by GABRIELLE LENSCH PLASTRIK
If It Ain’t Broke. . .
don’t fix it, right? But what if “fixing it” might make it better? I have spent the last few weeks trying to make some important decisions about how I will teach next year. I’m considering some major changes, but am also hesitant because my curriculum certainly isn’t broken. My students learn a lot about writing and thinking. They become much more active readers over the course of the school year. Right now, my curriculum pushes them to excel and gives them the freedom to work on self-directed writing projects that inspire them. For the most part, they work really hard, participate actively in discussion, and grow tremendously. So why change anything?
The Master of Science in Education program at Northwestern University, the program I attended, requires two methods courses for new English teachers: reading methods and writing methods. A foundational text for both methods courses is Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle. Reading this book is paradigm-shifting. Atwell argues that the English classroom needs to become a reading and writing workshop, not a teacher directed study of literature, even if being teacher directed does not mean being teacher centered. Student motivation and achievement at her school in rural Maine dramatically increased when she made this shift herself twenty or more years ago. It allows her to work individually with each of her students, to help them grow in the ways they need to grow. In the second edition of the book, she also argues for some whole-class activities and reading. Not everything can be on one’s own, but for the most part, Atwell says that we have to provide an environment for our students to become their own readers and writers.
I have long been tempted to run a classroom that fits the description of Nancie Atwell’s classroom. The idea of giving students control over the direction of their own learning—but not the organization of it—appeals to me as a former student who remembers being bored in classrooms because I could and wanted to do and learn more and as a teacher who has worked with student who just don’t understand a concept and are forced to press on because the rest of the class is ready to do so. The workshop model is the ultimate in differentiation. It is the democratizing of the classroom.
What worries me, though, is that my students are already motivated and achieving. Most of them do well with a push from their teachers. Many people assume that high-achieving students will work harder on their own. In my experience, academic giftedness frequently comes along with a touch of academic laziness: what can I get away with not doing? Clearly if a student is really excited about a lesson or project, this isn’t true, and there are some students of whom this will never be true, but for many it is just the way their brains work. Part of their giftedness is finding short-cuts. So, giving them so much freedom is, in some ways, a ticket out of hard work.