(thoughts on using the workshop model in an English class)
by Kyle Nelson
Here's to the things we believe, but we don't actually do.
We are teachers. We want our students to learn. We want our students to do meaningful work. We take notes in graduate courses figuring out what this looks like. We continue to study during warm summer months and cold professional development meetings. We read books by Nancie Atwell and Peter Elbow. We follow Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle on Twitter. So then why don't we practice what we know we know?
Answer: we're scared.
I want my classroom to run like a workshop, but I’m scared. I’m scared that it won't work. I'm scared that it will be messy. I’m scared to give up the spotlight. I’m scared that my students won’t buy in. I've been teaching for 9 years and I've found a certain rhythm as a teacher that I'm afraid to break.
Here's a list of 10 things that I know I'm doing wrong in my classroom right now.
1. My classroom is teacher-centered. I’m all talk. I know that a student-centered classroom is more effective. Yet I dress up every day and try to make students laugh. I try to inspire students with everything I’ve learned and thought and tried. I'm the smartest person in the room, right? So naturally I should do most of the talking. Right? Right?
2. My students sit still in class. This sounds like a good thing, but it's not. I know that some students need to move to think. So in a typical 82-minute class, why are my students sitting down for 78-80 minutes? No wonder some of their writing reads as if there's no blood getting to their brain. Perhaps there's not.
3. I’m typically the only person who reads my students' work. Okay, I go to great lengths to get my students to like me, so maybe this isn’t the worst thing. But still. I’m 37, I’m bald, I shouldn’t be their target audience. There are 30 other students in my class. Students who can still grow hair and students who get jokes made by other students. They should be the target audience.
4. First period looks just like second period. A workshop student once said, "You know what I like best about this class? Anything can happen in here" (Atwell, 74). Well, it's difficult for "anything" to happen when I have every minute scheduled, no matter how interesting the clips I show are.
5. I do most of the work. Finding articles, finding video clips, sharing my experience. Students aren’t expected to talk about reading and writing, I am. They just listen and I stand up and dance.
6. My students are having fake conversations. When I finally shut up long enough to let my students talk to each other, they're not having authentic conversations. Merely telling students to talk to each other doesn't magically result in authentic conversation (Dawson, 71). They often just follow a checklist or focus on grammar. Maybe that's because...
7. I don't teach my students how to talk to each other. "Students want to share their writing, but they may not know how to do it" (Franklin, 83). I need to give them permission to simply ask questions about each other's writing instead of just looking for capitalization issues. I know that teenagers are awkward and struggle to connect with other humans at times, but I forget this when it's time to get into groups. I should spend more time modeling what a conversation looks like.
8. My students only share their writing when it's done. I know from research and from experience that sharing your writing is a great editing tool. When I read a piece of writing to my class, I know immediately which sentences didn't work and where I need to revise. I should have more opportunities for students to share their drafts, knowing that they're incomplete and still need work. This benefits both the person sharing and the person listening. "That's why writers talk to each other. Your ideas help mine grow" (Anderson, 15).
9. My students don't talk to each other about what they're reading. Sometimes it's a struggle just to provide a time and a space for my students to read. Other things always come up, and there's so much I'm expected to get through. But even when I do allow time for my students to read, they usually don't share their thoughts with anyone else. And even when they do, they don't have meaningful conversations about their reading. They simply summarize the plot or evaluate what they read. Readers and writers only talk to each other this way in school.
10. I teach. That is, to say, I don't learn. We always say as teachers we learn so much from our students. What does this mean? Are we actually learning alongside our students? Are we echoing Nancie Atwell when she says that "these days, I learn in my classroom" (Atwell, 3). Are we sharing our own writing and figuring out new things along the way? Or, like me, are we sharing everything we've already learned? I want my classroom to be more about discovery and less about everything I think I already know.
We lie awake at night thinking about everything we're doing wrong in our classrooms. We'll never feel like we're finally doing everything right. But that's what makes us good teachers. So let us continue to read and learn. There may be things we believe that we don't actually do. But here's to the willingness to try new things in order to improve.
Anderson, Jeff. 10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers, 2011. Print.
Atwell, Nancie. In the Middle: Writing, Reading, and Learning with Adolescents. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1987. Print.
Dawson, Christine M. "Beyond Checklists and Rubrics: Engaging Students in Authentic Conversations about Their Writing." English Journal 98.5 (2009): 66-71. Web.
Franklin, Keri. "Thank You for Sharing: Developing Students’ Social Skills to Improve Peer Writing Conferences." English Journal 99.5 (2010): 79-84. Web.