As an educator, I’ve long realized that my students are brilliant beyond all expectation and that if I will just get out of their way, they will prove that truth time and again. It’s the dismissal of my own pet projects and the getting out of the way that can be tricky. There are certain works and assignments that I simply love to witness kids interact with and grow from, so the temptation to micromanage the curriculum can often be difficult to dismiss.
This is particularly true in my AP Literature class. It’s less a temptation in this situation and more a burden placed by the weight of the test in May…you know, the test that is made without knowledge of my kids but that determines whether they will receive college credit without regard for the fact that maybe they have completed important, intelligent and profoundly thought provoking work all semester but maybe came into the test not feeling well. An entire year of work denied in four hours. I digress. My point is that given the import my kids place on this test, I feel an obligation to find a balance between teaching a really solid literature course and also instructing on the nuances of the test.
Every other course I teach roots itself deeply in the choice offered through reading and writing workshop, but my AP class has always been a little bit different. Choice has been present but within parameters–often set by me (particularly when it comest to reading).
This year has been a bit different. We still share a central text every now and again so we can discuss and learn from each other as a whole class. But our reading for the most part has existed in book clubs. And while, yes, there have been literary analyses that were written, this year we have also participated in a true writer’s workshop. Students set writing goals for themselves, selected a style of writing and topic that would assist them in achieving their goals, and then set to work. I was present for conferencing and teaching one on one as they went through the process.
What I found incredibly intriguing is that so many of the kids were inspired to write based on the books they had chosen for their book clubs. A few students read Layli Long Soldier’s poetry collection entitled Whereas. This beautiful book of poetry reveals the hard work of the poet, and the intricacy of Layli Long Soldier’s craft deepens the connection of the reader to the work, to the meaning (and also opens eyes). As much poetry as I have shared with my kids over the years (there has been so much poetry, trust me here), there was something magical about their independent reading and interaction with Whereas. Not only did they appreciate the text and have riveting book club discussions, but they also all decided that their writing goals would include exploring what they could really do with poetry.
Now I have to say that historically, when a student asks to pursue poetry for independent writing, questions like these are often involved… “So, like, how many poems do I have to write?” “So, 3 or 4 haiku would count, right?” “But what if I worked really hard on these two poems? Two would be enough, right?” This group of students, however, asked an entirely different set of questions… “Can I include an intermission in my collection?” “Would it be alright if my collection had 3 parts?” “I’d like the third part to be interactive for the reader–is that too creative? Will people get it?” “Can I play with spacing on the page and punctuation if it works with my point?” Meaningful questions about the work of a writer–questions that reflected thought and consideration and investment. I was dazzled.
And the outcome? Well, one student crafted a 62 page, three part collection of poems that illustrated the transition from anxiety/depression/hurt to taking a breath to finally healing (the healing is approached through an interactive set of poems and directives that aim to help the reader work toward healing rather than simply acting as a passive observer). Another student, who had never attempted to write poetry and maybe hadn’t even really attached himself to any piece of writing before, composed his own multipart collection in which he plays with spacing, punctuation and word choice in a rather magical way. His continued affirmations that he was so proud of this work only made its worth shine more brightly.
One student, intrigued by Jean Toomer’s style in Cane, attempted an entire essay composed in prose poetry, and get this, merged the airy, imagistic language with terms and ideas associated with Calculus and Physics. It was utter brilliance. Stunning to read. I’m pretty sure I audibly gasped at certain points. Again, the pride she took in her accomplishment was remarkable. She wrote, “I read it out loud to myself for the first time last night and I heard growth as a writer, thinker and viewer of the world.”
Finally, another student who had been frustrated and a little bored by Camus’ style in The Stranger realized that his own writing reflected this very same style. He went back to the short story he had been composing in workshop with a fresh eye and revised from there. His self reflection included these words, “Who knew I would end up liking to write? Probably you, Mrs. Clark.”
And I’ve only mentioned the kids whose writing was inspired by their reading…For the sake of space I haven’t included others who played with style, development, genre, imagery and more apart from their reading, but with equally impressive outcomes.
Here’s the thing. I could never have created a set of directions that would have led to the crafting of any one of these assignments. My brain would never have gotten there. And if I had by some small miracle, actually assigned even one of these pieces, the investment and engagement that was palpable in the classroom simply wouldn’t have existed. Why? Because they would have been working for me, for the grade. They would have been doing the work that I asked them to, in the way that I told them to and it would have been good but it wouldn’t have meant so much. Teacher pleasing is not engagement. It gets the work done, but it doesn’t resonate, it doesn’t linger.
The student who wrote the 62 paged piece has now, long after the grading is done, methodically increased the collection to 120 pages and is considering inserting photography as well. This piece is hers and hers alone. Its genius stems entirely from her mind and her process. The small intricate touches she is adding don’t reflect the work of school; they reflect the work of her heart.
The writing turned in during this writer’s workshop represents the inspired work and thinking of students who, when given the chance, were ready to prove without question the value of choice and freedom, the value of engagement and ownership.
And as a result, despite knowing these students for the last four years, after shifting my role completely to consultant rather than instructor and after the joy of witnessing the results, I find myself quite simply awestruck.
(this piece really needs to be longer…and less clunky…I don’t have an ease about my writing when I write about my classroom yet–something I am working on over these months… Day four writing, done!)