that goes for getting babies to sleep as well!

Yummy Stuff:

One of my go-to desserts lately has been these delicious cookies.  I had seen some chocolate chip shortbread cookies at Whole Foods (not vegan) that looked really good.  I decided to try and adapt a recipe from Vegan on the Cheap that normally required more rolling out of dough and dipping it in melted chocolate.  I wanted to make these cookies super easy to make since my time was limited – my baby needs to eat of course!  The result were some easy and very yummy cookies!

Chocolate Chip Shortbread Cookies (adapted from <em>Veg</em><em>an on the Cheap)</em>

  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print


  • 1/2 cup +2 TB of vegan butter (I use Earth Balance)
  • 5 TB tahini
  • 1/2 cup of packed brown sugar
  • 1 TB vanilla extract
  • 2 cups of all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup of chocolate chips

1) Preheat the oven to 325
2) Using an electric mixer, cream the butter, tahini and sugar.  Mix in the vanilla.
3) Add in the flour 1/2 a cup at at time using the electric mixer for the first 3/4 of the flour.  Stir in the last 1/2 cup with a wooden spoon.  Then, mix in the chocolate chips.  The dough will be a bit grainy.
4) Scoop 1 1/2 TB of dough into your hand.  Squeeze it into a ball, and then flatten it with your hand.  Place on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper, and bake for 14-16 minutes.


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