Category Archives: Workshop in Other Content Areas

I’ve Been Thinking…About Our Town (Or What I’ve Learned About Workshopping the Canon With Thornton Wilder…)–Guest Post by Elizabeth Oosterheert

OurTowntheatertroupe

8th Grade Cast Members of Our Town by Thornton Wilder

Recently, I reread Amy Rasmussen’s post about defining what we mean by readers’ and writers’ workshop. I loved that Amy described workshop as  students doing the work of readers and writers, “engaged in intensive discussion and activity on a particular subject” — specifically related to growing as readers and writers. This work happens because teachers open spaces in their classrooms which allow for it.”

I confess. Our Town, Thornton Wilder’s 1938 Pulitzer Prize winner, is my favorite play. I read it obsessively. I find relevance in its pages time and again. Wilder said that he wrote the play to illustrate the value beyond price in every moment of our daily lives.

After spending more than twenty years with middle school students, and experiencing moments of deep joy and sadness, as well as tasting  my own mortality, the play resonates with me more now than it ever has…BUT, how do I workshop a canonical piece like Our Town? How do I make the pages sing for my students as they do for me?

Here are four ways that I changed my approach to the play this year to leave more space for student voice and choice.

Less is More: In Our Town, this meant placing students in small groups to reflect on specific scenes from the play. Rather than slogging through an entire act, and then replying to teacher generated questions, I asked students to journal with their groups and express their own thoughts, questions, and epiphanies after reading a few pages aloud and then viewing that scene. Thanks to @MarisaEThompson and @cultofpedagogy for encouraging me to try the TQE method.

Podcasts Rock!  is the most performed play in the United States, and that distinction 8thgradetheatermeans– a lot has been said about it! Students were invited to choose a podcast featuring an interview with a respected director, and then discuss observations from the podcast with their small group and share how those podcasts changed or enhanced their understanding of the text.

Music Matters: One of the fascinating things about Our Town is that Wilder designated a hymn, “Blessed Be the Tie That Binds,” to be played in each of the three acts. He was also very specific about the music that should be sung during the choir practice in Act I, and played for the wedding scene in Act II.  Music is a bridge from life to death, and beyond. Working with their small groups, students composed soundtracks for the play incorporating music from many different genres. They could also choose to write about Wilder’s musical selections and what difference his choices made.

Performance Deepens Understanding:  By the end of our study, my students recognized that George & Emily, the two main characters in the play, were allegorical. They could have been anyone, at any time, in any small town. We all grow up, most of us know what it is to love truly, and we all die. That is our story, and Our Town shows and tells it. My students did as well, performing some of their favorite scenes and exploring character motivations and emotions more deeply even than we did during our small group study times. Performing the scenes gave them a new appreciation for the nuances and poetry on page after page.

Our Town. Glorious in its simplicity, and relatable after more than eighty years, if students have the space to think and explore as readers, writers and speakers.

 

Elizabeth Oosterheert is a middle school language arts teacher and theatre troupe director at Pella Christian Grade School in Pella, Iowa. She loves writing, and sharing the stage with seventh and eighth graders. Her favorite stories are Peter Pan, The Outsiders, & Our Town. You can find her on Twitter @oosterheerte.

 

 

 

 

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Readers & Writers Workshop–Beyond English and Into Journalism

dotCJR-blog480Are any of us really just English teachers?

It has been rare in my teaching tenure to only teach English–and in my current position, my schedule is no different.  I teach Yearbook and Newspaper, in addition to four English classes.

Learning the content of those new-to-me courses has been one of the biggest (and most fruitful) challenges of my teaching career.  While writing instruction is naturally paramount in journalism courses, teaching photography, design, AP style, and the interview process were foreign concepts to me prior to starting this job.

So, when I discovered that I’d be teaching journalism, I did what any good teacher does–I began to research.  This article describing the four properties of powerful teaching–presence, personality, passion, and preparation–reminded me that I had the first three qualities when it came to teaching journalism.  I just had to do the work of preparation.

After a long summer of workshops and self-teaching, I felt well-versed in lens aperture and the inverted pyramid, but I wasn’t sure how I wanted to structure my journalism courses.  When I boiled down the values I wanted my young journalists to prize, though, they came down to doing good writing, good research, and good thinking–all values that are foundational parts of the readers and writers workshop.

So, each day in Newspaper and Yearbook, we begin with ten minutes of reading.  I confer with students and we discuss how to read like writers.  We analyze how a writer sets a scene, much like how a photographer composes a picture.  We note the author’s style, filing away their craft moves for use in our own copy writing.  We speculate about the writer’s inspiration for the story, trying to find our own topics to write about.

After two booktalks (often nonfiction), we then move into a quickwrite, thinking in writing for ten minutes about a variety of subjects–sometimes responding to simple questions, sometimes practicing journalistic writing skills, and sometimes brainstorming ideas for articles, photo stories, or coverage.

A ten- to fifteen-minute mini-lesson follows, taught either by me or the editor-in-chief of the day’s publication.  These mini-lessons are based on trends the editors and I notice as students submit their work.  Yesterday we worked on strengthening our headlines; today we’ll focus on brushing up on the conventions of AP style in our copy.

We leave ourselves with a sixty-minute writers’ workshop every day, which is packed full of collaboration, conferring, and chaos.  That last hour is productive until the bell rings, with every student journalist working toward a unique deadline or assignment, receiving guidance from any and every other person in the room.

Watching and participating in the organized, creative chaos of a journalistic writers’ workshop is probably my favorite time of day.

I asked two students how they felt that the workshop enhanced their journalistic learning.  Ryan feels the quickwrites are most valuable:  “Your notebook allows you to open up and be yourself when you write,” he says.  “You learn to still have a voice in journalism, which is usually just really formulaic.”

“I really like that you learn while you write,” he emphasizes, repeating that twice in our brief conference.

Gabi agrees.  “You’re learning as you do the writing–learning from your mistakes–rather than having concepts spoonfed to you,” she says.  “I think everyone likes to learn hands-on, by actually writing, instead of just reading other people’s articles.”

In what electives or non-English classes do you employ the workshop model?

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