Getting Rid of the Mixture: A Lesson in Trust and Bravery

Reflecting on the universal beliefs of a true workshop teacher, I find myself opening up the transition vein of uncertainty to help fluctuating teachers set sail into the murky and sometimes choppy waters of a reading and writing “workshop.”

There’s a difference between belief in the workshop model and belief in one’s own ability to comfortably fulfill the role of an authentic workshop teacher. It’s a paradigm shift that is often stressful to overcome.

Beliefs of a workshop teacher:

  • Choice. Students should have choice in what they read and what they write.
  • Authentic reading and writing. We only ask kids to read and write for authentic purposes.
  • Teachers read and teachers write.
  • Teachers read and teachers write in front of their students.
  • Kids need lots of time to read and write.
  • Strategy and skill instruction is explicitly taught.

It all sounds good on paper…

In the ELA blocks of our weekly lesson plans, the words: Writing Workshop or Reading Workshop can often be found. However, surprisingly when that time of day actually comes…the same anthology with teacher manual in tote is pulled out; grammar practice worksheets appear; and before we know it, our readers and writers are all in unison on page 6…sleepily doing number 6. Nothing has been collaboratively “workshopped,” just independently “worked on.” Identical in form. Parallel monotony ad-nauseam.

Truth be told. It is a scary thing; cutting loose that faithful anchoring one stop shop anthology book or collection of worksheets that we’ve relied on for the greater part of our teaching life when we look to teach a certain skill. It is a scary thing to set sail on an ocean of inquiry and authentic learning through struggle- when we don’t know what’s waiting for us beneath the sea’s surface. The waters are just too murky to fathom. We are wired to want everything neat and tidy. Planned and played out. Exactly the way we envisioned.

To further add to our apprehension, it is a scary thing to “not know” everything we plan to teach before we teach it, to understand which craft moves or grammar components to pull out of a mentor text or even which mentor text to reach for. Which questions to pose and which ones to guide students to pose. It’s hard to always “see” that we use the same literacy skills in every single content area. Admitting this belief of transference would only cause more stress in knowing it is our job to help students identify those same literacy components outside of the ELA classroom and across their learning day.

I don’t know which is worse…not doing what we know is right because it’s often more challenging and we are not 100% confident in our skillset, or doing what we know isn’t right and accepting the residual feelings and instructional consequences that comprise the choice of taking the easier way out.

Begin to journey out of indecision…of temporary transition and onto the sea of discovery with these 5 steps of trust and bravery:

Step 1: Get rid of the “mixture.”

Get rid of the “mixture” of mingling the two disparate teaching lives: 1. busy work, worksheets, assigning, not teaching and 2. authentic engagement and inquiry. Like oil and water, the two cannot be mixed. They don’t go together. They never will. Either you are an authentic workshop teacher…or you’re not. Make a choice, not an excuse. Be brave. Commit. And never look back.

Step 2: Always choose the latter of the two disparate teaching lives.

Choosing authentic engagement and inquiry over monotony will liberate the inner inquiry immersion leader and learner in you. Set sail and don’t be afraid of the murky waters ahead of you.

Step 3: Expect the unexpected…and be comfortable in doing so.

The best thing about setting sail with a class full of eager learners, is that you are never alone on your journey. The beauty of true teaching is found in uncovering the unknown alongside your students.

Step 4: Share your vulnerability and adopt a Growth Mindset

Be transparent, say out loud, “I don’t know…but I know where to look to help me find the answers. And furthermore…I won’t not know for long. I have a growth mindset!”

Step 5: Focus on the learning…not the teaching

This last step singularly can take the place of the preceding 4. Adopt the Madeline Hunter Model of Learning by approaching each students learning needs with this question in mind: Think not – What am I going to teach today, but rather what is this child ready to learn today?

Get yourself out of the way. Become a learner in your own classroom. Embrace the struggle to create and embrace something new. Remember: if you’re not growing…your students aren’t either. Empower yourself by allowing yourself to think differently.

If you are working towards and committed to whole-heartedly setting sail on the waters of workshop, please share your thoughts on transitioning and your hurdles to overcome?

-Val Piccini




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