Leading with Student Self-Determination


Although I’m not a big fan of LC, this describes well why the shift away from traditional teaching and toward a workshop model is so necessary. How do we do this from a place that emphasizes — even more — student self-determination and agency? These concepts are central to how we approach our writing workshop and Reading & Discourse curricula.

To take this further, we approach writing in a way that emphasizes purpose, genre inquiry and genre choice. Rather than just a potter or painter studio, ours is an art studio where students might be painting or doing pottery at the same time (metaphorically). So, rather than the teacher modeling how to glaze a beautiful mug, and asking students to do the same, we might model (or show how a student is) glazing and then show how this same technique or concept might apply to another genre or how it expresses a purpose that can cross multiple genres:

  • What is the purpose of glazing (this technique or action)?
  • Why do it now?
  • How does it help the artist?
  • What effect does it have on the mug (the piece or the audience)?
  • How might this work in your piece or this other example genre?

Depending on the work we have done in class together determines how we might frame this question or the action they might take. I typically choose to highlight a technique (*ex: something an author does within a text — imagery, dialogue, sentence type or word choice) or strategy (*something an author does outside or with a text: sketching a scene) that is relevant or can be utilized in many genres by different students.

So, my lessons are less genre-specific overall and, thanks to Kwame Alexander, whose books inspired me toward using more poetry in class, I use poetry (or other short texts) to teach quite a lot, as it allows for a lot of discussion without a lot of reading together beforehand. We try techniques, we brainstorm purposes and in their Reading & Discourse classes they get exposure to genres as well. So, this helps them when thinking about what genre to choose (or invent).

Each teacher in my school approaches this uniquely, some of it due to preference or prior experience, sometimes due to our language environment in the school. In grades 9 and 10, our students and teachers often don’t share a common language. (Note on this: our students are predominantly immigrants from countries that speak languages other than English, and our teachers teach in English, so the language challenge is a shared challenge, not one we see as simply on the shoulders of our students. This is a key distinction because looking at it any other way could lead toward deficit mindsets).

This can make choosing and using mentor texts rather challenging since just reading it can take a lot of time. So teachers did more genre exposure “front-loading” and some of the “pottery class” approach from September – early November this year. Our 9th and 10th grades are mixed, so once the 10th graders have experienced this, they are able to support the newer students. Students are encouraged to write in any language they feel comfortable while we encourage them to develop their English skills in a variety of ways — with the goal being to become bilingual, so it should feel like an additive, not subtractive experience or purpose.

Also, a workshop model in general is very new to our students since most do not attend middle school in the US, so we also use September to begin building those norms and reinforce them throughout the school year so that our routines actually help develop their agency (when we use the word agency, we use it to mean making choices, self-awareness and self-advocacy). We rely on routines like free-writing or quick writes with a mentor of some kind, independent writing time and table/peer shares.

These routines are not unique to our workshop model. One approach I have, though, is I work in a spiral, by increasingly allowing students time and space to pull their own group share together. I do this as a way to build agency.

One way to do this is to encourage a group/pair share to happen in the middle of a writing conference. We want students to experience these shares as connections with another writer that can happen organically to meet a need a writer has, and also to move them away from relying on the teacher as the sole arbiter of what makes writing good. Also, we have recorded table shares so students have a model for how it can look (also a handy tool for norming practices during online or hybrid learning).

In case you may be wondering — yes, my lesson planning is very open and fluid. I know what’s going to happen in my mini-lesson of 5-10 minutes, and then the rest of the time, I am engaging with kids. It’s not waitressing because I’m not trying to make sure everyone’s needs are met in the traditional sense. I might be the one making the mess, “Are you sure this is the direction you want to take with this?” or “Hmm.. you say you’re done, but I’m not sure I agree” and pointing kids toward each other to resolve them, “Why don’t you ask her to read it and see what she thinks the message or emotional high point is?”.

The more I can get kids talking to each other about their writing and then digging into drafting or revising, the more I feel like I have accomplished the true goal of a writing workshop, and the closer I feel toward a community of people guided by a sense of their own voices and purposes.

*This is how I distinguish them to students. I group writing technique/literary elements, and then talk about strategies as practices or actions writers take to develop those techniques. I also tend to refer to both as writing tools. Since I was a writer for years before I was a teacher, I never understood the strictness around the technique/tool or literary element vs story element distinctions. It’s just not how I was trained, honestly. I also came to teaching through TESOL and linguistics, with professors who were very not prescriptivist. I’m conscientious about being consistent with how I name things, though for students and I am transparent about it.

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