Tag Archives: teaching English

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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Filed under Classroom Reflections, Essays

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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Filed under Essays, Interviews

Another Year, Another Race: Taking our students from August to June


I have my students do a lot of reflection at the end of the year, which in turn, leads to me doing a lot of reflection.  I inevitably end up making plans for the coming year at the end of the previous year.  I am sure that the same is true for almost every dedicated teacher out there.

Next year will be my third year teaching roughly the same curriculum to the same aged students at the same school.  As I look to next fall, I am occasionally overwhelmed by the journey that my students take.  They learn so much as writers who write about literature that it is exhausting just to think about starting where they start and ending where they end.

For example, before they enter my classroom, they have written persuasive, expository, and narrative pieces with an expectation of academic rigor, but they have never written a thesis statement analyzing a short story, poem, or novel.  By the end of the year, they can write six page essays that synthesize five or more literary sources in order to discuss an issue like Americans’ relationship with the land.

It is a journey that is exhausting for them, but also for me.  I wouldn’t  have it any other way.  Because they are doing all of that hard work, I feel pretty strongly that I ought to be working equally as hard.  One of my colleagues at school says that every school year is like a marathon.  Major school moments are all mile markers until we get to this time of year: when we can see the tape across the finish line.  I have never liked that metaphor because I used to be a runner and I remember how many races I forced myself to finish after hitting the 3/4s of the way done point and thinking, “If I fainted now, no one would be mad that I didn’t finish.” School is not like that.  I enjoy each part of the year for different reasons.

But, now, as I look to the starting line for next year, the metaphor seems apt—just on a different scale.  The students run a marathon, and it is grueling.  I am more like the pacer for each runner than like a runner myself.  My pace and my finish time are not accomplishments; they are insignificant.  Instead, it is my job to work as hard as I can to improve theirs while also working to make sure that they are going to make it through.  Our jobs are tough.  Teaching with your whole self means giving a piece of yourself to as many students as will take it. Continue reading


Filed under Classroom Reflections, Essays

The Skills I Teach


A lot of English teachers teach a content-based curriculum.  Most schools are set up to encourage that arrangement.  For instance, I am assigned United States’ Literature and European Literature as my classes.  While I keep my literature selections to the required geographical regions and work as best I can with the history class that pairs with mine, I try as hard as I can to shape my curriculum around teaching skills.

English class is important because of the skills far more so than it is because of the literary content.  I don’t mean that comment to be incendiary at all.  I actually truly believe that reading, writing, thinking, working in groups, and discussing are more important than being able to identify the major characteristics of various poets’ styles or than having read classics like Tale of Two Cities and Moby Dick.  The literature exists as a tool to help English teachers teach these important life-skills.

Sometimes I have a difficult time convincing parents of the importance of these skills.  For instance, some students really struggle with group work, and parents will sometimes say things like, “So let Johnny work alone,” as though working in a group is not part of what I am teaching.  If a student is not capable of working with his/her peers, it bodes poorly for success in the modern work place.  Very few people end up in jobs where they never have to interact with others, and students who cannot be in a group situation without upsetting their group members need teachers to help them learn this really important skill.

In the same vein, when my students discuss literature, I try to model good discussion leading skills, so that they can use those same skills when I ask them to step up and lead discussions.  Some people would say that in every situation it is more important to control the discussion and ensure that students understand the main points of a piece of literature than it is to foster good discussion skills.  I would disagree.  For instance, five of my students were responsible for leading a discussion on “The American Scholar” a few weeks ago.  They prepared beautifully, using Diigo to add annotations to help their classmates read Emerson’s lengthy speech.  Unfortunately, they are also among the students who contribute the most to whole class discussions, and they had a genuinely difficult time leading the class without overtaking the discussion.  We spent a whole class period working on their discussion skills.  Then, we returned to the discussion another day to discuss the major points of the speech.

I am sure that some people would argue that that class period was a waste, but through the students’ reflections, I know that they have a better understanding of what leading a discussion entails.  They will remember that far longer than they’ll remember Emerson’s admonitions against spending too much time with one’s nose in books. Continue reading

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Why I Teach (Even In February)


In the middle of a school year, ’round about February 15th, after winter break, but before spring break, about the time when all energy and creative thought has been mangled by exhaustion, I question why I teach.

At the end of summer, this is never a question. Oh! It is like a miracle in spiritually and highly motivated communion with students, ideas, and comrades. By the end of summer, I’ve let go of missing my last set of students (who I always think are brilliant; seriously) and am ready to meet some new young people, who I hope by the end will consider themselves brilliant and maybe even friends. At the end of summer, I am committed to potential exhaustion, potential martyrdom, for the sake of perpetuating the idea of perpetuating ideas. I am ready. But by mid-February, I am ready to quit: just about done with bureaucrats, and budgets, and “no”s, and test scores. Then, I must recall what I remember someone saying, “Just do what you love to do and do it with passion, and you will feel full and purposeful.”

I always remind myself of the why during these times. That why helps me to remember what drove me into the high school classroom when I always thought I would be teaching on some college campus somewhere,  supplementing my income while in between novels (LOL). I remember to keep it moving, the “it” being me because this is what I was taught to do. Every second, minute, hour, day, month, etc. of my upbringing I was taught to work, and work tirelessly, for something better. I was taught to always try to do what I can to help someone—especially my brothers and sisters: often penniless, often hungry, often undereducated, often without a path out of the prisons erected so long ago, that still work to bar so many of us from the explosive and elevating bliss of genuine freedom.

My mother taught me this. My grandmother taught me this. My father taught me this. So did my uncles and aunts and great-aunts and great uncles and so did my teachers. I recall this idea with some effort in February—it keeps me keeping on. This past winter, these ideas came to me much more readily, having experienced during the previous August the kind of catastrophe which demands absolute recognition of a power greater than oneself—which delivers us, in spite of our own failures of spirit.

It happened like this: my 15 year old, who I still consider my baby, because she is petite, and so close to me in innumerable ways, wanted to stop at the gas station to get a cold drink after her ballet class. The class was held in a hot box studio on the edge of South Hayward, California. Now Hayward is a very working class city; that keeps it from becoming completely suburban. The city struggles with this identity because it is so close to Oakland, Berkeley and San Francisco; one would expect it to be a semi-sophisticated city. And it is—semi-sophisticated. The city has its share of gang and drug activity. Property crime is not unusual. But one does not necessarily expect it.

As soon as my daughter and I left the studio, we pulled over at the closest gas station and I gave my daughter, who was still in her ballet attire, my credit card. I parked right in front of the front door. It was an unusual August night because as the partially cloudy skies began to dim the heat of the day, they released tiny sprinkles into the settling evening. It never rains in the Bay in August.

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Filed under Essays