Top Ten of ’13-’14: #5

When Even Writing Workshop Doesn’t Work

I am almost obnoxious in my whole-hearted evangelism of writing workshop. (Just ask my colleague who has banned the phrase “mini-lesson” from our future conversations.)  And still, in all my crowing about the successes of writing workshop, I have to admit something to you.

Sometimes it doesn’t work.

“Kevin” nods furiously during our writing conferences. And still he turns in papers written in one, giant paragraph.

“Mary” conferences with me during every class period. We read her work aloud. I highlight places she needs to double check for word choice, grammar, and syntax. We work together to tab the mini-lessons she needs to return to in her writer’s notebook. She turns in a paper unchanged since our conference.

Let’s be honest, when these papers finally land on my desk, I take it a little bit personally. I’m disappointed. I wonder where I went wrong. What mini-lesson could I have offered? What could I have said during our conferences to have made a difference?

The truth is that sometimes our best efforts don’t yield a student’s best work. On occasion, students (particularly our older writers) don’t meet us halfway.

The cornerstone of writing workshop is choice. While this typically translates into the choice of topic, it also means that students are given the freedom and respect to make writerly choices. Sometimes, a writer chooses not to take feedback, chooses not to revise. Now, this makes more sense if you are Hemingway than if you are a 9th grader in my English class, but,nevertheless, if we are truly embracing a workshop model, we have to content ourselves with giving our students all of the choices — including the choice not to conference with us or to ignore the suggestions we helpfully make.

And then there are those students who are just not ready for what we are offering. We all know that even in its purest forms, leveling is a joke. There are as many different levels and abilities in our classrooms as there are faces. There are students in each workshop who have mastered our skills early on and are ready for more. I use conferences to push them to deeper levels of thinking and more advanced writerly techniques.

But there are also students who just aren’t there yet. For whatever reason — cognitive, emotional, social — they can’t accept all that I’m offering.  With these students, I chant a mantra: They aren’t there yet. They aren’t there yet. They probably will get there someday.

And even today, they are doing more than they have been able to do before.

I have taught students whose daily victory was just getting words — any words in any order with no punctuation — on paper. Those successes — however small — need celebrating, too. Some writers are ready to move a mile. Others are ready to move an inch. Both are triumphs in their own right.

And there are days that I’m just not a perfect teacher. Lots of those days, in fact. There are lessons that go awry, explanations that don’t help, conferences that are lackluster. There are days when I don’t feel like pushing Kevin’s understanding and times when I am frustrated with Mary.

Sometimes, it really is on me.

I think it’s important for us to share stories like these — stories of what we consider to be our failures in addition to our successes. Too often in these public forums — our Twitter chats, blogs posts, professional development workshops —  we all come across as experts.  More than experts — we often come across as perfect. I have been discouraged  in the past when, upon asking a teaching guru how something works in her classroom, hearing, “Oh, it just works seamlessly.”

These aren’t perspectives that help.

Share your stories.  Being connected educators is a wonderful thing — transformative and invigorating — but we must connect like human educators.  Sharing not just what works, but also what is really hard. Sharing not just when you feel like the Teacher of the Year, but when you feel like you have utterly failed.
We need to share our success stories to build up the profession, to proclaim that education makes a difference in the lives of kids. But we also need to be vulnerable and share our failures to build one another up, to forge a chain of support, to hear colleagues say, “Man, I’ve been there, too. It’s okay.”


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