“A writer’s work is made to be published.” -Deb Kelt
Our time here is over. We ended our experience together with a gallery walk. Each of us publishers of works that took us all a process of 3-4 weeks to accomplish. It was a unique experience. There were tears. It was impactful. My wish is to remember it all, but it feels like only bits and pieces of it remain in my mind. So, I blog. It helps me to remember. And I share because it is what Aaron said I should do, and even though he may not know it… he is one of my mentors. One of many now… now that I know what they look like, my list continues to grow.
Workshop is a unique and wonderfully empowering experience for us all, not only for those we call students. I know, because I’ve lived it a little. It is not magic, rainbows, unicorns, even “ninja moves,” although those are often the words that can easily be used to describe this deep intellectual work.
Workshop is… a place where students practice what they are learning; it is where students learn with their peers, from their peers, and from their own inquiries; it is a place where students are respected and treated as valuable humans; and where a student’s voice, work, ideas, and progress are valued; where a teacher’s task is to guide and assist in the act of learning, pushing students to learn beyond the walls of the classroom; where deep intellectual work is organic, and focused on the individual needs of students; it is place where the teacher is also a learner… and a place where worksheets & packets do not exist.
So, I imagine. I imagine the ideal classroom environment. I have witnessed bits and pieces of it in the past, so it’s not too difficult for me to imagine. More importantly, I know what the possibilities are, what the impact of having such a class would have on students, teachers, parents, and maybe even communities and beyond. It is a workshop learning environment.
The Ideal Classroom
As you walk down the hallway towards the class, you hear the noise. The sound is buzzing of movement, conversations, and the closer you get, pops of language being to emerge, “I found it!” “How did you do that?” “Why do you think…?” “I tried that, but it didn’t work…” and other marvelous comments that swallow the space. You turn and look in through the wide-open door from the hallway, it’s colorful in there, the colors are swirling about, some mixing, others repelling against each other, others creating new colors. I’m talking about the learning.
At first, you don’t quite know what is happening, and for a moment, you’re not quite sure if what you see is actual learning. It sounds like kids at play, they are having fun, but they are focused, so focused on doing whatever it is they are doing that it makes you wonder if they are actually learning. There are smiles and laughter. They are intensely engrossed in what they do, excited, engaged, and it makes you question if learning is supposed to be so much fun. Is it? It looks almost like a party, a celebration, but it’s not. It seems as if they are taking over the class without the presence of authority.
As you begin to walk around… you start to see what was not clear to you at first. You notice yourself being swallowed by the heartbeat, a feeling you’re not sure how to define. It’s exciting and your heart begins to beat faster as well, but you don’t know why. You don’t know why a smile has just forced itself onto your face. Things are happening in this place that cannot fully be explain in one short line... but if it could, it would be described as movement, growth, and learning. You see it because it’s happening before your eyes… feels like magic, but it is not magic, it seems impossible, but it is… it is very possible. You are witnessing a workshop.
Students are learning… they are learning on their own, they are asking each other for help, “Show me how you did that...” “I’ll show you the rest after school” “We need to finish by Friday, but I can do this part at home” “You got it!” Laughter ensues within a small group. And the teacher? What of the teacher? Where is she in all of this? You didn’t see the teacher as you walked in… but she is there. She is in deep within the class, sitting on the floor, helping to guide a group to problem solve a part of their work, a project... one they refuse to give up. She is one of them, there, guiding and growing equally within this environment. She is there asking “Do you need this part?” as they argue, then explain their goal, and reasons why this part of the project is important. They explain this not only to the teacher, but to each other. The teacher, “Well, looks like it’s going to be a challenge… It’s worth it though, right?” “Do you think you’ll be able to figure it out?” “Yes! We can do it.” They respond immediately. One calls out, “My sister knows how to do this… I’ll ask her to teach me, when I get home.” The teacher responds, “Let me know how it goes.” They are mentors for each other, and they know how to go out and find other mentors, because it is what the teacher has taught them to do… to figure things out on their own. The teacher responds with a confident smile, and a pat on the back for those closest to her, and moves on to another group. The group continues to work, making final plans to edit their work. They have purposefully discovered their own strengths to produce their best work, too many hidden strengths to be left solely for one teacher to discover on her own. Mining for "hidden gems" is the work for a village, not for one person. Each student carries so many gems. It would be a true impossible task for one teacher to attempt to discover them all.
The teacher stops, stands, and calls out “Writers…” then waits for a few seconds for the room’s eyes to turn their attention to her, she continues with the same phrase she used to launch the class into the workshop, “Remember… today and every day when you write…”
Give It a Go
No one expects the student or the teacher to be perfect. “The objective is to build habits of engagement and intention, to help students learn to control the spotlight of their own attention.” (Randy Bomer) We are all perfectly imperfect, and so I plan to give it a go with complete fidelity, making sure to keep in mind that this teaching model carries a strong philosophy. It is the philosophy that learning should be a student-sponsored process. When students are the makers... when they are allowed to create, experiment, learn in context, and make mistakes, they internalize... they remember. These are the places we remember for the rest of our lives. This is what real learning looks like, and it is completely amazing.
My students need “to be able to write on their own without me telling (them) what to do” (Deb Kelt). I could wrap myself in a quilt of these beautiful quotes that have impacted my life as a teacher, as a human being. I now know the importance of being a living breathing example of what we expect of our students, because “[t]eachers need to leave time for their own literate lives…” (Randy Bomer) as well. Living a literate life is “curricular gold” and “[b]eing a maker changes a person’s eyes.” (Randy Bomer) and so I chose to live a literacy filled life, on purpose, from this point forward.
Just a few other important and impactful quotes…
“In a globalized economy, workers had better get used to embracing language diversity and a softened sense of what is tolerable in communication. In an Internet-based literacy environment in which people read texts from across the world, a generous spirit of “correct enough” is the only appropriate lens.” (Randy Bomer)
“Literacy is participation, and the most important features of new literacies involve acting in response to and in concert to others within digital environments and the cultures they produce and foster. To become a more literate person involves extending oneself into ways of doing in particular environments, and in our era, literacy is most importantly expanding in online environments. That means that the forms of literacy we teach ought to make such participation available to increasing numbers of students.” (Randy Bomer)
A Special Quote for Dual Language Teachers
“many programs have traditionally been more defined by low-level drill-and-practice activities and a focus on basic grammatical forms excised from authentic contexts of language use. As one group of writers has put it, ‘ELLs’ lack of oral language proficiency has often hindered their opportunity to receive cognitively stimulating and content-level appropriate instruction in school’ (Carrasquillo et al. 2004, 30).” (Gibbons, Cummins, 2009, 1-2)
On Friday, July 7, 2017, I became a proud National Writing Project, Heart of Texas Writing Project, Teacher Consultant. The memories of places like this, experiences like these, never lose their meaning. The people, places, and things that, if we pay enough attention, change our lives… make us better. They can happen in a classroom, if we allow it, but they happen everywhere else too. We all come with our own literacies, whether we are 5 years of age or 47. That is where we need to take a strong hold and build from. These experiences impact us sometimes in ways we can easily see, and sometimes in ways we have yet to discover. It is more than learning. It is living a deep intellectual life… it is living as a life-long learner.
Our work, our learning, will remain unfinished, because learning, true learning is innately continuous. It is for each of us… a genius path.
Marina Rodriguez is a California native, living and teaching in Texas, and a National Writing Project, Heart of Texas Writing Project, Teacher Consultant.