“Student choice is synonymous with student engagement, in both reading and writing. It’s my responsibility as an educator to invite, nurture, and sustain every student’s engagement with literature.” -Nancie Atwell
I am not the same teacher I was at the beginning of this school year. Changing from a traditional method of teaching to a workshop model remains the largest paradigm shift I have ever implemented, and ultimately, it has proven to be the most successful. After this year, I am convinced that a workshop classroom is the only way to fully engage students in conversations about books and writing and to enhance their abilities to analyze and evaluate writing craft and literature. Engagement has increased exponentially as students have chosen their own reading materials, selected topics about which they wished to write, and collaborated with their classmates to enhance their writing abilities and expand their horizons as readers. But this year, I was more of a student than the teenagers who filled my classes each day. They taught me a lot about teaching and the conditions necessary for a successful learning environment.
I had to listen to my students, though, before I learned this unique distinction. I had read widely and voluminously, including both professional and young adult literature. These readings formed my pedagogical knowledge and guided my thinking about books students will be interested in, as well as the best practices for reaching my kids. I’ve read about brain development, reading research, writing strategies, and problem-based learning in education, but none of that will ever supersede the knowledge I gain from conversations with students. I love Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them and Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer. These works are rich with inspiration and guidance, but they are starting points, helping navigate the uncertain waters of the classroom. The greatest knowledge I gained this year came from my students, and these new understandings will be held in my heart forever.
If we let them, students will write. I have never seen such passionate writing from students as I have this year. During writing workshop, I’ve watched them linger over paragraphs and sentences, searching for the perfect words to express their thoughts. They long to tell stories, both personal and imaginative, but mostly, they needed a teacher to give them time to write and experiment with genre.
Mackenzie fell in love with books by Ellen Hopkins. Crank was one of her favorites, and during notebook time one day, she decided to use that novel as a mentor text, writing her own story while using Hopkins’s structure. It was her intense focus that caught my attention, and as she feverishly wrote, I looked over her shoulder. A story in verse was taking shape, and it was amazing. I prompted her to tell me about this story and she explained that she loved how the novel was written in poetry and just wanted to experiment with the style. The powerful element in her writing was that she had had no instruction in this style of writing. She masterfully paired dialogue with an internal monologue, and a narrative took shape quickly. All I did was give her time to write.
If we let them, students will read. Many students entered my classroom this year convinced they were nonreaders. Never before had they had a classroom where time was set aside daily for independent reading. Several students admitted that they awaited the moment I would take independent reading time away from them and pass out a class novel, removing their opportunities to select their own books. That was what Kyler thought. His reading life had been limited to full class novels and teacher-focused conversation, and my independent reading expectation was cumbersome for him to think about. On the third day of school he approached me with The Shining by Stephen King, a book that he had checked out from the public library.
“Can I read this during class?” he asked.
“Absolutely,” I replied. “But,” I continued, “I’d like to know why you chose that one in particular.” It was a copious novel, but his determination to read it was evident. “I just want to read one of Stephen King’s books,” he said.
It took over a month to finish the novel, but he was always engaged during reading conferences, and when he wrote about this book, his writing was lively. He spoke eloquently about characters and their ambitions, and after several months and several King novels, Kyler became our resident expert in the horror genre. Around February, he abandoned King for a bit to explore Lemony Snicket and some historical fiction, but eventually, he found his way back to the genre that had captivated him. Having time to read was a critical factor for him and for all students. Without time to read, students will not be able to explore genres that they may fall in love with or find an author to whom they develop an allegiance. I just let Kyler read. And read he did.
If we let them, students will choose challenging books. Teachers who talk with me about reading workshop usually voice a concern that when given opportunities to choose their own reading materials, students will choose simple books to avoid rigorous reading. I’ve witnessed otherwise. It was Teri Lesesne’s seminal Reading Ladders that helped me understand the importance of building bridges between where students are and where I’d like them to be as readers. Giving students reading choices is empowering, and when they know they have ownership, they will take it seriously. They will build a sophisticated reading ladder, and at the end of the year, you will celebrate their accomplishments with them.
Cassidy admitted that she was not as strong of a reader as she wanted to be. Her interest in reading was minimal, but if she had to read, she would. She started the year with books of 100 pages or less, but after a while, she began searching for other books, ones that would challenge her as a thinker. In reading conferences she would talk about how she wished the story would develop more. So I suggested better books. She read Noggin by John Corey Whaley and Winger by Andrew Smith, identifying these as the types of stories she had been looking for. Her reading life took a detour when she read The Burn Journals by Brent Runyon, a memoir about an adolescent boy who set himself aflame and as a result had to endure the agony of multiple skin grafts. During various reading conferences, she explained that these books taught her about people and showed her a side of humanity that she had not seen before. Her reading life included over thirty books, but the one that impressed me the most was when I saw her reading All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, which won the Pulitzer for fiction in 2015. I did not assign any of those novels. She chose them. And she chose challenging books because she wanted to read them.
If we let them, students will teach us and our classrooms will change. Our lessons will come alive for students because we have included them by the simple act of listening and allowing choice. But we have to let them have a voice, and we have to give them a platform within our classrooms. If we let them, they will show us the type of learning environment that will work for them. Each group is unique and our knowledge of those groups must inform the lessons we use to captivate them. If we let them, students will tell us what works for them, the things they want to learn about, and the questions they have. If we let them, they will teach us how to be better educators.
I consider myself an experienced teacher. There is a stack of books on my desk that never shrinks. It increases as new books are released and I find out about new professional materials and current research. My success as a teacher this year hinged on the fact that I let my students be my teacher. I surrounded them with opportunities to read, write, and think, nudging them in the right direction.
Students will grow into amazing students. They will read with fervor and write with conviction, developing their identities as readers and writers. As they continue to read and write, they will challenge themselves, and seek opportunities to increase the rigor of their reading lives and the genres they choose to write. They will engage in conversations with their peers about books and writing and collaborate about ways to make their essays and stories come to life. And while doing so, they will educate us.
But only if we let them.