If It Ain’t Broke: The Workshop Model

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.

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Taking the Sting out of the SAT Essay: Tips for English Teachers

by ALEXIS BONARI

In my experience as a tenth-grade English teacher, most students have been terrified of writing the SAT essay. There are so many stressful (and usually unfamiliar) aspects to this kind of essay test that students aren’t applying themselves to the task as well as they might without the burden of anxiety and fear. I’ve heard complaints ranging from apprehensions about the time constraints to not being able to come up with anything to “say” in response to the prompt.

It’s not our responsibility as English teachers to prepare students for success on the SAT – and we’re not allowed to provide specific SAT instruction to the students who take our English classes. But the SAT essay requires students to use good writing skills that will be useful throughout their lives. The College Board is simply assessing these skills, and I feel that we should respect the fact that students need to be able to write this kind of basic response. Being able to communicate a strong opinion supported by substantial “evidence” within 25 minutes can be an invaluable skill in the real world. And that’s why I teach students to master the skills they’ll need to write their SAT essays successfully. Here are a few of the ways I’ve been doing that, and I hope they’ll assist you in your efforts to prepare high school students for higher education and the workplace.

Developing & Substantiating Opinions

Just about everyone has an opinion if you ask the right question. Some questions elicit strong gut reactions from some people, while others are hard-pressed to take a side. But in the real world, if you don’t have an immediate opinion, you’re not going to be an influential force in whatever issue is being debated. It’s impossible to have an opinion about everything, so it’s important to learn how to form a solid one quickly and judiciously.

To help students learn this valuable process, I assign two take-home essays each semester. These essay prompts require students to develop an opinion on the issue described, gather extensive examples to support it, and write an argumentative or persuasive essay that “sells” their perspective to the reader. This kind of basic writing is integral to the process of learning how to communicate clearly and professionally.

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Get on the School Bus: Erin Gruwell and the Freedom Writers

by ALISTAIR BOMPHRAY

Any public school teacher will attest to the difficulty of organizing a field trip. There’s paperwork to fill out, signatures to obtain, and money to raise. Not to mention the logistical headache of shepherding an unwieldy troop of hyperactive youth through public spaces. I, myself, have an uncomfortable memory of taking thirty 9th graders to the Jewish Museum in Manhattan during my first year as a teacher. As we were walking across Central Park, one of my students lit out across the grass and unleashed a premeditated and brutal airborne tackle upon an unsuspecting (and much smaller) friend. “He’s killed him,” I thought.

This isn’t to say that field trips aren’t amazing learning experiences, just that they can be a challenge for the already overwhelmed teacher. Which is one reason why Erin Gruwell’s story of taking 75 Los Angeles teenagers to Europe to learn about the Holocaust and the Bosnian Genocide affected me so powerfully.

If you don’t know already, Gruwell is the teacher made famous by the book, The Freedom Writers Diary, and even more famous by the subsequent film version starring Hillary Swank. To us mortal teachers, she is like some kind of rare and exotic bird—the celebrity teacher—looking down upon us from on high along with Jaime Escalante of Stand and Deliver, LouAnne Johnson of Dangerous Minds, and other colorfully plumed celebriteachers.

Five minutes of conversation with the down-to-earth Gruwell and you realize her good fortune has not sidetracked her from her life’s purpose: to create meaningful educational experiences for urban youth, specifically those kids who are too often expected to fail. The trip to Europe was one of these experiences, a kind of experiential capstone to a four-year odyssey of reading such books as The Diary of a Young Girl and Zlata’s Diary while committing their own stories to paper.

“We visited the Chelmno extermination camp,” Gruwell recalled, “and there were residences right next to the site. The people living there [during the Holocaust], they heard the screams, saw the ashes, and did nothing.”

Gruwell and her students received an important message from an elderly townsman. “Evil prevails when good people do nothing,” he warned them. To a group of students familiar with the sound of gunshots in their own neighborhoods and a prevailing snitches-get-stitches inner city culture, these words resonated deeply.

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Riding the Bus: a Path to Greater Diversity in Schooling Options

by GABRIELLE LENSCH PLASTRIK

Recently, I was in San Francisco for the Learning and the Brain technology conference. While there, there was an accident involving Bart trains at the West Oakland station. Hundreds of people crowded the Powell street Bart station, eager to find a way across the bay. Finally, a train arrived heading toward Dublin. People crammed into the train, looking like pictures of train stations in Japan. I could smell the wool of the woman standing next to me’s jacket. We were close. The train moved two stations, to Embarcadero where the powers that be decided that the train was going back to where it came from. Everyone had to get off of the train. The problem was, though, that the Embarcadero station was crammed full of people. There was hardly enough room to squeeze off of the train. The roar of people made it nearly impossible to hear the announcements about what was happening. There was mass confusion and little progress.

Thankfully, I called my sister, who lives in the Bay Area, and she said I could hop on a bus four blocks from there. I was one of the first twenty people to leave the station and one of the first four or five to climb the stairs of the nearly empty bus. We were in Oakland within a block of our destination in twenty minutes. Every single person on the bus was exceptionally nice, helping others to find seats, locate their cars, call loved ones, figure out directions, make change, and pay fairs. Meanwhile, hundreds of people sat and waited in the crowded subway stations for upwards of an hour before boarding trains. We had breathing room, a happy, rather than frustrated, community, and arrived at our destinations instead of just going back and forth.

To me, this story is allegorical of the current educational situation. Many schools are on a path that seems to be “the better path,” the same way that most passengers would prefer to ride on trains than on buses, which are older and sturdier, but also slower and more individualized. The giant factory high school with lecture-based and content-driven classrooms moves quickly through the stages of education. It is educating the masses in a way that factories have shown is very successful at mass production. The problem is, our students, children and teens, are not products and are, for the most part, not entering a future that involves working in factories like those of the 1880s for which schools prepare them.

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Teachers, the End Is Nigh or How’d That Walker Guy Get Elected?

With all the vitriole aimed at teachers these days, it’s nice to know Jon Stewart is in our corner. If you care about teachers and what’s happening to them in Wisconsin, watch this Daily Show episode.

And here’s an interesting article in the New York Times about the recent backlash against teachers.

Strange times indeed to be a public school teacher. More on this soon…

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So long and thanks for all the NELP

by ALISTAIR BOMPHRAY

This is a shamefully belated post but it’s important to me that I write it anyway. Last summer, a college teacher of mine, Alan Howes, passed away. It wasn’t tragic or sudden; he lived a long, full life, one in which he had time to serve in the army, earn his Ph.D. from Yale, and teach University of Michigan students for over forty years. I don’t intend this piece to be an eulogy in the strictest sense—I didn’t know him well enough—but a meditation on the kinds of things good teachers leave behind when they step out of the classroom for good.

First, a little about Alan. He was not a man who loved the sound of his own voice. Nor was he one of those professors who strive to wow students with their brilliance. Such professorial ego-stroking would’ve been in opposition to his humble nature and student-centered style of teaching. Instead, he created space for students to try out their voices, and if all went well, for them to be brilliant.

When I met him in 1999, he was already old. I remember his hunched-over figure, his leathery hands, and his eyes beginning to cloud with cataracts. He also had a pretty tremendous white beard, on par with John Muir or some other 19th century mountain seer. I was impressed by this beard. But when you’re twenty years old, as I was in ’99, you don’t have a very sophisticated set of criteria by which to understand old people. Either they’re old and wise or old and curmudgeonly, without much space for gray in between. Alan was obviously the former (see beard), and though Obi Wan Kenobi figured prominently enough in my imagination to foster in me an innate respect for wise old men, we learn best from real people, not one-dimensional projections of human virtue. In order for Alan to really get my ear, he was going to have to complicate himself, or rather, I was going to have to complicate him, which, you know, is asking a lot of a self-absorbed 20-year old.

Luckily for me, Alan Howes would not be so easily pigeonholed. Early in the semester, he showed up for class wearing a T-shirt with a silkscreened photograph of himself in the 70’s looking like a cross between the Dennis Hopper character from Easy Rider and some blissed out modern version of St. Francis—in short, he looked like a wild man. The contrast between this robust, long-haired hippie frozen in time and the old man standing before us was powerful. It was proof that his life extended beyond the realm of white-haired literature prof. He was human. Like us. No, wilder than us. And more mysterious too. Also, he was funny. The fact that this soft-spoken old guy would wear a photograph of himself—one in which he looked like a Harley-riding acidhead no less—was funny. And funny is real.

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Have You Gotten Your Students Involved Today?

by MARIA RAINIER

An educational tool that won't lighten your wallet

It may seem like a strange question. Learning demands that students be involved in their own education – that’s just the way it works. But there are two major types of involvement: passive and active. And in many cases, students are passively involved at best, a phenomenon I’ve encountered more times than I care to admit. I love being a piano teacher, but it’s always hard not to take it personally when a student just doesn’t care. That’s why I stopped letting that happen.

Of course, you can’t control students, and there will always be one or two who refuse to become invested in their own education. But I’ve adopted a philosophy of student choice over the years that has helped me gain students’ active involvement. In addition to using this strategy in piano lessons, I’ve found it useful when teaching writing as well, so it may be adaptable to different classrooms with a little creative tweaking. If you want that rewarding feeling that comes whenever you’ve got a student hooked on learning, try asking your students to share the decision-making process to jump-start your classroom’s involvement.

I discovered this by accident, which is a bit ironic since I’m a control freak myself. I didn’t think about the reasons behind its efficacy until I’d already found it to be useful, but it’s a logical step in education. K-12 students feel like they’re being controlled by everyone – parents, teachers, even friends – and they have almost no role in determining their own education. That can be a huge turn-off, so if you can share your decision-making responsibilities even nominally, it can go a long way toward earning the trust and intellectual investment of your students. Here’s an example from my experience:

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