I’ve been fascinated with the language I hear in classrooms for a long while now.
My TTT friends and I like to use welcoming, inclusive phrases to describe what goes on in our classrooms–we practice offering choice, inviting learning. But many classrooms I visit use more permissive phrases that emphasize teacher control–“I make them;” “they have to;” “I let them.” Often, without ever stepping foot into a classroom, we can make inferences about what kinds of work students are doing just by hearing a teacher describe their learning. Is the learning situated as an invitation, a choice, a welcome pastime–or a mandate?
I worry that, for many critics of the readers-writers workshop, this language might be what convinces them that student choice lacks inherent rigor, as if choice is something to be offered on a menu. A luxury. A privilege.
This article details nicely the evolution of the readers-writers workshop in the last 40 years. Veteran teacher Lorrie McNeill, after visiting Nancie Atwell’s classroom, wiped away tears and described Atwell’s students as “so fortunate.” “It makes me sad that my students can’t have this every day,” McNeill said.
Student choice is depicted this way often–as a privilege a lucky few students are given. But in an era of increased measurement, standardization, and monologic thinking, I believe choice is not something that should merely be offered to students. Choice has become an imperative if we want our students to be successful, purpose-driven citizens.
We’ve all read Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken,” and are doubtless familiar with its final stanza–“I took the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” However, I find that the first stanza is far more descriptive of the students I’ve had in the past several years:
“Sorry I could not travel both.” Our students, often unaccustomed to making meaningful choices, are paralyzed when they come to roads that diverge in their lives. Growing up in a culture that is saturated with meaningless choices–social media, Netflix, and smartphone games come to mind, combined with an academic and social culture that emphasizes standardization and sameness–is devastating a generation.
So many of our students lack the agency afforded to them by frequent, authentic opportunities to make choices and mistakes–both low-stakes and high-stakes–at a young age. Too often, kids are paralyzed by indecision, faced with the paradox that too many choices becomes similar to having no choice at all:
I’d been thinking about this concept for a while, but it was driven home for me by one of my students, Sara.
Sara was one of my favorite kids, a secondary English major with a penchant for words and a passion for education. She seemed an indomitable force, never bogged down by her workload, her multiple jobs, or the high expectations she put on herself.
Until a few Fridays ago, when she asked to meet privately, and told me that she wanted to drop out of our education program.
Four years into her schooling as an English Ed major, and she was just now realizing she didn’t want to be a teacher–and no less, a potentially really awesome teacher?!
That was my initial reaction…until we talked, and I realized that she was just now finding the courage to decide she didn’t want to be a teacher.
“I cried when I got my acceptance letter into the program,” she told me. “I was hoping I wouldn’t get in and the choice would be made for me.”
Sara is part of a generation of students who have been shepherded through their education without getting the opportunity to make important decisions about her future. Like many millennials I know, while Sara enjoyed learning and higher education in general, she didn’t really know what she wanted to be when she grew up. How do any of us, really? Still, she toed the line, went to college, and was a senior before she realized she was in too deep.
On a large scale, Sara is one of many “college-track” students who, while in high school, have very little say in if they’ll go to college–if they’re lucky, they get to choose their major. On a small scale, this looks like a school experience that prizes correctness, conformist thinking, compliance. It looks like a school culture that positions kids in a binary: college or career-ready. It looks like a nation of kids who grow up believing in a new, sinister American Dream: that college is the path to success, despite a growing trend in research that shows it’s really not.
To help kids like Sara–and all students–we need to make choice less of an offering in schools, and more of a necessity. How can we graduate teens who have to ask to go to the restroom on Friday and expect them to make responsible decisions about where they might live or work on Monday?
Our students need to grow up, K-12, in a culture of choice. They need to not only self-select what to read, but should be guided toward choosing their own purposes, evaluations, and goals when it comes to that reading. The same is true for their study of writing, mathematics, and the social and natural sciences.
Students should make their own choices, early and often, so that when they no longer have a parent, a school, or an institution making those choices for them, they know what to do. Making good choices is a life skill that requires practice like any other. We get into dangerous territory when we ask students to make their first real decisions when the repercussions of poor financial, employment, or relationship choices are often irreversibly permanent.
For me, this makes my quest to spread the love of readers-writers workshop even more meaningful. I believe that the power of letting students choose what, how, and when to read and write empowers our students far beyond the ELA classroom.
Shana Karnes is mom to 1.5 spunky little girls and wife to a hardworking surgical resident. She teaches practicing and preservice English teachers at West Virginia University and is fueled by coffee, a pregnancy craving of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (this week), and a real obsession with all things reading and writing. Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader and read more of her writing on the WVCTE Best Practices Blog.