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Thursday, January 4, 2018

Yes, Workshop Really Works in AP English

I’m going to break blogging protocol and begin with the admission that you probably aren’t about to read something you haven’t read before. So why will this post continue on with approximately 1,000 more words? It’s simple: the divide between English teachers who embrace workshop practices and those who don’t continues, and I want to add to the throng of voices who assure even the most adamantly opposed to workshop that it can, and does, work wonders.

First, let me share a brief overview of my teaching experience. I taught pre-AP (Honors) English 4 for one year. That was a dream! With no standardized test to prepare for, I had the freedom to construct a curriculum that focused on creative and real-world writing. We read. We wrote. We reflected. We repeated. We became better readers, writers, and thinkers. Note two things here:
1.     I say “we” because I instinctively felt that I should write along with my students. Teachers of writing should write.
2.     Ultimately, thinking has always been my goal. Not just English. Certainly not how to bubble a Scantron. Thinking.
The next year, I began teaching AP English 4 – literature and composition. The previous teacher of that course remained right across the hall, and she frequently visited my room to check up on my progress. She had traditional beliefs about how an AP class should be taught. “Students have to read Pride and Prejudice and Heart of Darkness,” she insisted, and test prep should be the focus of the course. After all, AP courses are all about passing the exam, right? (Yes, and thinking, I thought.)

But my pesky instincts and strong will intervened. That year might have been a train wreck, as I tried to follow as much of her advice as I could stomach (though I gave my students a choice about which Jane Austen novel to read), but I also incorporated choice for two of the novels that students read that year. I even tried something wacky – holding a Socratic seminar that explored theme and author’s craft even though we had all read different books – and it worked! I knew my class seemed more legitimately engaged than others I had seen in the past, but I needed help. I needed to know that I wasn’t crazy. I needed the pedagogical research behind what I was trying to do. I needed examples for how this could work – especially in an AP classroom. I needed support.

At that point, my friend and mentor, Amy Rasmussen (see her amazing blog here) invited me to participate in the North Star of Texas WritingProject summer institute. Hallelujah! The month of reading, writing, workshop, and inquiry provided the tools I needed to implement workshop. Yes, even in an AP classroom. And here is where I cannot take credit for what I will share. So many trailblazers have come before me. Many quality books on workshop await those who are curious, and Amy’s blog listed above is a valuable resource as well. However, AP teachers seem especially resistant to the ideas of choice and workshop. Here are some of my thoughts on the matter after incorporating choice for the past 6 years in the AP classroom:

·      Rigor in an AP classroom has nothing to do with what students read. Rigor, in an AP classroom, has nothing to do with what students read.
o   Let me break that down further by focusing on the word “read.” Teachers who think that their students are actually reading those canonical works just because they’re assigned are woefully ignorant. Seriously – Google the statistics if your students haven’t been honest with you about it. Dedicated students will typically Sparknote or Schmoop it. Less dedicated students will rely on classroom discussion or other means to fake it, and multiple-choice tests make that easier to get away with. Sometimes, I hear teachers explaining the entire text right before a test! I have to wonder what rigorous work the students are doing in this scenario.
o   What makes any learning activity rigorous depends on how much we’re taxing our brains to make meaning and synthesize new ideas. If we create assignments that ask students to show their thinking about a text, rather than giving a test on, say, Beowulf, we put the responsibility on students to show us their learning in creative ways. Differentiation is automatically built-in with quality assignments, and “faking it” becomes almost impossible – especially when accompanied by…
·      Reading and writing conferences – these are key to determining what your students are reading, what they should be reading, how they are progressing, where their individual obstacles exist so they can develop a plan to overcome them, and helping them grow as writers. Teachers should be asking questions most of the time – not merely providing answers.
·      Providing students with choice doesn’t mean that students will all choose YA books that don’t provide an adequate challenge, and the individual discussions help with this. My course is divided into thematic units, and my syllabus lists several choices between award-winning novels “of literary merit” in each unit that range in genre, cultural heritage, and date of publication, so students are choosing, but between good stuff. If a student wants to read something not on the list, they simply talk to me about it. They often surprise me.
o   Two of my students chose to take on Charles Dickens in December, and another asked if she could read Franz Kafka’s The Trial! That’s not in my syllabus. I don’t have a multiple-choice test ready for it to “assess” her learning. Instead, she completed a creative project over her novel, novel notes to help her review the book before the AP exam, she wrote about it, and more importantly – we talked about it. I know she read it, and I know what she thought about while she read it. Magical.
o   When students have some choice about what they read, the percentage of students who actually read drastically increases, as does their understanding of the text. This actually improves their chances of successfully writing about the book on the AP exam!
·      Finally, how does this prepare students for the AP exam? For college? That takes me back to my initial focus on thinking. If we provide students with choice, ask them to take personal responsibility for their learning, and coach them through the reading, writing, and thinking processes – which are all intertwined – they will be prepared for an exam designed to assess their reading, writing, and analytical skills.

I don’t know if I can satisfactorily answer the question further because I don’t really understand it. How could workshop fail to prepare students for an exam? Students read more. They write more. They think more rigorously. 

Workshop seems like a no-brainer for those who implement it, so why the divide? In my experience working with resistant teachers, these are the common categories of concern:
1.     Insecurity – it takes a lot of courage to write and think in front of students. We must show our vulnerabilities. We must admit that we are not perfect. We don’t write perfectly the first time we attempt it. Maybe we fumble over the right word, or we misspell something in front of the class. Good! What a real, valuable learning opportunity for students to see that all humans must work and think through writing! But we must have courage and the confidence to know that we have so much to offer our students.
2.     Perceived loss of control – I say “perceived” because traditional teachers often feel that they have control while they lecture, prescribe multiple-choice tests, and dictate reading choices. Students actually gain quite a bit of control in these classes. They control whether or not they tune out that lecture, whether or not they actually learn anything along the way, and whether or not they actually read the assigned text. Again, it’s really hard to fake these things in a workshop classroom. My classroom often looks chaotic, but I walk around, listening to what my students think, and instantly adapt my instruction to address the areas that they need addressed.
3.     Fear – administrators look at our test scores. They shouldn’t, really, but that’s another blog post. Many teachers fear that anything but a traditional test-prep approach won’t adequately prepare students for the test. Students should be acquainted with the test format and have strategies going in, but ultimately, the skills being tested are developed through workshop. Again, reading comprehension, the ability to analyze a writer’s craft, and the ability to write one’s own analysis develop as students authentically take part in these activities. So far, my students have outscored their peers in test-prep-focused courses.
4.     More work for the teacher – yes and no. It’s just…different. It’s easier to pull out that copy of a copy of a copy of an old multiple-choice test and grade a Scantron than it is to grade authentic writing, discussions, or projects that show students’ learning. It’s easier to give the same lecture for the gazillionth time than it is to listen, adapt, and address student inquiry on the spot. However, it’s also easier in a way to place some of the burden for a student’s education on that student. When students are responsible for showing their learning, explaining their writing process, and coming up with their own questions, they direct and take ownership in their own learning. This is what it means to be a teacher and not just a lecturer.


For teachers still on the fence about taking the workshop plunge, I recommend observing a teacher who implements the practice, attending a National Writing Project workshop, and reading blogs and books on the topic. The information and support is out there, and students everywhere deserve the rigor that only workshop provides.

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