I’ve always stressed to my students the importance of titles: “It’s the FIRST thing your reader will see! Make it exciting! Take a risk!”
Clearly, Billy, our district ELA coordinator, had internalized these ideas when he, the Friday before our summer Reader/Writer Workshop Institute began, sent out an inter-district email titled “Welcome to the Summer Party!” His email began, “Friends, I’m very excited to spend the next few weeks with you at our summer Workshop Institute! This is basically going to be just like summer camp, but for nerdy people who love to read, write, teach, and learn. 😊”
As both a millennial (who loves emojis) and a long-time self-identifying super nerd (who loves all the aforementioned activities), this introduction made the proceeding dozen bullet points of logistical details and harrowing announcement of a 30-minute daily BYO working lunch much easier to digest.
So here I was on a Friday afternoon, just a stones-throw away from college and having just finished my first year of teaching that day, actually excited to go back to school! What happened to the days of skipping morning university classes? I pinched myself, checked my pulse, and drank a third cup of coffee, wondering what this year had done with the old Austin.
Day one began. I observed a few things as we got started: most teachers, myself included, sat with others from their own high school (I promised myself to remember this next time I asked my students to sit with somebody they didn’t know); there was a mixed aura of both excitement and uncertainty in the air; there were stacks of intriguing books and composition notebooks all around. But the most significant observation I made was about my internal expectations. Having just finished a year of implementing R/W workshop, I was excited to hone that craft. I knew I had significant room to grow in helping students become writers. I was fully expecting to love the time spent with colleagues each morning. But—I was also expecting to enjoy my time spent with students less—students who were there because they had failed the English STAAR test. Students who had likely been beat down by the system the majority of their lives. Students who probably lacked motivation or engagement. I was prepping myself to “push through” each afternoon. Boy, was I wrong.
Our daily schedule for context:
- 9:00-11:30—Billy and Amy lead us through model workshop lessons mixed with reading, writing, and discussing best practices as teachers
- 11:30-12:00—An exciting working lunch where 30 teachers competed for two microwaves
- 12:00-2:00—Separate into pairs and adapt the morning’s lessons/prepare to teach
- 2:00-5:00—Co-teach 20 students
Our days were jam-packed. Our brains had to be ON, the wheels turning from 9-5 every day. Though we learned and planned and ate and laughed as a professional (most of the time) community for the majority of each day, I quickly discovered that the true heart of this institute was the three hours we got to spend with our students each afternoon. This was not a mandatory or graded institute, yet rain or shine, most of the class I shared with Angie showed up day after day. Contrary to my initial deficit thinking, most students put their skin and bones into the game, trusting us to help them pass if they just did the crazy, seemingly unrelated to the STAAR test tasks, we asked of them. Contrary to my low expectations, these kids poured their hearts out to me and to each other and gave it their all. I did not internalize this all at once, but through a series of powerful moments, which are so numerous I don’t know what to do but list them:
- Zubia and Ana teaching me about their faith, how they were celebrating Eid, and what the beautiful and intricate Henna tattoos that covered their hands meant
- Our entire class helping me work through my essay about my brother’s drug addiction and how it was hurting our family, empathizing with me and giving me ideas that I incorporated into the piece
- Orion checking in with me to make sure I was okay after I read my piece to them
- Having a heated debate on cell phones
- Matthew asking me to write down a list of books he should read and him buying and finishing three of them in the three weeks we spent together
- Looking up during our sacred reading time and seeing every student entranced, realizing it was so quiet I could hear my heart beating
- ______ sharing his written piece with me about him struggling with his sexual identity in a family that would consider it out of the question to be gay
- Reading Lester’s experiences with racism toward Hispanic people; Ana’s desire for her older siblings to want to hang out with her; Orion’s extended metaphor of a volcano (his family) exploding and him getting burned by the lava, even though he would shut the door to block it out; Zubia’s story of Pakistan and its people and cultures, and her desire to show people a new perspective; Syed’s story on how strong his mother is, and how we live in a seemingly fatherless society; Raelynn’s essay on why girls should stop competing and pushing each other down and should instead lift each other up; Ethan’s argument on why enjoying one’s education is so vital, yet so rare; and so many other pieces of these kids’ hearts.
As I reflect on these moments, I ask myself whether these moments would have occurred if we had done STAAR test packets and STAAR test prep. I ask myself whether the students would have continued to show up day after day. I ask myself if I would have grown as a writer myself through the help of these kids. But I already know the answers.
These experiences were made possible because of workshop, because we engaged in real reading and real writing. These experiences were made possible because I loved and trusted students enough to be vulnerable to them.
I can hardly wait for the next summer party.
Among other things, Austin Darrow was an English major in college, and so he knows that he’s supposed to write things like, “Austin Darrow is <fill in the blank>.” Except he hates writing about myself like he’s not in the room. He also knows he’s not supposed to plagiarize, so he credits that intro to Ilsa J. Bick. Here’s the need to know: Austin Darrow is currently planning his summer school curriculum, next year, his wedding in December, his honeymoon, and his grocery list. And he loves it.
Read the essay Austin wrote at the Clear Creek ISD Summer Readers-Writers Institute here.