Monday, September 22, 2014

Does workshop model work?

My school is pushing for all teachers to use the workshop model as the primary method of instruction.  Now, I have read a few texts on the workshop model--Penny Kittle's Write Beside Them for one, and I use the model to a certain extent when teaching a number of writing concepts, but I am still unconvinced that it works for all classes and all situations.  I want to make it work, but I need a few questions answered!

I have been feeling a little lost with my classes this year.  I have always had a wide variety of skills and abilities present as our school does have a high population of low SES kids as well as transient students, but this is the first time I have seen these extremes.  In one class, I have kids reading at a 2nd or 3rd grade level, kids reading at an 11th grade level, and everything in between.  I also have high numbers of students with IEPs and 504s and what seems like a very large population of very reluctant learners.  How do I accommodate for all that?  How do I differentiate?

Today I observed a 5th grade classroom that utilizes the workshop model, and I have to admit that I was incredibly impressed.  Students worked independently on a Read-to-Self assignment while the teacher met with small groups and interspersed some individual conferences.  She was able to connect with most of her class, and all the class time was used effectively.  I loved it!

But I was left with these concerns--does the workshop model depend solely on the students' ability to work independently?  In the class I observed, every student was working quietly, and for the most part, they were all on task--minus maybe a couple of short breaks.  They had the space to stretch out and get away from distractions (a luxury I definitely do not have), and since the teacher had spent the first week establishing behaviors, routines, and expectations, there really were very few things to stop her from focusing on just a few students (or one student) at a time.

However, we have all had those students who cannot or will not work no matter the consequences, so what do we do then?  How do we make this model work if our students do not work well on their own?  I have a handful of students who seem to need constant redirection.  The second I turn my back, they stop working--some do this by choice, but some have IEPs that say this behavior is out of their control.  Can workshop model work in this situation?

I really do love so many things about this method of instruction, but I am just not sure it works 100% of the time like so many researchers claim.  Do I need to make a change?  Or is it the schools that need to change in order to make the workshop work?

Wednesday, September 17, 2014


As an ELA teacher and a lover of writing, I feel I am strongest at writing instruction.  It is where my passion shines through, and I can tell that I am inspiring kids to write better--at least some of them anyway.  But at the same time, I constantly grapple with my methods for teaching writing.  I look at that long, long list of Common Core standards and am completely overwhelmed with the plethora of concepts I am expected to teach in a year--introductions with thesis statements, conclusions, transitions, evidence, logical reasoning, event sequencing--lions, and tigers, and bears, oh my!  My mind actually boggles, but I give it the old college try!  I spent an entire summer organizing my curriculum by types of writing so that we could study the elements and effective traits of each through various units.  I methodically checked off how I was reaching each standard so, at the very least, my students were being exposed to the concepts.  I felt like I saw a good deal of success doing it this way last year.  My students improved their scores on the end-of-year writing prompt and were able to name most of the traits of narrative, informational, and argumentative writing.  Yay!

But then, these nagging thoughts came to mind--isn't writing supposed to be fun?  Isn't that why I love it?  Are all these standards stopping my students from discovering a passion for the written word?  Is there a place in education for writing, just for writing's sake?  This really came to the forefront of my mind after reading my classmate's blog, Teaching and Reaching in the Middle where she talks about blogging and whether or not she is doing it correctly.  According to some, blogging should be complex with links and analyses of outside sources.  It is not meant to be a journal.  But what if I want to write a journal?  What if there are people out there who do want to read about my random thoughts on teaching?  What if this type of writing it exactly what I love?  Does it really matter that I am not doing it exactly right?

I look forward to writing this blog, even with the mountain of grading on my desk and the blank spots on my plan book that need filling.  In fact, I often use this blog to procrastinate making handouts and filling out addresses on my save the dates, and I don't know if that same enjoyment would be there if I was required to do what I am "supposed" to.  Am I let off the hook because I'm an adult with 20+ years of education under her belt, or is this a sign that perhaps we should be loosening the reins and letting our students write for fun?

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Give a little...get a little?

Only a handful of days in, and I was already struggling with one of my classes.  Even if the rest of my day went well, I would leave in the afternoon feeling frustrated and pretty powerless.  I have dealt with a number of behavior issues before, but this was something different.  These kids were capable but completely disinterested.  I would stand at the front of the room doing everything to entertain them, but it did nothing.  At one point, I was literally running up and down the rows of the classroom to demonstrate how using the verb "tore through the store" implied a different emotion than "run through the store."  I told jokes and changed the volume and tone of my voice.  I tried small group work and trivia-style questioning, but I was met with nothing but blank stares and a blunt refusal to do any kind of work.  I said the phrase "This is when we take out pencils and copy what is on the board," so many times it ceased to have any meaning.  I was at a loss.

I consulted a number of colleagues.  One suggested that I create a class contract with my students, but I had already done that to a certain extent.  Another said that I might have to change my curriculum.  Perhaps this particular group couldn't handle four or five week units and instead needed shorter units based around engaging reads like Scope Magazine articles.  I was willing to do anything, but I felt like making such a drastic change, in addition to being A LOT of work, was also giving up too early, and I wasn't quite ready to throw in the towel.

So, I did things my way, which may or may not have involved a form of bribery.  I was direct and told my students that things were not working--not for me, and not for them.  I admitted that I was frustrated with them and that I wasn't sure what would solve the problem.  I listed the three biggest things I needed from them--more participation, more focus on the task at hand, and more control of negative behaviors.  I told them that if they could do those three things for me every day, I would give them three things that they needed from me.  I fielded a number of ridiculous requests--most having to do with food, but there were also things I felt I could do.  They wanted more movement, especially when taking notes, so I said I would get some clipboards and they could take notes standing up or sitting on the floor.  They wanted incentives for doing homework and participating, so I bought tickets that could be entered in weekly drawings for school-related prizes.  Now, this system has not been fully tested, but in the few days after this conversation, the entire attitude of my class changed.  I saw them actively trying to be better, and when they struggled, I had a common and quick language to get them back on track.

I was proud of myself for doing what was right for me and for creating a perceptible change for my students, but I still have to wonder if it was, in fact, the right thing to do.  I know other teachers do it--use stickers or prizes or even candy if they are lucky enough to be in a district that allows food in class, but does it really work?  Is bribery an effective teaching tool, or is it a cop-out?  Are we helping our students or corrupting them?

It looks like bribery has its pros and cons.  What do you think?

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Getting back into the swing of things...

I have to admit that even though it was only Tuesday, and even though it was like the sixth day of the school year, getting up this morning was HARD!  My joints ached and my eyes put up serious objections to opening.  Basically, I was struggling, and I continued to struggle through my first class, and my second, and my last two.  I tried my best to fight through the exhaustion.  I smiled and made it a point to interact with every student, but during every second of the day, I was aware of the fact that I was not doing my best work.  I was not my best teacher self.

But then I remembered last January.  Nine months ago, my friend and I signed ourselves up for a number of 5k runs.  We figured it would provide us with the motivation to try a new activity and get in shape.  We obviously ignored the fact that, at the time, we could barely run a hundred yards.  I had been a pretty decent runner in middle school and high school, but between junky knees and a bout of asthma, I had lost interest in the sport. But I was determined to give it another shot, so I hopped on that treadmill and ran.  At first it was only a half mile, then a mile, and within a few weeks, I was chugging out (slowly and breathlessly, I might add) three whole miles!  Now, three miles is an easy run.  I've gotten faster (not by much) and stronger, regularly running five or six miles.  I have even gotten up to eight miles a couple times.  It took a lot of getting back in shape, and I don't always love the run, but I love how much healthier and more powerful I feel from doing it.

Teaching is the same thing.  It is only day six.  I am only at the mile mark.  I am out of shape and breathless and in PAIN!  But tomorrow, maybe I will be able to push another half mile, get that much closer to the good teacher I know I can be.  It just takes time--time to get stronger, to find that easy (okay, it's never easy) stride.  Once all the assemblies die down, and students stop changing their schedules, I will get back into the swing of things.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Surviving Seventh Grade...Again!

When I tell people that I am a teacher, they usually smile and say something along the lines of "Oh, that must be such a rewarding job!" or "We always need good teachers."  Then, they get around to asking me what grade I teach.  That's when the smile fades.  It is usually replaced with a raised eyebrow, a slight grimace, and something along the lines of "Oh. Why?"

Not many people understand.  For so many of us, middle school was a veritable minefield of acne, hormones, and ugly rumors.  Why on earth would anyone choose to go back there?  My answer:  I honestly don't know.  Middle school is still hard, maybe even harder from this perspective.  Sure, my skin is clear now, but I also have a hundred sets of eyes on me throughout the day.  A hundred eyes that judge.  A hundred eyes that are convinced I have nothing of value to offer them.  A hundred eyes that would rather be doing just about anything else.

But those eyes also need people like me.  People who will listen to their problems--no matter how petty they tend to seem.  They need someone who will laugh with them, not at them.  Someone who will take their punches and love them anyway because I do love them, hormones and all.

It's a tough job, but somebody's gotta do it.  I just hope I survive...