Every year I arrive at the second quarter with a new approach, idea, or plan. This will be the solution! I think. This will sustain momentum. This will help us make it through the slump. This will be the difference between dreading quarter two and praying for quarter three, but year after year, I am wrong. For the past three years I’ve convinced myself it is the book—Lord of the Flies is too boring; they can’t appreciate Bradbury’s language in Fahrenheit 451.
The problem isn’t with my students though—it’s with me. I am doing it wrong, and while I am ashamed to admit the honest truth, I realize now the error of my ways.
I “gave up” traditional teaching three years ago, when I transitioned to a workshop model of education. I carved out time for reading, instated notebooks, poured over workshop guides, and asked countless questions of my mentors and colleagues. The bare bones were in place, and I was convinced that I had the structure necessary to shift from a teacher-centered classroom to a student-centered classroom built on choice. In many cases I did; every start of the school year began smoothly with excited readers and passionate writers. We told stories, read poetry, shared quick writes, and analyzed craft, but I dreaded quarter two, the quarter when together, we would read our first of three required whole class novels.
Quarter two was when I lost their voices, their attention, and their passion. With whole class novels, our focus shifted from “who are you and what are you thinking?” to “who is your author and what is he thinking?”
Under the weight of scaffolding, curriculum standards, core competencies, and competency based rubrics, my mini-lessons focused on literary terminology instead of literary exploration. To me, reading mini-lessons meant teaching the same terms I’d grown up with: symbolism, Freytag’s pyramid, direct and indirect characterization, round and flat characters, etc. This meant my lessons shifted from writing-centered lessons that started with the question, “What do you notice about the author’s craft?” to terminology-centered lessons, that started with, “Apply your understanding of (fill in the blank) to the book.” The latter produced significantly less empowering results.
So, I asked and probed my students. I peppered them with questions during study halls and extra help; I snuck in questions with the straggling Writer’s Club members after meetings, gave out surveys, and chatted at lunch with colleagues. And while I was convinced that it was because I was “forcing” them to read unrelatable classics, I couldn’t shake the fact that I was missing something bigger.
By the time I sat down with my living mentor Linda Rief at a coffee shop in Exeter, I realized I was doing it wrong in quarter two. The pieces gradually added up—I knew the three reading options I had given them for literature circles weren’t choices at all. I was hoping they would read the books in their entirety, but I knew that this year would lend itself to additional groans, frustration, and abandonment. At the end of the day, I was a workshop teacher defaulting to a traditional methodology or worse, was I a traditional teacher pretending to run a workshop?
The two greatest pieces of advice came first via my special educator mother, who asked, “Why not just teach them good writing? Isn’t that what classics are?” And second through Linda Rief, who pointblank asked me why I needed to teach plot triangles anyways.
Were there successes in my literature circle unit? Most definitely. Sure, the vast majority didn’t fall in love with Golding, and it breaks my heart that they couldn’t revel in the beauty of Bradbury’s language, but in final surveys, nearly every student appreciated the time they had to discuss the novels in small groups. They enjoyed talking about the stories with peers, and while not all of them loved the books, many pointed out that this was the first time they engaged in authentic conversations about literature without a teacher moderating the discussions. They learned; they just didn’t learn the way I had hoped.
Part of me feels like I lost four weeks that we could have spent more effectively growing together as readers and writers while looking at the beauty of craft in book clubs centered on young adult lit of their choosing. The other part of me feels like I failed my students in providing this idealized version of what I hoped our class would be and then slamming them back to reality with the same sort of stock analysis I question.
I am impatient when it comes to growth, particularly when it comes to my teaching. While I understand my students’ needs as developing readers and writers, I am quick to judge my own struggles. Even as an intern, one of my personal goals was “to be at the level of a second year teacher.” I repeated this mantra knowing full well that the only way to be at the level of a second year teacher was to be a second year teacher.
All I can promise my students is that I will continue to reflect, move forward, and become the teacher they deserve. But alas, growth takes time, trial, and error. It requires me to unravel years of traditional education, analyze what works, what doesn’t, what I should carry with me, and what I can discard. It will take time for me to unwind my own brain just as I ask my students to unwind theirs. I am still learning to be a writer, a reader, a student, a teacher, and that takes time, time that sometimes feels all too precious when I only have one year with my kids. Fortunately, teaching is like writing. Every day, I begin the process of drafting a new story, and every year, I get the chance to revise my work.