This morning, I was at North Kingstown High School, presenting an hour-long workshop to the English Department on group conferencing in the writing classroom. We began our 60-minute session by making name tents, doing some quickwriting, and then sharing out a bit of the writing as a way of introducing ourselves. After that, I introduced myself and gave the teachers an idea of what I teach and what gives me the right to stand before them and talk about the teaching of writing. I then made a segue into another quickwrite activity; I asked them to list their top three frustrations when it comes to the teaching and assessing of writing in high school. After they wrote for about 3 minutes, I asked them to turn and share their ideas with a partner for 2 minutes. Following the "pair/share," I solicited themes from the group by asking, "Would anyone like to share out one of the ideas you talked about with your partner?" We made an amazing list on the board! Here's a sampling, with all of these coming directly from high school English teachers:
1. How do we know which rules, techniques, and grammar concepts to teach and to reinforce? There are so many!
2. I feel like all I do is fix student writing.
3. I often think about the students and about how they feel when they get one of their papers back all marked up with my comments. What builds up student writers instead of tearing them down all the time?
4. How do I give meaningful feedback to 28 kids with no time and too much volume?
5. There is so much pressure to "give grades." How do we allow time for ungraded process?
6. How do we break students out of the habit of writing "safe" prose that is boring to read, that lacks a sense of audience and that has little sense of engagement?
7. How do we reward effort and progress in our student writers in a culture of "proficiency?"
This is an amazing list (of near universal concerns of writing teachers at all levels, I might add!). Using this list as our backdrop, if you will, I launched into a 20-minute explanation of why it might be worth their while to try small group conferencing at least once in their writing classroom. I left the workshop feeling good about teachers and good about professional development. My ideas were well-received. We laughed at the craziness of these times in education. I told them how smart they are and how much they already know about their students that they can bring to their teaching of writing. I tried to "build them up," just as they so badly want to build up their students. Enough tearing down of teachers already!
Tonight, as I was thinking about what a wonderful experience this was for me today, I received this email from one of the English teachers at NK:
"Jenn: Loved the presentation today. Finally something both practical and inspiring. Hope you can come back for more. For what it's worth, I will add my name to the growing chorus of teachers trying to convince the administration that this is just what we need."
This email validated for me that teachers have NOT become numb to what matters in the classroom, despite all the nonsensical messages they are getting from competing authorities. Today also reminded me that teachers want to be treated as intellectuals. During the workshop, we talked about who we are as writers and who our students are as writers. We talked about the socialization of writers in schools and how our students learn all kinds of "unwritten curricula," such as "my teacher is my only audience for my writing" and "I should play it safe in my writing to insure that I get a good grade." We talked about how teaching and learning writing is all about taking risks, about experimenting, about sharing your writing with others, teachers and peers alike, and about learning from reading a lot of others' writing.
Thanks, North Kingstown English teachers, for being so open to new ideas, for remaining positive in the face of negativity and pressure, and for welcoming me so warmly to your school.