Winding up the Writing Workshop Experience

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Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.

William Butler Yeats

Every year at this time I wander my classroom dialoguing with students about their stories, their wonderfully rich stories that with three weeks left in the year will undoubtedly never come to fruition unless a student is particularly inspired during the summer and independently motivated. Their plans and aspirations are deeper and more promising than anything they’ve written yet this year. They have no sense of time creeping up on them as they draft chunks of dialogue, rehearse it in their heads, share, and delight in the peels of laughter that erupt from their peers. They are deeply saturated in the writing experience, living the writing life. On one level I know I’ve been successful; I’ve seen students take incredible risks with language, try on new personas, reach personal vistas…yet why does a little voice in my head still wonder if it’s enough?

If I worked at a school where I felt the philosophy of the writing workshop was well honed, where every teacher valued the development of the writer over the writing, I might feel more secure. I do not live in that landscape. Each year I wonder if nine months of creative freedom, of roaming and developing your personal writing identity, can sustain a student’s sense of creative worth through a subsequent year of externally imposed content. I wonder if the students will be able to transfer the writing skills they’ve learned into an environment that doesn’t nurture a writing life. Are they too young to see the connection? If I had to set up shop on a new planet tomorrow, leaving earth behind, would what I’ve learned be adequate, would it help me effectively navigate on unfamiliar terrain?

Don’t get me wrong. I do believe in grammatical know-how, crisp sentence structures, conventional spelling. I just don’t believe in these at the cost of creativity. A skillful editor is not the same as a talented writer. Too frequently, in education, we want to forge editors. We continually broadcast the message, (even though the majority of the research speaks to the opposite pole), that editing is more important than the mysterious struggle of fusing your imagination to words. Because a conundrum exists between the creative process and the generation of a polished writing “product” in elementary education, capable teachers are often riddled with self-doubt, wonder if they’re doing their students justice to steep them in a creative cauldron.

John Holt, author of How Children Fail, notes: If we look at children only to see whether they are doing what we want or don’t want them to do, we are likely to miss all the things about them that are the most interesting and important. This is one reason why so many classroom teachers, even after years of experience, understand so little about the real nature of children. Only as teachers in schools free themselves from their traditional teacher tasks—boss, cop, judge—will they be able to learn enough about their students to see how best to be of use to them. Holt made this observation over thirty years ago. When I think about why the writing workshop is so difficult for teachers to successfully implement, it comes back to the teacher’s role within the workshop construct. Boss, cop and judge are still at play although many teachers don’t notice it. Check out these sentence stems that I hear quite often from the mouths of teachers: “Here’s what I want you to work on today;” “That’s not what I asked you to do;” “Didn’t you pay attention to the model?” Even in seasoned classrooms, teachers often lead from a teacher-centered point of view, invariably making the child’s perspective obsolete. Just as in a dystopian society, students learn to tow the line or bare the consequences. If we have spent a year inspiring kids to cultivate a point of view, to lead forth with their intuition, and to trust their own capabilities, we can easily be viewed by colleagues as trying to undermine the predominant school culture, which rests on obedience and an architecture of rules. Do we decide, given the odds, to be like Dustfinger in Ink Death, and play with fire? Can we choose otherwise?

I don’t claim to know the answer to this question. I know that in my fifteen years of practice in eight different school environments, this has been a recurring internal dialogue for me, especially as the year dwindles into summer. In disparate educational settings, from elite private schools in San Francisco to ELL classrooms in Taipei, parents and students alike have embraced my approach to learning, valued their growth, felt valued within the learning environment. On occasion, I have been lucky enough to work with teachers who share my philosophy of learning, who believe in the integrity of a workshop model, who co-create student centered learning territories. I have had small glimpses of the wonderful power that comes from students rolling through similar educational structures with similar expectations. However, it’s been my experience, even with the energy generated from Columbia Teachers College, that it’s hard to grow a group of teachers truly committed to building authentic writing workshop cultures within their classrooms. Given this reality, how can those of us who believe in this work keep the fire lit even if there will be pail after pail to fill?

Some Things to Explore:

  1. End the year with a lot of specific compliments. Celebrate growth. Share often. Let them exit with the roar of applause in their ears and a sense of purpose in their hearts.
  2. Find writing contests that can keep the desire to write alive. Publish student work on a shared summer blog where students can continue to check in, comment and enjoy being part of a cyber writing community.
  3. Team up with like-minded colleagues to sponsor an after-school writing club. (No need to script mini-lessons, just set the tone, inspire writing, and share at the end of each session.) Once a week, keep the embers glowing.

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Evidence of Living a Writerly Life

3 thoughts on “Winding up the Writing Workshop Experience

  1. I hope the despondent nature of this blog is curtailed by the knowledge that you do influence other teacher. Little by little, exposing teachers to the way it can be done, by sharing student’s enjoyment and love, writing will win.
    Sometimes the fire needs to be caressed gently to burn throughout the night and have embers to continue the following day.

    • I hear you, I truly do. There are many folks gathering tinder, beginning to stoke a writing workshop practice and granted, it can be a gnarly fire to start. I hope that I am providing some inspiration, hoping to fan the coals and prompt some shifts in thinking and doing.

      However, that said, I end the year pushing off a somewhat pragmatic foot. In reality, many will adopt this practice because their school has shifted to this curriculum but to have the writing workshop make a difference, there needs to be a shift within the heart. With the ceaseless ebb and flow of curriculum these days and the hot debates on teaching and learning, I find my head spinning most days. I wonder what’s the most effective way to impact student learning? The only thing I am absolutely sure of is that no matter what the educational banter may be, most people learn when they are encouraged and supported by their learning environment…inspired to find their own passion, their own voice, their own path forward. This isn’t a new educational stance; in fact Galileo summed it up a few centuries ago: “You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him find it within himself.” It’s taking our current industrial model of education years to catch the tail of Renaissance thinkers. There are times in the evolution of a species when adaptation must occur quickly in order to insure survival; I’m feeling that way about education these days.

  2. Pingback: Review: A Quick Guide to Reaching Struggling Writers « The Thoughtful Teacher

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