Thursday, January 8, 2015

Incorporating Writing Workshop Practices in the AP Classroom: The Reality, 6 Months Later

Six months have passed since I had the opportunity to participate in the North Star of Texas National Writing Project’s summer institute. Even while I was still working through that process – researching, practicing, and writing – I knew that it was a life-changing experience. I saw how the chance to write freely, in an atmosphere of mutual respect, resulted in beautiful, rich prose that we often didn't believe ourselves capable of writing. I vowed to incorporate true writing workshop strategies into my classroom so that my students could experience the same feelings of success and camaraderie. More than anything, I wanted them to understand that they are writers. Everyone who writes is a writer. With practice, writers become good or great.

Yesterday, students wrote freely for about 10 minutes. During freewriting, students do not write to a prompt, and the only rule is to keep writing without stopping to edit. What if they can’t think of anything to write? They write something like: “I can’t think of anything to write” or “I can’t believe Mrs. Counts is making me do this.” Then the ideas come. In even my most skeptical students who claim to be incapable of writing, I have never seen one hesitate for more than a few seconds before continuing. At first, even 10 minutes seems like an eternity to students. Hand-cramps are widespread, and since most are used to performing tasks set to rigid standards, most anticipate the announcement to wrap up with eager anticipation. But the more they do this, the more comfortable they feel. They know that the ideas will come – even ideas they didn’t know were there. After writing, I gave students time to go back and read what they had read. In an age of the quick pecking of letters on a bright screen, a reliance on phones to auto-correct, and the rush to post without thought given to revision or editing, students rarely take the time to actually read what they just wrote anymore. Next, I asked students to “make it better.” Revision and editing are technical terms that a lot of students tune out, but they have no problem with casually making it better. Questions came naturally, and peers collaborated with neighbors about word choice, punctuation, and sentence structure without being prompted. I couldn't have asked for more.

Today, my students selected words and phrases from yesterday’s writing that stood out to them and then chose one to inspire a new piece. “You are your own inspiration; how cool is that?” I asked. Students dove into writing quickly, a result of new confidence and interest from the previous day’s successes. After writing and a short period of revision, I gave students the opportunity to share all or part of either day’s piece. I read mine first to model the author’s chair experience, and then I asked for volunteers. Thank goodness there were volunteers! Though in some classes of more reserved students it took a bit longer for someone to muster the courage to step forward, it did happen in each class. And when it did, the results were magical.

Students shared such a variety of beautiful pieces. They ranged from hilarious to thoughtful to angry to really, really sad. Many stories were deeply personal, and the fact that students felt comfortable sharing meant that we have successfully created a safe and supportive classroom culture. Of course, after someone shared an especially touching or well-written piece, someone would inevitably mutter something like “mine’s not that good” or “mine is funny, not serious.” I reminded them that it would be extremely boring if everyone’s writing was the same, and after brief encouragement, another volunteer would prove the point by sharing something different yet strong in its own right. My students blew me away today and proved that they are, in fact, writers. Now, my goal is to help them apply the unique writing voice that they’re developing to other applications such as analytical essays. This is no small feat, but through writing workshop practices, I know we can get there. Six months after completing the NSTWP, I am not only still inspired, but I am also confident that the writing and teaching practices we learned there work in the classroom. 

**I should note that I wrote with my students in each of my 5 English classes. I let them see me struggle to find the best word to convey my intended meaning, and I let them see my happiness when I figured it out. I have seen the difference it makes when I write with them, and I don’t know why any writing teacher would want to miss the opportunity. I also want to properly credit Dorothea Brande, Jeff Anderson, Penny Kittle, Peter Elbow, and the other inspiring educators and writers whose ideas have been studied, practiced, and adopted by writing teachers like me. Several of the ideas listed above can be found in books by these authors.

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