My student teacher’s last day was yesterday, and, frankly, I’m lost without her. In eight short weeks together (less, when you count the 17 snow days), we have transformed each other as educators, brought our students to new heights, and had an exorbitant amount of fun. I’m hoping she’ll take away a myriad of ideas as she goes on to a middle school placement, because I knew I’ve learned much from teaching her.
During the first semester of this year, I worked to implement the reading and writing workshop model successfully in my classroom. Things were going fine, but I felt that something was missing. My students were producing excellent writing, and reading lots, but I wasn’t getting the magical results I wanted. It wasn’t until I began mentoring Katie that I was able to truly understand the holes in my efforts.
After a few days of observation, Katie became familiar with the workshop model. She knew that I used mentor texts as teachers, saw dialogue as an assessment measure, and read for craft and content in student writing. She saw that workshop was collaborative–within it, my students and I responded to each other’s work as fellow readers and writers, not as teachers and students. She took those foundational ideas and ran with them.
Katie taught students to write powerful, convincing letters of complaint to make claims they felt strongly about. In her quickwrite prompts, she showed them how to break down visual texts, emphasizing analysis of pop culture. Many of those videos she then used as mentor texts for public speaking skills, which helped her guide students through the writing of speeches and debates. She booktalked several graphic novels, a genre I had, before her arrival, been woefully uninformed about. She blossomed into a confident leader of the reading and writing workshop.
As I watched Katie teach so passionately, with such new and exciting resources, I began to see a gaping flaw in my own first try at workshop: I was relying too heavily on all of the texts, ideas, and strategies I knew and loved. I’d worked hard to make them comprehensive–I’d sought them out from all genres, time periods, places, and people–but I was amazed by how many resources she used that I’d never heard of. Katie Wood Ray says that our students should expect not only the best mentors of writing, but also teachers who will search for them. Although I was constantly searching for good books, mentor texts, or strategies, I was not effective enough–where were these pop culture visual mentor texts? My graphic novel shelf? Oral, not written, speeches as products of the writing process?
As I reflected, I came to realize that I was relying only on my own cultural capital to create the best workshop environment for my students. It was, by definition, impossible for me to extend my knowledge beyond what I knew, or knew how to obtain. I needed more brains–brains with their own unique cultural capital–to help me bring diverse resources into the classroom. Where could I find them?
As I watched our students professionally, conscientiously debate each other, I saw from their products that they knew not just how to write and speak persuasively, but why that was important. I watched thee audience, and saw students changing their minds about things they’d believed for years, slowly having their eyes opened not by the adults in the classroom, but by their peers. They revised their scorn toward legalizing marijuana as Moshe spoke about his battle with leukemia, and the helpfulness of the medical marijuana he was prescribed. They felt ashamed to write about why the drinking age should be lowered after Anderson spoke about seeing a neighbor killed in a drunk driving accident. They questioned long-standing religious tenets after listening to Stephanie and Leanna debate the legality of abortion. They were guiding each other to that which all teachers want their students to learn–critical thinking.
In struggling to be a mentor teacher for the first time, I realized that the power needed to be even less in my hands than it already is in the workshop–it needs to be in the learners’ hands. In terms of Katie’s learning, she thrived when I let her just go crazy with her own wonderful ideas, instead of my giving her lots of suggestions. In terms of my students, I saw that they benefited from being more regular leaders of the classroom. I needed to do more than just give their writing importance by having them share it each day, or use their pieces as mentor texts, or listen to their suggestions about books, my writing, or my teaching. I needed to let them take an active hand in designing the curriculum, so that they could teach and learn from one another. Hence, a Eureka moment–the leadership in my classroom must by shifted to the students.
This weekend, I’ll be sitting down to write my first lesson plans in two months. Thanks to what I learned while teaching Katie, I’ll be designing structured leadership roles for my students–far more involved than the occasional student booktalk, or the daily quote sharing, or the class-by-class student mentor text. I’ll arrange for every student to give a booktalk this quarter. I’ll create a routine for all students to lead the class in a quickwrite with their own prompts. I’ll ask them to suggest titles to their peers for literature circle texts.
I’ve learned much about the reading and writing workshop model by teaching it to someone else, and I hope I will continue to grow as I hand the reins over to my students. Let this wild and wonderful workshop journey continue as the fourth quarter begins!