“So, you’ve been busy.”
And so began a conversation with Judy, one of my writing project friends and mentors. We were meeting over coffee to discuss our thoughts on the third edition of Atwell’s In the Middle. In April, I had shared with Judy how I had started reading the book and wanted to pick her brain about her approach to reading and writing in her classroom. I had been feeling some sort of shift happening in my thinking and teaching, but I needed someone to talk to―someone whose voice could bring some clarity. And so I was most grateful to Judy for taking the time to sit with me on a warm summer day in August to talk Atwell over coffee.
By “busy,” Judy was referring to my recent reading-writing-thinking around several professional texts, much of which is recorded here in blog posts. Seeing my head spinning with ideas, Judy gently reminded me to pace myself. “Try a few things this year,” she said, “see how it goes. You can always add more things the following year.”
She’s right, of course. Deep breaths, I tell myself.
I have a tendency to get carried away sometimes. One of the things I most enjoy about teaching is the creative process. I like to create things―lesson ideas, materials, curriculum. I have always prided myself on being the type of teacher who likes to “mix it up,” never teaching a novel in the same way from year to year. Some years I focus more on X; other years, it’s Y. And some years, I abandon texts in favor of others that I think will work better. Technology has added another layer to my instructional practices. Over the years, I’ve accumulated many, many materials and tools. . . I revise old materials but I also create new ones. I produce content . . . and a lot of it.
It’s energizing work, but exhausting. And to what end? I’ve begun to wonder.
What I have slowly realized is that I’ve been searching. Not for a silver bullet―no such silver bullet exists in education (though I wish someone would tell the politicians). Not for a new way of teaching reading or writing―there will always be new curriculum, newer apps, and countless opinions about how to do it all. What I’ve really been searching for hasn’t been a how but a why.
And this, I think, is that shift I’ve been feeling lately.
I’ve been standing in my students’ way. I do too much. As I recently wrote:
Whenever I begin a novel, I often think about how there is so much to teach. I want so much for students to understand A, B, and C, but then there is also D, E, and F. And so in my efforts to help students learn everything I think they need to know, I end up controlling—sometimes tightly—the entire process. I decide how much students will read. I decide what we discuss each day in class. Idecide how students will respond. I may be the teacher, but one of the most important parts of teaching is what Nancie Atwell calls handover. Everything I do should be in the service of making students independent.
I am guilty of doing too much for my students. And in doing too much, I may make them more dependent on me to direct their thinking.
I’ve created hundreds of handouts, worksheets, graphic organizers, and study guides over the years. In my attempt to scaffold instruction for students, I’ve inadvertently controlled each step in such a way that I directed rather than guided. Somewhere deep inside, I suspected I was doing too much. But there was also a certain efficiency in being the “sage on the stage.” So long as I directed where we were going, we could move through the material with relative ease. The only problem, of course, is that the more I directed, the more students followed and the less they learned.
Lest I start to sound like the Gestapo, it’s not that my classes were so teacher-directed that student voices were silenced. I make it a point during every class period, for example, for students to work together, to turn and talk. As Kylene Beers reminds us, whoever is doing the talking is doing the learning. And in the last few years, I’ve introduced more and more choice in independent reading. The prescriptive 5-paragraph essay has been nagging at me for years, and so I’ve been surely but slowly developing more authentic writing assignments (I credit much of my shift in writing to my experiences teaching AP Lang & Comp, which I’ll need to talk about in a later post).
Although I’ve been making progress toward a more student-centered classroom, I didn’t realize that that was the goal. After all, I thought I already had a student-centered classroom, and I didn’t. Not really. Even when discussions have been lively and students engaged, it still wasn’t a truly student-centered classroom. How could it be? Everything depended too much on me to facilitate and yes, even control. What I want is for my students to be able to have those lively and engaging conversations without me.
Understanding how teacher-centered my classroom actually was has brought a sense of empowerment. Because now I can do the real work of revision. Not a tweaking here and there as I’ve done over the years, but a revision in the true sense of re-visioning what my classroom should look and feel like.
During our conversation, Judy and I laughed at some of things well-meaning things we’d done in our classrooms that really didn’t work―the things we did in our younger, naive teacher days. I think every teacher has his fair share of those well-intentioned, ill-fated attempts.
But just as all good writing emerges from those awful first drafts, I suppose the same is true for teaching. I often tell students that it takes a certain bravery to say to yourself, you know, I may have written X number of pages, but this isn’t working. I need to start again. Less experienced writers tend to stay married to their writing once it’s on the page. For many years, I’ve been doing the same with my teaching―tweaking and editing a draft that I need to admit isn’t working.
And just as the act of writing can lead us to discover what we think, the work of teaching can also lead us to discover―to reaffirm what’s important. What’s important? What’s my point, my thesis? To put students in charge of their learning, to provide the needed supports, and most importantly, to know when to get out of the way.
SOME FINAL THOUGHTS
In another post, I reflected on the power of the “real-world” test. Whenever I make an instructional decision―whether it’s an assignment or assessment―I need to consider if what I’m asking students to do mirrors what they would be asked to do in the real world, beyond school. As a related point, then, is the issue of student agency. The big question for me―in reading, writing, thinking, and learning, how I can I create an environment that develops student agency?
When my students leave my classroom, I won’t be following them. They will need to know how to do things on their own. They’ll need to be agents of their own learning. I can’t think of anything more “real world” than that.