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Exploring Writer’s Workshop with Teachers

I have started doing a series of Wednesday afternoon sessions for teachers at my school on Writer’s Workshop. The first session was this week. I love doing these workshops for teachers because it helps me articulate my philosophy and practice. They help me think through the what and why of my practice. They keep me honest.

During the first session we talked about the writing process or “the process of writing” as worded by Wendy Bean and Jan Turbill in their book, Writing Instruction, K – 6, Understanding Process, Purpose, Audience. We talked about how the writing process and the 6 + 1 Traits of Writing work together, since the latter is of special interest in my school at the moment. I explained the components of Writer’s Workshop and we did a little bit of writing. It was probably too much for a one hour session; we could have spent more time on any one part of the agenda.

At the end of the afternoon I asked for feedback regarding what teachers wanted to know more about. I received good responses that I am planning to weave into each of the next sessions. I will also be offering twice monthly brown bag lunches to further discuss the fine points, problems, etc of Writer’s Workshop.

If you have done sessions like this before at your school, or have attended any yourself, please post suggestions for what you think are some ideas worth exploring with teachers new to the concept of workshop teaching. I’d love to read your thoughts! Thank you!

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Alfie Kohn

Yesterday, at Teacher’s Convention in Calgary, I heard Alfie Kohn speak. Although I’ve read articles he has written I had never seen him in person. If you ever get the chance to attend one of his lectures don’t walk, run, to see him!

He is passionate about children and teachers. He wants to keep classroom tasks authentic and connected to students’ lives. He is anti-grades and anti-testing but he doesn’t just leave it at that. He supports teachers as knowledgeable professionals who know their students best. He asserts that the research says, and I’ve been at several assessment sessions that support this position, that before high school there is no need to give grades or tests. A case can be made for high school simply because that is how colleges still admit students: partially on the basis of their grades. However, before grade 9 it is more beneficial to students’ learning if they aren’t given grades but are provided with timely and specific feedback. Although we need to assess and evaluate children we don’t need to do it at the expense of learning; there are other tools we can use to determine what students know, have learned, and where they might need to go next.

Kohn claims that the purpose of standardized testing, in the U.S. and Canada, is to control teachers and students. I couldn’t agree with him more. The threat of standardized tests looms over teachers and students like a heavy cloud. Since we know we have to administer these tests and that the scores are publicized we often end up teaching to the test. As a result, we end up compromising what is important and appropriate for children to learn based on their needs and interests at any given time.

I felt validated in what I do in my classroom and was one in an audience of over 1,000 people who stood up and gave him a standing ovation.

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Aren’t Children Amazing?

Last week my students presented what they had learned about Guatemala to three different groups of classes at my school. It was part of the now annual Celebration of Learning. Although it started out as a way to highlight the Latin American holiday of Carnaval it has taken on a life of its own. We now share what we’re learning about the different Latin American countries that we study, whether or not it’s to highlight that country’s particular customs around Carnaval time. Although my students’ presentations were far from polished and they had been nervous while presenting, they felt they had done an awesome job . At the end of the day, I asked the children what they could improve on for the next time they had to give a presentation in front of a group. In a nutshell, this is what they said:

–Even though I was nervous I pretended there was only one person in the room and that I was just talking to that person.
–I just told myself that this was only for a few minutes and that I could do it for that long.
–I think I need to practice speaking in front of a large group.

Next week I am presenting at our local Teacher’s Convention and I will most definitely remember my students’ words of wisdom.

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The Answers Depend on the Questions You Ask

The answers depend on the questions you ask. What a simple and provocative statement! When we worry about students who don’t seem to be making progress we often start by asking questions such as these:

–Why can’t F. retell simple stories?
–Why does F. get a blank look on her face when you ask her a simple question?
–Why does F. sometimes seem to know what’s going on and at other times, she hasn’t a clue?

I could go one and on in this same vein but I don’t think it’s necessary since you may have already noticed that all these questions are phrased negatively – what D. can’t do. They all operate from weaknesses and deficits. The answers will only lead me to more cant’s and probably even some “wont’s”.

If, on the other hand, I explore what D. can do, and what her interests seem to be I might be able to use her strengths and interests to help her improve her ability to listen and attend so that she can learn more and better. I noticed that F. likes to draw. Often, though, her drawings are simple and feminine in nature. How can I start with something she’s already doing and enjoys to get F. to think, write, and read on a deeper level?