Last Friday, I dismissed my fourth period IB English class early. We simply couldn’t go on.
They filed out, sniffling, wiping away tears, heads down. Some were silent and left alone; most found a friend or two and whispered as they left, arms around shoulders.
They had just finished sharing their first piece of workshop writing.
You see, a few weeks ago, I simultaneously hit a wall and had an epiphany — one that I suspect had been brewing underneath the surface for quite some time. My IB seniors were all competent writers, I already knew that they will perform well on the IB exam, but I was bored teaching them (unlike my ninth grader workshoppers) and they were just going through the motions, totally turned off of writing (unlike my ninth grade workshoppers).
For years I have tossed around ideas about how full-fledged writing workshop could work in an IB or AP class. (Amy Rasmussen (@amyrass) at threeteacherstalk.com has done a lot to cause these thoughts to ferment and bubble over.) But, I had never acted on them. Not until a few weeks ago when, frustrated with not being the very best teacher I knew to be, I decided to leap. All in. All the way.
After all, I reasoned, if I truly believe that writing workshop is the best way to develop, deepen, and inspire passionate lifelong writers, how could it be wrong?
In broad terms, my IB students, now fully immersed in workshop life, do two kinds of writing studies — literature-based writing studies and technique-based writing studies. All of which require critical thinking and literary analysis. All of which will help them score well on their IB exam and wow their professors next year in college. But, far more importantly, all of which challenge them and push them and engage them in the process of great writing craft. All of which drive them to create pieces of writing that matter to them.
That’s why we had to end class early last week — because my students’ writing mattered so much to them that reading it aloud brought them to tears. And seeing so much emotion poured into and out of and through the writing of their peers, other students cried with them.
In the next few days and weeks, I’ll share the process nitty-gritty with you. I’ll tell you about the writing studies we’ve done so far, I’ll share the mentor texts I used and how I used them, I’ll show you how this instructional approach and the writing it yields more than meets the requirements of AP and IB programs, and I’ll show you the results of the students’ labor.
For now, I’d like you to hear from my students. These quotes come from their author’s notes for a recent workshop paper that asked them to write about two texts side-by-side.
I have seen the power of writing workshop to transform struggling and disengaged writers. Recently, I have seen that it is just as powerful for students who can already check the right writing boxes but thirst for something more.
Dear Mrs. O’Dell,
I thoroughly enjoyed writing this paper much much more than all of the boring papers in the past. I felt as though I was actually a writer working for the New York Times. I felt passionate about what I was writing because I could actually speak to the reader and express my opinions in a way that was actually enjoyable. I think that next year you should tell your students to write all of their papers this way…Thank you for giving us this opportunity Mrs. O’Dell, it has made me enjoy writing much more! — Harrison
“This is one of my favorite papers I have ever written, which is definitely not something I expected to feel at the end of my senior year. I’m glad you forced me to push my writing to something different.” — Seth
“I really really enjoyed writing this paper! Seriously, this might be one of the first times I’ve ever had fun writing a paper” — Fletcher
“I had a blast and a half writing this paper. I don’t think it was necessarily easier to write this paper than other English papers, but I do think it was a more enjoyable experience…Thank you for widening my knowledge as a writer and pushing me to write to the best of my ability.” — Alex
In conclusion, I have a confession: writing is an incredibly difficult task for me. I enjoy doing it, but words don’t flow out of my mouth and brain the way some people’s do. I struggle with word choice as well as run on sentences; it seems like my sentences can last forever at times. But I honestly did enjoy this paper. Last night I was about to go to bed after finishing my paper that afternoon, then decided to go back one more time to make sure that I loved what I was saying and that you would be happy with what I wrote. I can’t say that I have done that on many English papers. (I’m just being honest.) Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy English. I just struggle with analyzing pieces of writing, and specifically, comparing two pieces. But I was satisfied with what I wrote. I feel that I took risks in many aspects of my paper, specifically with tone and structure, but also with the general format of what I chose to say. I’m happy with my paper, and I hope you enjoy it as well. — Kathryn
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