Guest Post by Amanda Penney: The Workshop Classroom and YOU!!!

Note: This post signifies quite a milestone for the ELA 1 team I had the privilege of joining this year.  As of this morning, and thanks to the graciousness of this blog’s creators, the entire team has now published on this site.  To see a post by our department chair Megan, click here. Austin posted this summer, here. Sarah, our team lead posted a few weeks back, and my one year anniversary as a regular contributor is in January. This agency affords us power.  It gives us a voice in our fight for literacy.  To the creators of this blog, Thank You.

The workshop classroom is undoubtedly overwhelming to embrace at first. It is difficult to find information on how to properly implement this pedagogy, and there are many misconceptions of what workshop actually looks, for instance, on sites like TeachersPayTeachers. It’s a lot of work to be a workshop classroom. You actually have to read and write yourself if you want your students to benefit from this structure. You need to learn how to identify a solid mentor text from a variety of works and know what you can do with them successfully.

But the work pays off. It gives you, the teacher, so much more than you could ever have imagined. To keep your students engaged in their choice reading, you have to keep up with the never-ending influx of newly published works. You are forced to venture into genres of writing that you would not normally reach. For instance, I read Matt de la Pena’s We Were Here, and I can assure you, it is not historical fiction (my typical go-to). My students were writing about their foster care experiences and retelling their mishaps that placed them in alternate schools. Matt de la Pena provided an avenue for me to better understand these students, who in turn, helped broaden my reading interests.

For me, this shift has been monumental. As a workshop teacher, I actually get to read what I want to read and have picked up books I wouldn’t normally and enjoyed them! I get excited when I stumble upon a passage that might as well jump off the page and into my computer, so I can begin identifying my mini lesson and therein construct my fantastic lesson cycle. It is fun and exciting, and I have such a unique opportunity in my profession to be creative each and every day.

Writing has been the most exciting shift for me personally. I had lost a lot of confidence in my abilities as a writer when I entered college. I will never forget attending Texas A&M’s orientation for new students and the very blunt speech we were given. Simply put, the speaker stated that the five-paragraph-essay would lead to nothing more than a failing grade, so we better learn something new now or “See you later!” I was terrified, of course, because I had been taught nothing other than the five-paragraph-essay. The only piece I had ever written that did not follow that god-awful structure was my college admissions essay. Little had I known, I had “workshopped” my most proud piece of high school writing to which my first line stated “I am crazy.” However, one piece did not shake the terror I felt upon beginning my first day of classes the following week.

As a transfer student my sophomore year, I took an Advanced Composition course and a Shakespeare course. I held a solid A in my Advanced Composition class with helpful pointers and typically positive feedback from my professor. Yet, I could barely hold a low C in my Shakespeare class where I was regularly criticized for my writing style. I spent most of my time in the writing center, and at one point, the graduate assistant was so baffled by my C- paper over Shylock’s speech “I am a Jew” that he asked for the opinion of his “boss” who returned with a shrug and said, “I’m sorry, I don’t know why you got a C…. it looks like he just dislikes how you write and is grading you accordingly. Good luck.”

I spent the rest of my English degree pursuit frustrated and confused. I concluded that writing was a painful process, which would typically yield disappointment from my readers. I would never truly be able to improve because I, unfortunately, did not and would not inherit the mutant skill of mind-reading from Professor Xavier or Gene Grey.

Then, I began to teach. My first year, our campus did not have workshop at all, and teaching was painful day in and day out. My students really did not benefit from The Odyssey or the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, and to be honest, neither did I. My second year began with the introduction of workshop, which was difficult to understand, considering I not only had never taught this way with my meager one-year experience under my belt, but I also had not learned this way. So, I struggled through what I learned and still could not get my students to engage. They always referred to their “I give up” phrase of “I don’t know what to write about,” and it left me frustrated and exhausted each day.

I had heard about writing along with my students, but I was afraid to do this. I did not identify as a writer and had long since decided I wasn’t very good at it. My students could never know this of course… But I was getting nowhere, and it was time for a shift.

So, one day, half-way through my second year of teaching, I tried something new. I chose to write with my students. I had been flipping through the pages of Kelly Gallagher’s Write Like This and stumbled upon his “1 to 18 Topics” lesson cycle. I embraced my fears of writing with my students and took the dive head-first the next day.

I started safe with soccer and intended to choose a new topic to expand each class period. To my astonishment, every single student had their pens to their papers and were scribbling madly as if they had been starved of this freedom for too long. Conferring revealed a vulnerability I had not anticipated, and I became inspired to show my own vulnerability as the day continued. I realized I had a lot to say, and I wanted to “say” it through my writing. I had starved myself of this freedom for far too long, and I was eager to continue writing.

My third-year of teaching is when workshop really kicked off in my classroom. I was searching for an engaging mentor text that utilized simple sentences as my students struggled (and still do) with sentence boundaries.  An excerpt from Dune stood out to me and I was eager to write beside it with my students in class. The excerpt is as follows:

penny1

Each student wrote for 10 minutes and were asked to begin their piece with “I must not __.” We then pulled a Penny Kittle and revised it to ensure it was only constructed of simple sentences. My students wrote some incredible pieces, and I am convinced their success is a result of my own enthusiasm for the lesson itself. Their writing inspired my writing and in turn began to reconstruct my identity as both a writer and teacher. I was embracing myself as a writer, and my students, in turn, began to embrace themselves as writers.

Workshop has transformed my perspective of writing and provided a unique platform for me to embrace myself as a writer. It has exposed a variety of genres to read but also has provided a variety of genres I can choose to write.

Prior to workshop, I used to hate poetry. Yes. I used the word “hate” … as an English major and teacher…. It was this daunting task and an awful entity that lurked in the dreary school hallways. My teachers never taught me to write beside a poem and always found the most difficult poetry to “interpret” in class. In Ohio, my freshman English teacher appeared to enjoy watching us squirm in confusion and insisted we leave his classroom never ever knowing what the author’s message actually was. I despised poetry’s very existence because of this and determined its purpose was a cruel joke on the reader.

Workshop completely shifted this perspective of poetry for me. I would never had guessed in a million years that I would currently be reading not one, not two, but THREE poetry books at once. The thought of writing my own poetry was a complete joke as well. Yet, here I am, writing beside poetry in my classroom and encouraging my students to do the same. It has a completely different purpose now than it ever did before. Its purpose is no longer to torment my being but to excite my creativity and provide an avenue for expression I never would have known existed if it wasn’t for workshop. The first poem I wrote beside was a Rudy Francisco piece and it looks like this:

Mentor Text:

When people ask how I’m doing

I want to say,

my depression is an angry deity, a jealous god

a thirsty shadow that wrings my joy like a dishrag

and makes juice out of my smile.

I want to say,

getting out of bed has become a magic trick.

I am probably the worst magician I know.

I want to say,

this sadness is the only clean shirt I have left

and my washing machine has been broken for months,

but I’d rather not ruin someone’s day with my tragic honesty

so instead I treat my face like a pumpkin.

I pretend that it’s Halloween.

I carve it into something acceptable.

I laugh and I say,

“I’m doing alright.”

-Rudy Francisco, Helium


My Version:

When people ask how I’m doing

I want to say,

leave me alone, please, now and forever while

my anxiety leaps and jumps throughout my body

and makes me cringe.

I want to say,

standing here is an allusion of sanity,

a trick I feel I will never truly perfect.

I want to say,

this fear is my only possession I have ever had

and I want someone to destroy it so it cannot return,

but I’d rather not burden someone’s day with the demon that encircles me

so instead I treat my face like a canvas.

I paint with bright colors.

I create something mundane.

I smile and I say,

“I’m doing alright.”

-Ms. Penney


I felt so freed of my previous misconceptions with this one piece, and as a result, my class and I enjoy our daily “Poet Moments” inspired by my colleague Charles Moore. I revel in this peace and tranquility and am grateful for workshop with each and every poem I have the privilege to write with my students. This joy has completely altered my initial definition of poetry, and I will forever be indebted to workshop and this genre of writing.

Workshop has given me the opportunity to grow as a reader and writer. It has given me a purpose and a drive to find new and exciting ways to engage not only my students but myself. I no longer feel as if writing is a painful process and the nagging frustration of how my invisible readers expect me to write has long since passed. I have a voice and a means of expressing that voice, as do you, every single day.

Amanda Penney is a bit of a perfectionist and is grateful for the patience that her colleague, Charles Moore, has for her and her ever-changing blog post. She plays soccer whenever she can and loves exploring nature with her only child (her dog who she considers her child) Shanti. She is a complete nerd when it comes to anything comic book oriented and is currently exploring the possibilities of her favorite series, The Uncanny X-Men from the late 1960’s, becoming an exciting and invigorating mentor text. She hopes this will be the topic of her next guest post, that is of course, if Charles is willing to embrace another bought of Penney and her procrastinating-perfectionism.

Advertisements

What are you thinking?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: