As I drove to work earlier this week, I realized that I was on my way to one of the last Writing Workshop coaching days before the end of the year. Cruising down the rain slicked freeway in the pre-dawn darkness I started to think about all powerful and passionate writing I had heard and read over the past four months…and how I would kind of miss it over Christmas break.
My mind naturally drifted to the Writing Workshop summer institute when a teacher shared her own piece to an audience of 200 fellow teachers about a blue Volkswagen Bug and the loyal friend it has been though all of life’s changes. I also thought about the administrator who wrote about growing up in family of boys and then finally realizing she was becoming a woman. I reflected on the students who wrote powerful personal narratives on everyday experiences including trips to Disneyland, moving to America, family members dying, having to give up pets, and how fortunate they felt to have a certain grandparent, aunt, or parent in their life. But, how could I ever share how amazing these moments have been? How could I explain why Writing Workshop has become such a personal catalyst for my own thoughts on teaching and learning? Last year I was the “tech guy” and before that I was the “science teacher.” When did I fall in love with this constructivist, immersive, writing workshop approach and its ability to connect teachers and students and give each of them an authentic voice?
Later in that same day as I worked my way around a classroom studying memoir, listening to students providing feedback and giving suggestions to their writing partners on where to add details or internal dialogue, I happened to stop with our coach and listen more intently to one particular group. This group didn’t seem to have much writing on their paper. As I kneeled down and listened more closely I heard one student tell the other that his memoir draft was not finished because he had recently changed topics. He decided to write about something that was “closer to his heart” and began to read the introduction of his piece aloud.
“When I was younger I realized I was different. For a long time I was afraid to tell anyone I was different. You see my difference wouldn’t be easy to accept, but when I was 14 I decided I had to tell someone…and when I did a giant weight was lifted off of my shoulders.”
Immediately I knew what this student was writing about. I know that difference. I know that fear. I know that weight. The student finished his piece, looked at his partner, and then at me and the coach waiting for a response. In my own mind I looked back at the student, his partner, and our coach. What will this student’s partner say? Does he understand this difference? What should I say? So for a moment I just sat and listened. Within a second or two, the writer’s partner began to suggest places to elaborate and add details. Over the next few minutes the pair invited us into their conversation and together using our own writing as examples the four of us, two teachers and two students, strategized as a community of writers how this student could help his readers better understand the emotion and significance of his personal memoir.
As I walked away and watched the student confidently continue his draft I couldn’t help but think – What if this had been my teacher? My classroom? Or my school? Would middle school have sucked less? Would I have been more comfortable in my own skin in high school and college? What if my teacher had helped me find my own voice through writing instead of asking me to respond to endless prompts? What if he or she had seen me as an equal – a fellow writer who is looking for a mentor to provide feedback and suggestions on where I should go next? At that moment I realized this is why I love this work. Writing Workshop is more than just teaching some random concept or state standard. It involves helping students mature into passionate, creative, articulate adults who can not only share their knowledge, but can also shape the world through their words. It also involves viewing students as amazing people who can and will do anything when their shown the way and given a helping hand.