Tag Archives: workshop approach

First Days of School: Listening Leads to Learning

‘Tis the season of back to school–that time of year that is ripe with fresh school supplies, empty notebooks, and an as-yet-un-ransacked classroom library.  This time of year always delights me, and I got to experience it early because today marks week two of having students for me.  I hope you’re one of the lucky ones who hasn’t seen students yet, but if not, cheers to being back already!

Untitled presentationI’ve been thinking carefully about what tone I’d like to set in the first days of school.  I didn’t want to leap into things with a review of the syllabus, a distribution of the many forms my preservice teachers will need to fill out, or a review of the big tests that loom large for them at the end of this school year.

I wanted to start with something, instead, that would build our community into one of support and anticipation, rather than one of anxiety and pressure.

Naturally, we began with writing.  I asked students to brainstorm four questions they’d like every teacher to be able to answer.  We spent some time in our writer’s notebooks writing, then paired off to ask one another a few of our questions.


After a few minutes of talk, which is always invaluable, I asked students this question to elicit some sharing:

Who heard a good response they’d like to share?

Students began their replies with, “I loved what Sara said,” or “I thought Sean made a great point,” or “Jake had an interesting answer.”  As many of our responses touched on the importance of building communities that were inclusive, we noted how simply shifting the way we shared responses to focus on listening rather than talking emphasized the former.

As we moved through our day, I returned again and again to this theme:  we selected critical friends to partner with who would read our work and provide feedback; we read an article about student-faculty partnerships before setting professional development goals we’d work toward in teams; we set up a Google Drive folder to encourage collaboration and negotiated feedback protocols and submission guidelines; we did some yoga to encourage the notion of disequilibrium and read an excerpt from Pose, Wobble, Flow about being teacher-writers.

My first day of school thinking around listening hearkens back to my work with the C3WP Institute I led through NWP this summer, which is focused on argument writing and how we can encourage students to consume, create, and negotiate real-world arguments more skillfully.

It also reminds me of a passage I read about compassionate readers in Disrupting Thinking this morning (a book I refer to as Interrupting Thinking, thanks to a certain 16-month-old in my life):

Compassion should sharpen the readers’ ability to see other points of view, other perspectives, and to imagine the feelings of those who hold them.  It should enable readers to take, if only momentarily, the perspective of someone else and thus understand motivations and thinking.

But to be willing to take on another’s perspective…you must be willing to enter into a dialogue with the text, to interact and not merely extract.  And through these transactions with texts, we might learn how to better enter into conversations with those in the real world who offer us another perspective.   (45-46, emphasis mine)

AAEAAQAAAAAAAAUQAAAAJDI2MTU1ZjY0LTdhNzgtNDdjNy04MmZiLTc4ZmNjY2YzMTczZQ.pngFar too much of the reading, writing, speaking, and listening that our students do is for the purpose of extraction, and not interaction.  Of course it is–what can be extracted is easier to measure than what can be inferred, experienced, or connected with.  We’ve taught students to read in order to answer a question; to listen in order to reply.

As a result, in our schools and in our self- and social media-saturated society, our students are all too practiced at speaking, and out of practice at listening.  If we want our students to learn, to engage with texts and peers and the world in a more authentic, dialogic way, we must teach them to listen.

This year, I will ask students to more thoughtfully listen to and engage with the ideas of others.  The teachers they’re observing, the authors they’re reading, the students with whom they’re working, all have notions my students will agree and disagree with–but they will learn nothing if they don’t slow down to listen.

How will you encourage your students to learn by listening on the first days of school, and beyond?  Please share in the comments, on our Facebook page, or with us via Twitter!

Shana Karnes teaches sophomore, junior, and senior preservice teachers at West Virginia University.  She finds joy in all things learning, love, and literature as she teaches, mothers, and sings her way through life.  Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader or read more of her writing on the WVCTE Best Practices blog.


“Mrs. R. You’re the Only Teacher Who Failed Me”

  It’s tradition that at the end of graduation the teachers line the tunnel as students exit the coliseum. We clap and hug and congratulate students as they literally walk out into the sunshine of their futures. I usually enjoy the spectacle of it all: the loud hurrahs and the sweaty hugs. But last spring, instead of the smiles and thanks that in years past I tucked away as a sweet ending to another school year, I got a reluctant side squeeze and a comment that sunk my heart to my toes:

“Mrs. R., you’re the only teacher who ever failed me.”

While he and I both knew what he meant (the silly guy didn’t turn in a paper all year), his words sent me spinning. I left graduation wondering: Did I fail this kid?

Maybe.  But I’ve learned a thing or two that could have made a difference.

I’d recently shifted my teaching from the traditional classroom set-up to a reading and writing workshop approach to learning. I read Nancie Atwell and Donald Graves and Linda Rief. I visited teachers who were models for how workshop works on a day to day basis. I thought I had workshop figured out; it would be easy to get students to respond to my requests for writing on a regular basis.

Not quite.

First of all, different writing coaches call “workshop” different things. A workshop can be a year-long class with small groups of students doing various reading and writing tasks; or a workshop can be a single class period where students “work” through a piece of text.(And in PBL a workshop is something entirely different.) I’d yet to learn what reading and writing workshop meant to me. I knew I needed to use mentor texts, get students writing through the writing process, allow for collaboration with peers, hold mini-lessons as needed, and confer with students about their writing; but second of all, it was plain hard. I learned and implemented most of it, but I was lousy at holding regular student conferences– the one thing that could have saved Jonathan, the one who thought I failed him, as a writer.

Conferring with students about their writing (or their lack thereof) is vital.

Jonathan would come to class empty-handed, and instead of taking the time to say: “How’s the writing going….”, I’d shake my head and tick off in my grade book that he had a missing assignment. I needed to get to the kids who’d actually brought drafts with them—they needed my time, not the slackers. Hindsight is a cruel teacher. Every student needs a conference not just the ones with papers in their hands. A one minute conversation might have made a difference to this boy, who loved playing the drums and moonlighting as a DJ, but had no use for putting thoughts on a page.

In the book Write Beside Them, Penny Kittle states in regard to conferring with students: “I work hard to listen, encourage, and direct my teaching toward something that will help this writer at this moment in time.” I needed to do that, too.

Writing conferences are essential to getting some students to even begin to put pen to paper. Some students need coaxing through the whole process. I doubt it matters if they are 7 or 17. Maybe it’s fear. Maybe it’s stubbornness. Doesn’t matter. Those initial one-on-one conferences must be purposeful and timely. Maybe if I’d taken the time to listen to this kid instead of demanding something from him, Jonathan’s behavior, work ethic, productivity, and final average in my class would have been different. I missed the opportunity, and he missed out on his credit. Yep, although it was his fault he failed my class, I think I failed him as a writing teacher.

But I’ve learned a thing or two that will make a difference.  Maybe future Jonathans will benefit.

How do you conduct writing conferences? Please share your tips for pulling in and keeping students in the writing process?

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