Monday, 21 September 2015

Good at learning or good at school?

A former student responding to a prompt asking the difference between learning and studying:

"It’s one thing to read Romeo and Juliet, and I can tell you, you know, which ones were the Capulets and, you know, I can name and tell you Juliet, who she is. I can pick out the symbolism and I can say, this is a reference to this, that was happening in Elizabethan England. It’s another thing to read Romeo and Juliet and to talk about some of those higher level themes and then to make connections between Romeo and Juliet and something I saw on television or something that’s going on in my own life. Now, I own that information, because I can manipulate it and use it to meet my own needs versus I've memorized that information, it’s stored in my head, but I can only access it when we’re talking about Romeo and Juliet." 

And that's what rigorous learning material helps kids learn how to do. If I can get my 6th graders anywhere near this understanding, I'll have achieved something worthwhile this year.

Writer Workshop & Block Schedule (The Question)

The school I've recently joined has been using the Lucy Calkins Units of Study. The wordiness and overly-scripted plans feel prescriptive rather than guiding, although I acknowledge they are not meant to be so. This has encouraged me to look at how others (such as Kasey Kiehl) are doing it, and dip in and out of Calkins as needed for my 6th Grade students. Furthermore, my positive experiences with PBL have encouraged me to have a 'real world' goal at the end, rather than their writing ending up in a rarely-shared portfolio.
So far, the setting up of the workshop has been OK. I talked to them about publishing a book at the end of the year containing the best of their writing, but they have to go through a panel to be accepted; only their best work will do! They were pretty excited at the prospect and turned to their notebooks with great enthusiasm. Problem was, there was a weekend plus another 3 days until they got to tackle their challenge again. We alternate between writing workshop and literature circles, so seeing them every other day means ELA twice or thrice a week maximum.
At the moment, that is my challenge - trying to maintain the pace and interest in writing with such long gaps between. Add to that the reduced contact time with the students because of other (useful) interruptions to the curriculum, and it feels like it's taking a long time to really get into that all-important flow.
I could - as my predecessors did - do writing every time we meet, but the admitted result was a marginalisation of reading. And let's face it - whatever curriculum you follow, ELA is not just about reading and writing, especially these days with ever-expanding definitions of reading, writing, media and communication in general.
Anyway, it'll be time to re-assess at the end of the quarter which is far closer than I'd like to think given how little I feel we've done, but I guess I need to remember it's quality not quantity, and for sure we've established some important norms. These norms are centered around building an environment of trust among peers, so we can support each other on our writerly journey.
I'm optimistic the pace will pick up as the year continues, and I am very much looking forward to seeing how my Grade 6 students grow in their writing. I guess patience has never been a strong suit of mine, and never moreso than when I'm excited to see the fruits of our labour!

Update October 2015: A follow-up to this post can be read here.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

What I've Learned So Far about Writers' Workshop

Writer Workshop
As keen as I was to give Writer Workshop a go, it doesn't fit a timetable where you see the kids every other day. It's designed to have kids write every day. While I saw some great things about it - not least the learners considering themselves as 'writers' and writing much more than before - the pace is too slow to maintain in my current context. I have reached out to all the literacy experts I could find online and offline, and nobody was able to offer a solution.
However, the conferencing idea within WW is one I will continue alongside other (most likely GDocs) feedback.

It's confirmed - I detest grading. Coming from a school that was comments only for the most-part, and reported on levels, the constant grade-chasing mentality of my learners is a definite issue for me. Rather than focusing on the learning for the learning's sake, they are motivated primarily by grades. Grades are recorded in PowerSchool and both parents and learners check them regularly - apparently up to several times a day (according to those who can view such statistics). Grades are required for every subject every quarter, and the indications are they will not be dropped because of parent demand.
It is such an issue that learners will not complete independent (homework) tasks unless there is a grade and a deadline. If anyone is in the same situation and has found a way to mitigate this, I'd love to hear from you.
Thankfully, our school is focusing on assessment this year, and admin has already been to a Dylan Williams workshop, so I'm hoping to see the positive impact of this. I remain hopeful but in the meantime feel like my soul is dirty.