Coming to Terms with the P-Word

My friends don’t understand why I love bikram yoga–the heat (105 degrees), the humidity (40%), the predictability (26 postures repeated twice).

“Don’t you get bored?” they persist.

No. In fact, the predictability of the class is one of the aspects that makes the yoga so enjoyable. Most people learn the 26 postures quickly–it just takes a few classes. Because the class has a predictable sequence, we know what to do and can enjoy a more deliberate practice because the series is so familiar. It never gets boring because our bodies are different every day, so we never know what kind of class we’re going to have. The predictability is a gift.

So when a student wrote on a course reflection a few weeks back that my English 9 class was “predictable,” you would have thought it was music to my ears.

But it wasn’t. “No one wants to be predictable,” I wailed to my husband.

I wrestled with this student’s “critique” all week. He had used the P-word.

I didn’t want to be predictable, but I couldn’t ignore the fact that I had sought comfort in our writing workshop routines day after day–and I honestly believed the students did, too. I picked up Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them, searching for wisdom in my dog-eared copy. “Surely her classroom isn’t predictable,” I thought to myself, but as I turned in for bed that night, page 33 of her book seared into my head, I couldn’t help but think that her classes, too, seemed a bit…predictable.

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And I knew for a fact that Penny Kittle’s classes were far from boring. What did her classes have that mine didn’t? I was determined to find out.

In typical fashion, I fixated on this for a while–until Rebekah came to my rescue a few days later and sent me this text message:

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With a renewed sense of hope, I began to explore this idea of predictability in the writer’s workshop, and days later, I stumbled upon this quote in Katie Wood Ray’s Study Driven:

When teaching has a predictable rhythm to it, students recognize what’s happening and can engage with the whole process of teaching and learning much more intentionally because it is so familiar. Now, the fact that it is predictable doesn’t mean in any way that it is redundant or boring. The way you go about a study is predictable, but the content that comes from the study is anything but predictable. The teaching is “structured for surprise” (Graves 2001, 51) and it’s the promise of what you might discover together that gives both students and teachers energy for the study.

There it was on page 110 of her book. The rationale I had been searching for. Still, I felt that perhaps my classroom was missing a special ingredient. I wasn’t convinced I was structuring my classes for surprise, so I decided to compare my methods to hers.

  • At the start of a new unit of study, she immerses students in the texts she wants them to write. Check.

  • Then, once students have a sense of where they’re headed, students move into a close study of these texts. Check.

  • Students generate a whole-class list of “noticings” across texts. Here is an example of a list made during a study of feature articles in a fourth grade classroom:

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(The list goes on–what an inspiring list!)

Often I generate lists of noticings with students, but sometimes I dive right in to my own pre-determined series of mini-lessons. So here’s where our methods begin to diverge.

I have a fixed set of lessons I plan on teaching. Katie Wood Ray chooses what to study from students’ noticings:

You really have two choices about how to decide what to talk about during the next days of inquiry-driven lessons: you can choose something or you can let your students choose something. I would probably recommend that you do some of both over the course of close study. You’ll want to have some say in determining what seems to have the most potential on the list of possibilities, but you want to be sure that students’ interests are honored, too. Of course, since the list is comprised mostly of their noticings, you really ensure that you are following their interests no matter who does the choosing. (132)

After reading this passage, I panicked a bit. I thought of my color-coded Google Calendar, the mini-lessons planned out for weeks. I thought of my visually pleasing rubrics–the ones I often gave to students at the beginning of a new unit of study so they had a “roadmap.”

I thought about Penny’s classroom. In her book, she talks about the qualities of genres but never presents a set of plans–a prefixed curriculum.

And then I looked back at the list of noticings those awesome fourth graders had generated–all those wonderful, creative, possibilities–and I knew what I had to do.

***

I realize that I have to relinquish some of the control and do a better job of honoring students’ instructional interests. Choice has always been at the heart of my writer’s workshop–but now I know that my interpretation of “choice” has been one-dimensional. My lessons have always been teacher–not inquiry–driven.

So now, with a deepened understanding of the role that possibility plays in writer’s workshop, I’m excited to dive into my next unit of study with students. My mantra!?

Embrace possibility. Possibility. The new P-word.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

~ Allison

Kittle, Penny. Write Beside Them: Risk, Voice, and Clarity in High School Writing. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2008.

Ray, Katie Wood. Study Driven. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2006.

How do you honor students’ instructional interests in your classroom? Feel free to add a comment below or find us on Twitter at @allisonmarchett or @rebekahodell1.

 

 

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