As the school year looms ever closer, I again begin the task of preparing physically as well as mentally to return to the classroom. I’m entering my 12th year of teaching and I’m happy to say that I’m still tinkering. But as The First Day of School approaches, I am feeling guilty and anxious. Let me explain.
Nancy Atwell’s In the Middle was my TEXTBOOK during graduate school. I knew in my heart that every word of what she was saying made sense however I was too chicken to try it out my first year. I was scared that going against the “traditional” English curriculum (you all know the drill: grammar exercises, whole-class reads, worksheets, and projects) would get me in trouble. So I fell in line. Over the next two years, after nearly killing myself to make my class a carbon copy of Atwell’s, I developed a modified version of her system that worked for me in that school. I saw it working. I was enthused. My kids were reading and writing like never before. We were aided with a total paradigm and culture shift in our district that brought classroom libraries to EVERY content teacher in all buildings in our district. And our librarian was (and still is) A ROCK STAR. It was as close to actually teaching with Atwell as one could get without moving to Maine. Yes, there were still “non-believers” in the district, school, and even in the English department, but for the most part, we were growing life-long readers. Some of these students are still emailing me for book suggestions and to tell me of their accomplishments including marriage and the first books they’ve bought their babies (geez, it makes me feel old).
Then I moved. In my new district, the culture of reading was small. It was like a secret club that only a few knew existed. The library felt like a Western ghost town. The librarians were doing some online shopping and generally discouraging students and teachers alike from visiting the library. I unpacked my seven shelves of tradebooks with a little trepidation but after the first year, it was working. There was definitely not the whole-hog buy-in seen in my previous district but my students were reading more and their writing was improving. By the end of the second year, students in other people’s classes were coming to me to check out books instead of going to the school library. By the time I left that school, many other English teachers had budding classroom libraries and student choice had become a major part of our English curriculum. I’m not saying it was all me – there are other fabulous teachers there who were chiming in with workshop wisdom and seeing results.
Now, I find myself in a new school and district yet again. I temporarily worked in this school toward the end of the school-year last year and was given a permanent position for this year. This is an at-risk school. It is a Title I school. There is no culture of reading. The culture is anxious. There is a real Fight or Flight mentality IN THE CLASSROOM. Students with little to no home support are trying to make it day-to-day. I did not bring in my books last year because I wasn’t a permanent teacher and there were only a couple of months of school left. But one thing I could see immediately was that THESE KIDS NEEDED BOOKS. And they needed to choose their own books and own their learning because it’s just about the only thing they CAN control in this environment. As I face this year and KNOW in my heart that these kids need CHOICE and TIME and ENCOURAGEMENT and SOMETHING ELSE to make school a “Wanna” instead of a “Gotta”, I have to be honest with myself. Never in my 12 years of teaching have I fully immersed my students or myself in workshop. I joke that I have OCD but letting go of that last element of control has always scared me into 1950s-teacher mode. I’ve blamed it on the state standards or the district or the department, but really, it’s been me.
So this summer, I pulled out Atwell and Fletcher and Allen and Reif. Then I bought Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer and other titles by Messner, Lattimer, Fisher & Frey, Gallagher, Lesesne, and Mazer and Potter that were suggested by Nerdy Book Club teachers. And after spending the summer reading new and rereading “old” experts, I have made myself a promise.
This time, I mean it. I’m doing whole-hog, flying by the seat of my pants, book-avalanche workshopping. I resolve to look my fear in the eye and make it back down. I pledge to NEVER revert to worksheets and drill & practice and whole-class novels. I will read and write and sweat and cry with my students because I know it works. In the portions of each school year where I’ve let it happen, it’s been the best part of the year for ALL OF US. It’s time my fear got out of the way of my students’ learning. I’m sure I’ll fumble a little but it’s time to be honest with myself and stand up for what I know works. Happy reading and writing, everyone, and here’s to a smooth school year for all of us.