Jack Be Nimble

black ball point pen with brown spiral notebook

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“Jack be nimble, Jack be quick…”

Simple words to a simple rhyme for children, but they came back to me again and again this weekend. My husband and I traveled to San Antonio for the long weekend. Outside of a desire to see the Spurs (who weren’t playing), we didn’t really have a game plan in mind. We knew that we wanted to see the Alamo, tour the Missions, wall the Riverwalk. Beyond those roughly sketched out goals, we didn’t have anything set into stone.

And friends, I rarely don’t have a plan. I love my planner; I love the comfort and security, and let’s be honest, frankly illusory sense of control that having a plan brings to my life. This weekend had precious little order to it, and while this chafed against my very soul, the trip was still a rousing success, one we will look back on with smiles and laughter for a long time.

See, instead of knowing the six planned activities we wanted to do when we woke up Saturday morning, we just went where the wind (and the Riverwalk) took us. Remaining open to new experiences allowed us to experience and enjoy what we stumbled upon. Even though it was difficult for me to just go full Elsa and let it go, I enjoyed the end results of our experiment.  

This nimbleness and flexibility  reminded me of teaching workshop, writing workshop specifically and a recent conversation with a pre-service teacher who has been observing in my room for about two weeks. After a class where we workshopped a recent timed essay using a station rotation model in which I modeled semi-colon usage, in text citations and warrant development back to back to back in response to individual questions, he was brimming with questions. I LOVE the pre-service teachers with questions. I love that they’re watching and they’re thinking and they want to know more. That curiosity will serve them well as they pursue their practices in their own classrooms.

Several of these questions, though, have stuck with me in the week since that lesson:

“How do you know if your students are learning?”

  -the writing will show me. I mean, that sounds like a super Zen- the answer to life and everything is 42- kind of answer but it’s true. He was looking for a multiple choice, kill and drill type of assessment with these skills all taught in lockstep to the whole group. Workshop doesn’t work like that; the English class shouldn’t work like that; honestly, education shouldn’t work like that. Such a focus on testing and formative assessment from a pre-service teacher makes me sad. There’s so much more to this profession than choosing the right bubble on one day of the year- so much more to the relationships we build with our students and the passions and interests and parts of themselves that they choose to share with us.

“But how would this look on the lesson plan?”

  -well, my first thought was ‘who cares?’ But then I remembered that I have some privileges at my school that a new teacher or a teacher at another school may not have, so wondering about how admin might perceive the workshop was a valid questions. We quickly shifted, though, to how this question was placing the emphasis on the wrong portion of the class. Sure, I could type a five page lesson plan up that looked great on paper but didn’t really deliver a lot to the students in class. Eventually, we drilled down to the idea that it might be uncomfortable to let the students take the lead in their learning. I found myself saying over and over that this was a collaborative effort, referencing the Zone of Proximal Development multiple times. Until they’re ready to learn it, they aren’t ready to hear it. We also talked some about how powerful silences on the teachers part can be. Just letting the students sit with a question until another student jumped in or the asking student offers a starting place answer of her own keeps conversations, conferences and small group mini-lessons student focused. It’s so easy for the teacher to jump in with the right answer (and I understand everynew teacher’s desire to show off their knowledge, to prove that they know the content), but what does the student learn in this moment? Where is the student agency? In instances like these, I might argue that the ‘sage on the stage’ is about as personalized as the google search bar and that sometimes our students are best served when we allow them some space to think.

“How can you just teach those lessons that quickly?”

  -years of practice. This is the question that’s haunted me over the past few days. I can offer individual mini-lessons in a workshop setting NOW, thirteen years into my practice. I don’t know if I knew my content this well when I first started out. I don’t think I had the tools to deliver strong content in my early years of teaching. It was just survival. Workshop requires a kind of nimbleness and agility that only comes with practice and time and a willingness to be uncomfortable with knowing what’s next. I’m not sure how many early teachers could adopt workshop without strong support from their communities- in real life or online. I DO know, however, that workshop is an effective, student focused, student oriented way to teach English. But it can be scary to start alone.

So I encourage you to reach out to teachers who are just dipping their toes into the waters of workshop and remind them, that just like Jack in the nursery rhyme, they too can be nimble and quick.

Sarah Morris teaches in Murfreesboro, Tn and is glad to be back home and back to the classroom. She tweets at @marahsorris_cms.



One thought on “Jack Be Nimble

  1. Ron February 19, 2019 at 4:13 pm Reply

    Thank you for sharing your workshop experiences, Sarah. It is so refreshing to hear about learning in a free, inquiry based way. There is so much value to perfectly planned curriculum, but sometimes the most engagement comes from answering the questions students have… or even better, finding the answers! Great post.


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