Struggling for Structure

ocsHave you ever been out in public somewhere and automatically used your “teacher voice”?  You know the one I mean–the no-nonsense, I’m not kidding around, you had BETTER get with it this instant, voice of doom?  Well, that was definitely me, yelling at the TV, when I heard Punxsatawney Phil’s grim prediction for six more weeks of winter.


Here in West Virginia, our school district has had a record 13 snow days so far this year…and more bad weather is in the forecast.  I haven’t taught for a full week since December 2.  Don’t get me wrong–the first few days off were glorious.  I got all caught up on grading, read a few books (including the amazing Fearless Writing by Tom Romano–PLEASE check it out), and took some naps.  But after seven or eight of those days (stuck in the house, mind you), cabin fever set in and I was more than ready to be back at school…and judging by their chatter on Twitter, my students were, too.

To further complicate matters, I am hosting a student teacher for half of this semester.  Katie is wonderful.  Her openness, enthusiasm, and serenity amidst all of this upheaval has been incredibly refreshing.  We have wonderful curricular conversations and push each other to be the best teachers we can be.  She is only with me through the end of this month, and while my students and I will miss her, I know two things:  Katie will be an excellent teacher on her own, and I’ll be glad to be back at the helm.

As if that weren’t enough, testing season is upon us.  We’ll lose several days this month to a state online writing assessment, and more next month for the reading portion.  There’s nothing like a marathon of standardized testing to suck the joy right out of reading and writing.

What all of this mayhem has made me reflect deeply on is the importance of structure in the workshop model.  In many ways, structure–repetition, transfer, organization–is the heart of the reading and writing workshop.  One of the core tenets of this method is the goal to encourage our students to be lifelong readers and writers.  The vast majority of my general level students are still a long ways away from that.  We made great progress during the first half of the year, but with this extended interruption of our time together, things have changed.  Without structure, the gains my students experienced have been, in some cases, lost, for a few reasons…

IMG_2209One: my students do not have ready access to books, plentiful time to read, or constant encouragement from me to find both.  My kiddoes are coming to class at a complete loss as to what to read next, and some can’t even remember what they read last.  With no bookshelves at home and no way to get to a public library through the nasty weather, they need lots of help to find new, high-interest texts to draw them back into reading.

Two: my students have lost the reading and writing stamina they have built up.  It has been two full months since we’ve had a regular week of learning, so they are mentally sluggish–almost like they are on the first days of school.  The automaticity they’ve developed as learners has stalled, and they must work now to rebuild it.

IMG_1947Three: my students are struggling to see continuity in our work together.  As Katie and I have tried to work with them on crafting strong arguments that still bear the hallmarks of good writing, we have encountered obstacle after obstacle to the transitions, previews, and reviews that scaffolding consists of.  I am seeing the effects of this on their products.

Luckily, I’ve had a lot of time off to contemplate a solution to this unique problem.  I feel thankful that the community we have established in our classroom is intact, as it will be easier to dive right back into the work of reading and writing.  My students and I trust each other:  they know I trust them to be independent readers, writers, and thinkers, and I know they trust me to steer them in the right directions.

First, I will redouble my efforts to begin class with exciting, diverse booktalks.  Katie has introduced me to some new titles and reminded me of some tried-and-true home runs–Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, Beloved by Toni Morrison, and Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan.  I will add these and other titles (or more copies of them) to my library, recommend them heartily to my readers, and then wait patiently for meaningful dialogue to emerge.  I’ll see it in reading conferences, Big Idea Books, and book blogs.  My hope is that this injection of freshness into the winter doldrums will awaken my students’ inner readers once again.


Next, I will work to reacquaint my students with the visceral joy of writing through introspective quickwrites.  I want them focusing only on enjoyment with their informal writing…we will take a break from Kelly Gallagher’s marvelous articles of the week for now and will lean heavily on Linda Rief, Ralph Fletcher, Penny Kittle, and Georgia Heard for inspired notebook prompts.  I fully hope to see meaningful, serious writing in my students’ journals as they return to thinking of themselves as authors.

Lastly, I will use the energy from the long break I was given to fuel my passion as I teach.  I’ve heard people say that if students are truly independent learners, they can learn without a teacher…but I believe the leader at the head of the classroom is incredibly important.  I know for a fact that on days I have that extra cup of Starbucks Pike Place coffee, and I’m really on fire, my students get more out of my teaching.  I’ll recommit to my enthusiasm for, and teaching of, all things reading and writing.  I am hoping that this will carry both my students and I to the end of our now-extended school year.

So, 13 snow days, an amazing student teacher, a feisty groundhog, and two standardized tests later, here’s what I know: structure is important.  It is a NEED in the workshop, as well as in reading and writing.  Without it, growth and learning cannot occur.  In retrospect, perhaps a bit of lobbying for year-round school is in order…but I’ll save that blog post for another day.


One thought on “Struggling for Structure

  1. Erika Bogdany February 9, 2014 at 7:11 am Reply

    Shana….THANK YOU! This post speaks nothing but the truth…and it is wildly refreshing to know that I am not alone in realizing structure is the key. It has felt a bit oxymoronical that the beauty and freedom that comes with the RWW only truly exists with it’s counterpart: structure. However, hearing you recognize that…along with your manageable and so well-thoughtout ideas on how to tackle it…I feel re-energized and even more equipped with insight and a plan.

    And, don’t just tease us with your last sentiment…let’s talk 12 month school years…a bandwagon I’m happy to jump on! Stay warm! XOXOX


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