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.
My own experiences teaching substantiate these fears. I teach two different classes at EAGLE School: Literature and Drama of the United States and European Literature and Drama. These designations were chosen because they correlate with the students’ history class. When they learn about the Russian revolution, they read Animal Farm. Having literature align with the lessons they learn in history allows them to consider the history from new perspectives. It is a fun way to teach because the students are so knowledgeable about the historical and cultural backgrounds of the texts we read, especially in European, where the texts are more perfectly aligned. Because the philosophy of this curriculum was set when I arrived at EAGLE, I did not want to change it. Instead, I looked for ways to give students reading and writing freedom separate from the curriculum.
My first year, I had 30 minutes a week set aside for independent reading. I brought in all of the appropriate and “fun” books from my personal library, told the kids to visit their community libraries, and learned about what our school library had to offer in the way of young adult and adult fiction. In doing so, I learned how hard it is to find texts that challenge gifted readers that are still appropriate for their age group, which is one of the small bits of the reading workshop that worries me. (I have since found terrific resources like Nancie Pearl to help guide me in suggesting books to students. We also have a new librarian who is incredibly helpful.) For independent reading, students could read whatever they wanted. They had to keep track of the books that they read on a log sheet. Once a week, they also wrote in their journals about the books that they were reading. In the middle of the year, they had to complete an analytical project based on at least one of the books they had read.
Nancie Atwell and Dagny Bloland, my methods teacher, suggested that a teacher could coach a student to increasingly more challenging texts over the course of a reading workshop. For about fifty percent of my students, that was true. For the other fifty-percent, they were either already challenging themselves, too mentally busy for more challenge, or not interested in working very hard and incredibly resistant to greater challenge. I had students who were reading twenty-five challenging and interesting books a semester and students who read two pretty easy young adult books. I had students who were furthering a love of learning and students who were doing their best to avoid reading. It was difficult to determine how to encourage more from the stragglers without making rules. With complete freedom over their own choices, I lost some of the students.
So, the following year, I introduced an independent reading list. For the US class, I called it Great American Novels. Students were responsible for reading one novel off of the list before they could go on to their own reading. Setting the bar high like this seemed to work much better in terms of giving students similar, but different experiences. Every student read a book that challenged them, and they were able to apply their reading of that novel to the study of other texts in class. At the end of the first semester, they were required to complete a writing assignment—there were six options ranging from an analytical paper to letters between characters. I was pretty happy with how this independent reading experience went, but the joy of reading and sharing of books they loved with each other was not really there. The previous year, the students who were racing through books became a community of readers. They would bring books in for each other. I could say to them, “Hey, I really think you’d like this one,” and they would read it and then share it with four other students. The energy of the workshop was there. It was muted in this less independent format. So, I gained rigor and thoughtfulness across the board, but I lost some of the joy and energy that more freedom allowed some students.
To try to amend this situation, I decided to have students complete their independent reading in pairs this year. To some extent, doing so was successful. If the students read at a similar pace, the partnerships ended up having interesting discussions, helping each other through difficult parts, and modeling good reading skills for one another. There was more active discussion happening. Most of the students seemed to prefer having a partner. I also felt comfortable giving a little more time to independent reading because the students were being more active in their reading. Once a partnership was done, they completed a written project together and then were able to move on to reading books of their own choosing. Not many got to this choice part, which is what still worries me.
Independent writing has taken a similar progression. Initially, I gave the students complete freedom. They were lost and only the most serious writers produced writing that was valuable to them. Then, I used writing circles, as suggested by Jim Vopat at the 2009 NCTE convention in Philadelphia. Here students had interaction with one another and were invested in their pieces, but the pieces were all short and something was missing for the students who had been the most motivated to write. They did not get to choose to work on their longer projects. So, this year, I developed an independent writing contract, where students had to set goals for themselves as writers, list objectives for how to meet those goals during independent writing time, and suggest the categories from the six traits rubric in which they should be graded based on their goals and the type of project. This turned out to be a huge success. Students cherished independent writing time. Several wrote novels, some wrote screenplays, a few wrote scientific research, and one practiced writing essays more quickly in order to help her better prepare for high school. In the end, independent writing needed to be highly structured for my students to produce writing that mattered to them. The freedom of the workshop is tempting because of how much time students have to write, but it also takes away some of the structure that the contract provides.
So, I am thinking about experimenting with the workshop model with my European class next year. Partially, I feel comfortable doing this because I taught all of the students who will be in that class this year, so I know their learning styles pretty well. Also, the class will be small—seven students—which will give me a lot of time to work individually with each student. I just want to make sure I am not losing more for the kids than I am gaining for them. The major lesson that I have learned with my small forays into student independence is that with freedom, my students need structure. I have some ideas for how to provide that structure. I would love to know what you think about them.
1) Directed Independent Readingà it is still important that the students cover European literature in order to better understand the historical periods about which they learn. I have been thinking that I will present the students with a major reading question: How did European literature evolve over time? We could make a gigantic timeline in the classroom with several colors for the different countries they study. I could mark off each major literary period on the timeline. Students would have a list of major authors and works within each period. Then, they could choose from the list. As students finished their reading, they would post note cards with information about the style and content of the piece to the timeline. Then, at the end of the semester—or a little afterward— they could choose from a variety of projects to present an answer to the initial question.
2) Second semester, we would read more as a class with choice reading time—more like this year—or, if the question went well and the students enjoyed this pursuit, we could either continue it or ask a different question.
3) I teach 6 periods a week. I need one of the periods for drama, which leaves 5 periods a week. If students have writing workshop 3 days a week, time one day a week to discuss reading, and one day for participating in reading activities, that will be all of the class time. This plan would allow for the reading and writing time that Atwell suggests as a minimum.
4) I would still want students to start with goals for themselves as writers, but not require them to complete one large project in order to work toward that goal.
5) Atwell gives the students a list of 6 assignments that they must complete in the workshop: “a short story, three to five poems or songs, a profile of a local citizen based on original research, or an op-ed piece or essay about an issue that matters to you, a book review, a memoir” (Atwell 112). I could, likewise, give them a similar list. That way, they would be sure to experience the types of writing that it is important to me that they experience and they could choose when to come to those pieces as writers.
6) Grammar and mechanics would be taught in an individualized way and through mini-lessons to the whole group during writing workshop time. Students would have individual grammar plans to keep track of errors they make regularly.
My hesitations about the workshop are not about giving up control. I have thought long and hard about that, asking myself tough questions about whether I can live up to my philosophy of education. I can. What I am most worried about is changing something that is working. What do you, our educated and educating readers, think about all of this? Has anybody made a similar shift? Does anybody have any thoughts or suggestions?
Gabrielle teaches English and Drama at a school for gifted students in Madison, WI.