Category Archives: Essays

If It Ain’t Broke: The Workshop Model


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


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


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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So long and thanks for all the NELP


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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The Missing


“But you know what the best part of my day is? For about ten seconds, from when I pull up to the curb and when I get to your door, ’cause I think, maybe I’ll get up there and I’ll knock on the door and you won’t be there. No goodbye. No see you later. No nothing. You just left. I don’t know much, but I know that.”
Chuckie Sullivan, Good Will Hunting

Most adults who I know go to work at the same place every day. They do the same things over and over again. The details change, but the patterns are the same. The people who surround them are the same. For twenty years, they have worked next to the same two or three people and had office spats with two others.

Teaching is a weird profession because, to some degree, we have that in our administrators and our fellow teachers. At the same time, though, the product that we are producing—students—are people, too. They are not a ream of paper at Dunder Mifflin or money to be traded on a financial market. They talk back. They have personalities. Even, better, they are growing up and becoming better versions of themselves right before our very eyes.

That’s where the missing comes in. We spend so much energy and invest so much time in each student’s development. Then, we send them out the door and off into the world. Some of them, the ones who remember, sometimes send an email or come and visit the school to leave notes on the board. For the most part, they dissipate into the hard work of high school and then college.

Over the course of a 180 day school year, I spend, 144 hours in direct instruction situations with my students. I also see them in the hallways, meet with them during their study halls, and email with them about their assignments. I feel like I really know at least the school side of my students before they leave. We have a close relationship that involves trust and respect. We are not friends, but we are colleagues working toward the mutual goal of their improvement. Then, at the end of the year, there is silence and absence. The students leave and the teachers who care so much about them start missing them. By the following fall, we are prepared for the new batch of students and busy investing time and energy into them.

I just wanted to take this moment to think of all of the wonderful people I have known as students and to reflect on how odd it is to have to miss so many people who you’ve really known but also to be happy to know that you are missing them because that means they are out there, giving the world a try.

Gabrielle teaches English and Drama at a school for gifted students in Madison, WI.


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Obama’s Longer School Days, Shorter Breaks Will Come with a Price


President Obama, despite major setbacks in recent elections, has pledged to move forward with his education reforms, and many see it as a space in which bipartisanship can actually work. While there are several components to Obama’s planned reforms, one idea which he courted in 2009 and has very recently reasserted is the idea of extending school days and the school year.

While the President hasn’t made it clear, exactly, by how many days or hours he envisions extending time spent in school, he justifies the reform by noting that other advanced countries spend on average a month longer in school than in American kids do. In a recent interview with Matt Lauer, Obama noted:

“That month makes a difference. It means students are losing a lot of what they learn during the school year during the summer … The idea of a longer school year, I think, makes sense … Now, that’s going to cost some money … but I think that would be money well spent.”

It may sound great in theory, but we should be aware that the supposed “month” statistic rests on shaky ground. According to the award-winning fact checker, PolitFact, Obama’s remark is rated as only “half true”. In the United States, kids go to school about 180 days a year, whereas the average reported by 31 countries to the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development was 187 days, and EU countries reported an average of 184 days.

Obama cited South Korea kids as going to school over a month longer than American kids, and even though this is true (their average is 220 days), at what cost do these extra days come? An article written here on Teacher, Revised by Jennifer Green, an English teacher at a South Korean school, noted how difficult it was for children to interact with each other, considering the long school days and arduous hours spent on homework after school.

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An Achievable Model Classroom


This piece was written in response to a Slate Magazine contest in which readers were encouraged to enter their ideas a for a model classroom.

The success of a classroom has a lot less to do with the objects that are in it than with the people, but arrangements and teaching/learning aides can make a significant impact. For instance, I taught in a public high school for a year. My classroom was long and narrow with the board on a narrow end. When I had twenty-eight students, kids had to sit in the back row, which was about twenty-two feet from the board. I couldn’t arrange the desks in a “U” or a circle because of how many desks there were. Just the size and shape of the room were limits to the effectiveness of my teaching. Based on my experience at that public school plus my four years of teaching in private schools, I have designed the following model classroom.

Layout: The room should be a 20’X20’ square. There is no teacher’s desk. There are thirteen of these desk/chairs and thirteen bean bag chairs. (The Great Books Foundation recommends that, in order to be effective and all members to equally participate, there be no more than 12 participants in a discussion. Those twelve students plus the teacher make 13.) Sometimes these are arranged in a circle, for discussion, sometimes they are pushed to the walls, so students can be up and moving around in the empty space in the classroom. Sometimes, they are in rows, so the students can best see an area of interest. It is important that the chairs be comfortable because learning is hard work, and being comfortable can make participating in hard work more enjoyable. Also, students’ backs shouldn’t need to suffer from poor chairs. While I personally love carpet, this is to be an all-subject classroom, so it needs to have a floor that is very easy to clean. As such, it would be best if it were patterned concrete. This wood design would give the classroom a homey feel, but also be incredibly easy to clean.

One of the walls will have slim bookcases built into it. On these bookcases, each student will have a shelf. There, they will keep a small journal, any books they are currently reading, any necessary texts for the class, and resources they have found useful to their reading, writing, math, and science. The remaining shelves will hold free-reading books and teacher suggested resources. Another wall will be covered with cork board. Each student will have a spot to display his/her work. In addition, the teacher will have a spot to display his/her work and information that will be helpful to the students. The remaining two walls will be painted with idea paint, a new product that turns walls into white boards. It is better to use paint than actually have a white board because a) the paint can cover the entire wall and b) the walls can be repainted when the white board becomes un-writable because of all of the smudges from past work.

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