Tag Archives: readers-writers workshop in the secondary classroom

Two Take-Aways from Mentoring my Student Teacher

Next week I get my students back. For 12 weeks I’ve had Joseph as a student teacher, and I’ve come to really miss my kids. It’s an exciting time.

I am hoping I get my writing mojo back, too. I’ve struggled with topics to write about since I haven’t been working with my students day to day. One of my favorite parts about being a reflective practitioner is my itching need to think about, write, and share my experiences in the classroom. Thanks for reading this writing.

This is the fourth student teacher I’ve mentored. It is the first time I’ve given up control. Maybe it’s because I’ve learned how. Maybe it’s because Joseph is just that awesome at stepping into the role of teacher. It’s probably Joseph. I have learned a lot from Joseph over the past several weeks, and I’ve learned a lot about my teaching practice as I have become the observer.

In every aspect of my practice, I have become more purposeful. When I return to my classroom next week, I will be sharper, more intentional in my planning and instruction, and how I interact with my students day to day.

Here’s two top take aways — and why I think every teacher, especially teachers who practice a workshop pedagogy — should offer to mentor a preservice teacher eager to enter our discipline and our profession:

Perception changes everything. My first conversation with Joseph was in the fall. He spent several weeks during the semester observing my classes two days a week. After his first visit he said something like this:  “That was unlike any English class I’ve ever been in. I was always bored in English. I didn’t know a class could look like this.”

Don’t most new teachers step into their roles and teach the way they were taught?

I did. I assigned writing with prompts and due dates instead of teaching writing with mentors and modeling. I pulled out the textbook, assigned a lead weight book to every student, used the suggested lesson ideas and the questions for guided discussion and the activities in each chapter. I chose every novel for the whole class, torturing children with booklets of questions to “aid their understanding” or dialectical journals to “write their thinking” for the complex texts I chose. The students I taught year one certainly still dream about Dickens, and quizzes about characters and setting and plot. I was a nightmare.

Joseph conferring

Conferring with readers during independent reading time.

New teachers have to believe there is a better way. I know some university education programs prepare students for choice and workshop. (Shana was blessed at the University of Miami with the likes of Tom Romano for a professor.) But many programs do not come close to preparing students for the realities of teaching, much less the research-based practices of readers-writers workshop.

Experienced workshop teachers can change that one student teacher at a time.

Research-based Practices in Reading and Writing Instruction. Even more than usual, I’ve turned to research to back up and refine my thinking. I’ve studied Lou LaBrant thanks to Dr. Paul Thomas and his blog. I’ve read more blogs by thoughtful educators like Tricia Ebaria and books by teacher leaders who inspire great ideas — favorite faithfuls like Penny Kittle’s Book Love and Write Beside Them, and I have re-read conference notes and remembered the why and the how of this pedagogy called readers-writers workshop.

I’ve been able to support my thinking with research, and I’ve learned through my reading the importance of validating that research. Research is important to the choices I make in my classroom.

My confidence grows as I read the work of people who are smarter than me and usually more experienced. I nod along, making notes in the margins, get giddy when I think “I do that.” And as my confidence grows, I am more apt to take risks. When I take risks, my students are more likely to take risks. Risks are exciting in a writing class where we celebrate the process over the product. We go on the journey of discovery together.

Sharing this research with Joseph is like a backpack of confidence. Depending on where he lands as a teacher, and the input and control of administration, he may need it to back up his workshop approach to teaching readers and writers. Knowing Joseph will begin his career with evidence-based practices may take away some of the other frightening struggles of first year teaching. I hope so.

I look forward to seeing Joseph step into a classroom of his own. His students will be lucky ones.

What advice can you give Joseph as he steps into his career in English education? Please share in the comments.

Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 3 to the Fighting Farmers at Lewisville High School. She also facilitates professional development for other teachers making the move into a workshop pedagogy. She adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus Christ: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all love more than we think we can. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass.


How Can I Create a Culture of Reading?

Guest Post by Alex Murphy. I’m sure Shana, Lisa, and I have a ton of ideas for this new teacher, but we’d like to know your ideas. Dear TTT Reader, please read Alex’s post and share your thinking:

We have a chant in my English I classroom.  Every class before we begin our day’s work, I summon my best Nick Saban bellow and ask my students, “What’s our theme?”

“Stories have power!” they respond, sometimes with gusto, other times a bit more sluggishly.

Regardless of the level of enthusiasm, I have taught the kids to respond this way because I believe it to be deeply, potently true.  Drawing on the teaching of my all-time favorite author, J.R.R. Tolkien, I believe that stories indeed have more power to communicate truth and combat lies than even the best-structured arguments our expositors have to offer.  As Tolkien said in “Mythopoeia”:

In Paradise perchance the eye may stray

from gazing upon everlasting Day

to see the day-illumined, and renew

from mirrored truth the likeness of the True.

As Shana Peeples reminded us in her keynote speech at the Texas Council of Teachers of English Language Arts Annual Conference [this weekend], stories—“mirrored truth,” as Tolkien calls them—indeed have power to combat the Doublespeak we hear so often from the halls of power.  “Stories are political tools,” she reminded us.  It is a lesson well worth remembering.

But dearly as I hold these principles about the unmatched power of stories, the Friday afternoon workshop hosted by Holly Genova and Amy Rasmussen convicted me that I have not yet created a culture of reading in my room—a community of readers in which students devour books with purpose and swap stories with joy.  As I listened to Holly and Amy discuss the power that reading choice has in their classrooms, the desire to cultivate a similar culture in my own classroom washed over me.  Indeed, I was inspired to start right away.

It took about seven seconds for my inspiration to dissolve into fear.  I froze, half-way through tossing Monday’s lesson plans off the balcony, as the scenarios hit me one after the other:  What if I can’t convince my students that reading is important?  What if I don’t have time to encourage independent reading and also teach the standards sufficiently?  What if my administrators don’t get on board? What if my own inadequacies as a reader start to show through?   What if I fail?

This is my first year teaching; I don’t even have a decent classroom library.  It feels like an awful risk to undertake a paradigm-shift from assigned reading and direct instruction to instructing through independent reading, especially when the English I STAAR test is seven instructional weeks away. However, if my mission is to convince my students that stories have power, nothing could be more important.  So, to the wonderful educators at Three Teachers Talk, I have several pressing questions:

  1. How should I start the work of creating a culture of reading in my classroom this deep into the year? What should be my first step in the transition?
  2. How can I undertake this shift and still ensure my scholars are equipped to perform well on the skills-based assessments they will take in so short a time?
  3. I want to show my administrators the benefits of this shift while also acknowledging the risks. How should I communicate this plan to them?

Amy and Holly put together a career-altering professional development session this weekend, and now it’s time to capitalize.  Any thoughts you have on the best way to do this will help me.


Alex M.G. Murphy

Alex M.G. Murphy teaches English I and U.S. History in the beautiful community of southeast Fort Worth, where he lives with his wife Rebekah and pit bull Sullivan. He is a graduate of Rice University.


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