I used to dream of reaching a point in my writing workshop instruction where kids were all working as writers, but they weren’t all doing the exact same thing. This isn’t an easy point to reach. Today I witnessed it in Shelley Kunkle’s 7th grade writing workshops. She is in the midst of a research unit. Students are deep in research on topics they are going to develop into an Academic Learning Fair (ALF) exhibit. As a team, the other seventh grade teachers are supporting the ALF (isn’t that a great acronym?), but the bulk of the research work is happening in language arts classes.
Today, I joined some of Shelley’s classes during their independent work time. I was struck by the independence of the writers, as well as their dependence on the writing community. It was a very healthy situation. There were students beginning to plan the specifics of their exhibit, while others were working on MLA documentation for a works cited page. Some students were rereading their notes, determining the central theme of their research, and others were collecting new research. Some were jotting notes in their ALF notebooks, another was collecting quotes in a Google Drive document. Two were looking at graphs and talking about how they might use a graph to organize some of the statistics they found. One student was paraphrasing a source. Another was writing a summary. There were iPods, Smart Phones, tablets, and laptops scattered throughout the computer lab.
They worked with urgency. All were engaged. It was near utopia in writing workshop. Shelley conferred with individuals and small groups. Yet students didn’t wait for her if they had a question. They asked each other. They worked with purpose. They could talk with zeal about their topics, as well as with specificity when discussing their processes.
An outsider might jump to the misunderstanding that this is easy work for the teacher. After all, Shelley could have stood outside the door and watched through the window and they would have continued to work. However, this doesn’t mean Shelley didn’t play an integral role in getting to this point.
She has spent countless hours planning lessons and racking her brain to ensure every single student was positioned to succeed. It is not easy work. We’ve discussed common core standards, determining how to teach so students learn and how to assess so we know we are meeting common core with fidelity. We’ve considered how to work with the other teachers on the team so this project is a genuine collaboration rather than a bossy-boss language arts show.
It is truly workshop teaching at its finest. Workshop isn’t easy, but the payoffs are worth it. I would much rather spend countless hours on lesson plans and dreaming up new ways to foster engagement than to spend the hours of the school day trying to keep kids on task doing mundane worksheets or everybody-read-the-same-text-and-answer-the-questions-at-the-end. At least this way the learning is real and meaningful. Shelley’s classroom is concrete proof that workshop matters. It is significant.
And pretty amazing.