Research, plan, photocopy. Rehearse. Explain, model, ask. Write, write, write. Share, share, share . . . ?
This is the question that Ms. Carroll* and I are grappling with. We did all this prep work to make student voices the center of our classroom. We believe that’s the way classrooms should sound. We opened our first day with Mr. Ryan’s Creative Writing class by taking them on an Emotional Journey. We outlined the next four days of Dizzy Drama, did a “Prop Swap” (distributed props and settings Yankee swap-style), and provided students with space to start brainstorming ideas – all designed to build community. We opened on Friday with a choice of writer’s notebook prompts and invited students to share. A usually shy student, who blew us away the previous day with his dramatic rendition of the line, “How dare you disobey your mother,” raised his hand and read what he had written. Then . . .
Following typical English teacher etiquette, we thanked him for sharing his response, and moved to the next student. During the “meat” of the lesson, where we lead students through the literal, interpretive, and analytical levels of reading (adapted slightly for our Big Bang Theory clip, shown to emphasize the development of character) we did the same thing. We gave students time to write responses and share with the class. When they generously offered their ideas, we acknowledged them with a thank you and allowed the next student to share.
At the time, we were thinking that we didn’t want to cut students off. We didn’t want to say something that might steal a point that a student wanted to make. In general, we’re also afraid of tangents. If we get too far off track, how do we reel everyone in? We planned for all 55 of the minutes. How will we get to everything if we talk spontaneously about metaphors, their purpose, and some examples for 5 of those pre-planned minutes? And biggest of all, we value students. We want them to be able to share their thoughts. We want them to come to their own understanding of the concept. Won’t we stifle them if we keep talking?
During our post-lesson frenzy in the hallway, Ms. Carroll and I realized that our intentions might be leading to some unintended consequences. By not responding more fully to the students’ contributions, we didn’t push the students to think deeper. We didn’t guide them to make further connections between what they know, what they produced, and what they will be learning. This is part of the reason we flew through our observed lesson. Though we remembered WWKGD (What Would Kelly Gallagher Do) when modeling the writing process, we failed to model our thinking process during these discussions.
One challenge is that what we are doing doesn’t necessarily have a right or wrong answer. It’s not like in math, where we could point out a multiplication error or a missing step when students explain their process. Writer’s notebook prompts are designed to initiate engagement and to activate thinking. Students’ responses to texts are often based on their own experience – and human experience is not “right” or “wrong.”
I think I speak for both of us when I say that being a Writing Center tutor has influenced our identity as teacher candidates. We are most comfortable working one-on-one or in small groups alongside our students. Giving feedback comes easier, seems safer. I feel like a different person when I am sitting next to a student sharing techniques I use to overcome my own writing struggles than when I am up at the board trying to synthesize students’ responses to the reading. Dr. Cook and Mr. Ryan even said they noticed this shift in each of us.
So I guess another challenge is just dealing with the power that comes from being the one in the front of the room. The expert. The one in charge. Mr. Ryan reminded us that it’s okay to share what we know. We studied this stuff for 4+ years. It’s a disservice if we don’t clarify misunderstandings or fill in information gaps. We aren’t taking anything away from the students’ learning by engaging in human conversation. Students need role models of integrity.
Since we still have two days of teaching left, we have time to make a plan and strengthen this weakness. As Dr. Cook has mentioned, maybe we will jot down a few words that stick out each time a student speaks. We can acknowledge what works about whatever they shared and invite other students to reply back to that individual. This can also help allay the sensory overload that comes with trying to simultaneously remember what a student said, develop a coherent response, reflect on what you just discussed, keep an eye on the clock, and be aware of what’s happening next in the lesson.
This week has been wonderfully “dizzy” and I am grateful for this chance to continue to learn, in a safe and supportive environment, what it means to be a teacher.
Thanks Ms. Carroll for being awesome.
*In every lesson, I have made the awkward mistake of referring to Katie by her first name. I am trying to make up for it here ;)