Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Choice is Key. Choice is Access.

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In about two weeks, school will begin for me. It may be three weeks away for others. Yet, we can all agree, the summer is in its twilight and soon, very soon, we will meet our newest students. Often, new students come expecting to have knowledge delivered to them: "Are you going to teach us grammar? Tell me what I did wrong. Tell me what I need to do to get an A."

And, yes, I understand that approach to learning; it is appropriate for some aspects of education. However, in a few weeks, not only will a new school year begin, but new writer's workshops will embark in thousands of classrooms--where answers are not given but discovered.

And it is in these classrooms where students will be invited to join the teachers in uncovering answers, truths, and technique.  

I find that students rarely see this model coming. They enter the writing classroom with preconceived notions. They carry rumors and incomplete fragments of experiences from students who passed through the classroom in previous years. 

Most, during that first week, will be absorbing the predictable structure of writing workshop as they experience it for the first time. Most will focus on the explicit meaning of writing workshop: writing space and time, reading nooks, and frequent invitations to confer. As teachers, we will patiently wait for student attention to digest the implications of the implicit element of writing workshop: the gift of time and choice. Time and choice--freedom--will stop some students in their tracks. For others, it will provide an early comfort.

Poetry helps me ease students into the world of time and choice with writing. Poetry helps me relieve the pressure of being invited to write on the first day of class. And the second day. And the third.

We write every day? some may wonder.

We start by talking about and writing about poetry--not so much what does it mean, but what we notice. Students can not be incorrect. These early conversations go a long way towards establishing a foundation of a comfortable writing community. 

When one student notices a word choice, another might notice a full line, while others might note the punctuation, the organization, the spacing...

Often during these early conversations, students may not know the terminology of what they are referencing. And in other cases they know the terminology--such as repetition--but do not necessarily think of it as a writer's tool.

This open forum can take 5-10 minutes in a class period or longer if the need arises. It enables an environment of inquiry and conversation. In this structure, the teacher plays the role of recipient, listener, and guide--we adjust to the students. We are not in a hurry to point out the repetition in a poem if they do not see it right away--perhaps repetition comes in another poem tomorrow or next week. Perhaps all we discuss today is the fact that the poem made us laugh, or think, or sad.

The consistent use of poetry in mini-lessons throughout the writing workshop can also be supplemented with children's picture books. Again, these books are short enough for students to read through within the structure of a class, and they so often deliver a powerful connection when we ask, "So, what did you notice?"

When invite students to tell us what they notice, we build vocabulary, a tool box of writing strategies, and confidence. The better students become talking about writing the better students become as writers because when they can articulate--think--writing they can own it.

As Lucy Calkins writes in The Art of Teaching Writing, "Teachers...will learn about some poets, teachers, and children have answered the question of what's essential in poetry, but rather than telling our students these characteristics, we'll want to invite them to join us in finding out what they are."

This is the key to the power of writing workshop. This is the key we invite students to turn because once they understand that this key exists, they realize that the key fits perfectly inside their locks. They can insert it, turn it, and pop open a world through writing that they did not believe they were capable of accessing.

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