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#NCTE14 J.44 The Landscape of Workshop in AP English

Shana, Jackie, Erika, and I will be presenting at NCTE in Washington, D.C. on Saturday at 2:45 pm. Penny Kittle is our Chair. We are session J.44. Please, come and join the conversation.

Readers and Writers Workshop was a mystery to me for a while, literally. I didn’t even know about it. I’m still puzzled that I made it through my teacher education program without learning about it.

My first three years of teaching, I pretty much taught the same way I was taught in high school. I chose the books we read. I chose the topics students wrote about. I was queen of my classroom, and I decreed that my preAP freshmen would read Dickens. They hated it. No, that’s not right. They hated trying to read it. So they didn’t. Gratefully, at least a few of my first-year students don’t hold it against me. We got together this summer for dinner, and Cara and Marcus relieved my growing guilt.

When I finally came to understand how Workshop could revamp my instruction, that guilt grew. I wasted so much time. I could have done so much more to help my students become readers and writers.

I am different now.

My goal as an educator is to foster the literacy skills in my students that will provide them with the confidence and the capability to contribute to our community and our world.

A week ago I sat in a department meeting and listened as the department manager explained the direction our district is moving in terms of English instruction:  Readers and Writers Workshop. Skills-based instruction. Exactly the instruction I believe in. Exactly the instruction I try to provide my students every day.

I sat there stumped when one veteran teacher began to fidget. His face turned red. His hands twitched on the desk. Finally, he spoke up when the conversation turned to assessments and the need for skills-based exams to match skills-based teaching, not exams based on the content in books read (or not read) in class.

“What’s the point then? We might as well not even call it an English class then,” he said, and several other heads nodded.

What?!?

Because you are being asked to foster a love of reading in your students, allow them choice in reading materials, encourage them to write about their reading, model the life of a reader, and do something similar in the way of writing instruction, you think that is not an English class?

I remembered a conversation  I had with someone struggling with letting go of only reading classic novels with their students. I asked what her number one question was. She said, “Equity. Shouldn’t our students be reading the same timeless texts as so many students do in wealthier areas?”

Shouldn’t the equity be in the literacy skills our students possess more than the books they have read?

With the College Board and school districts and schools promoting more and more students take advantage of Open Enrollment in Advanced Placement classes, in my experience, many of those students do not have the prerequisite skills to be successful in an advanced English class. Many of the students I have this year have not passed their state-mandated English I and English II test, and now they are expecting to be successful in a college-level course. I am all for differentiation, but it gets difficult when students are on so many levels, struggling to the exceptionally talented gifted student.

my classroom

Readers and Writers Workshop has helped solve a lot of my challenge. I teach the reader not the reading. I teach the writer not the writing. And every student is different.

So many students are hurting, and isn’t it part of our job as teachers of teens to help them learn about what it means to be human:  empathetic, kind, compassionate, intelligent, courageous? All the characteristics we learn from the best protagonists in the best literature. That is what I tell my students:  We read literature to learn what it means to be human in a world that would like us to forget. Books in hand make us slow down, quiet our minds, embrace moments of stillness — something we so badly need in this social-media, speed-of-light world.

Read this entry in a student’s notebook. She gave me permission to share. It’s raw and frightening.

We Chris notebookwere brainstorming topics for a narrative we’ll write soon. I asked students to think about their lives and write to the question

“What if ______?”

Can you even imagine?

Every day students face challenges, fears, and troubles that no child should have to face. I believe teachers can be healers. We can be healers when we value the student more than our content. When we embrace the individual and focus on her needs, academically and emotionally.

Three of my students cried as they told me of their worries before second period was over on Friday. I am honored that they trust me.

Community matters.

Conferences matter.

Mentor texts and Modeling matter.

Choice matters.

TIME matters.

All students, advanced or otherwise, need teachers who are willing to let them make choices that lead to profound learning, relieving their worry sure helps that happen.

Watch this clip of some of my students sharing what they like about our Readers and Writers Workshop instruction:

And here’s my slide presentation for NCTE. I will only talk about a tad of what I wrote on this post there. I hope that if you are in Washington, D.C. you will come to our session. And if you are not, join the conversation on Twitter beginning on Saturday at 2:45. #NCTE14

©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

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4 thoughts on “#NCTE14 J.44 The Landscape of Workshop in AP English

  1. […] We Have Arrived. Shana shared Non-negotiables Across the Landscape of Workshop. And I shared The Landscape of Workshop in AP English.  (Our proposal for 2016 was not accepted, but we are mostly over the bitter and will keep […]

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  2. […] I asked some friends for feedback on this post and got opposing advice. I let it rest for half a week. I prayed about it. And then today I read this post by Donalyn Miller, author of The Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild. I’m not positive, but I’m pretty sure she wrote it in a response to a comment on this post by Amanda Palmer, Secondary Language Arts Coordinator in Katy, TX. I’ve written about my own students and their experiences as they’ve grown as readers before at Nerdy Book Club and on this blog; and I’ve presented on how I advocate for choice in AP English at conferences. […]

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  3. booknerdkim November 19, 2014 at 11:10 am Reply

    So proud of you guys and excited for you…you guys are my heroines!!

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  4. Gary Anderson November 19, 2014 at 9:20 am Reply

    Thank you for this post. Every paragraph and image here shows how smart, dedicated, creative, empathetic teachers can make a huge difference.

    This quote is really the battlefield: “With the College Board and school districts and schools promoting more and more students take advantage of Open Enrollment in Advanced Placement classes, in my experience, many of those students do not have the prerequisite skills to be successful in an advanced English class.”

    Just yesterday my 11th-grade daughter met with her counselor about next year’s schedule. My daughter said the counselor “got snippy” when told that she wanted to take “only” three AP classes next year instead of the six indicated by the “sequence.” (At her school, every course in every level of the curriculum is part of a sequence that culminates in at least one AP course.)

    I don’t think I’m being overly cynical when I say that a big part of the problem is those magazine ratings based on how many AP tests are given at a school. Too many schools celebrate those empty rankings. The PR value is enormous; real estate agents love those rankings. But when AP fever strikes a school, the curriculum is frequently overwhelmed by testing concerns.

    You all have found a different path to the waterfall though. I look forward to learning from you in your session on Saturday.

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