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The Work in Workshop…

Throwing this out there: I need a writing group. I need the accountability and presence of other ideas. I am wondering if my lack of writing with any regularity, except for this blog, is a result of no structure, the end of PSWP, and not finding another NWP. Writing Workshop works. It is an exceptional means to help students grow as readers and writers. I’ve tried to sell colleagues on it, and because they haven’t been to the mountaintop and met with gurus of enlightenment like my friends Holly Stein and Kim Norton, they don’t believe me.

So I just have to make sure it fits with my students, and keep proving it, time and again.

Our school is trying to do many things in a hurry to get students at grade level: PLC work is the big focus, and for math and ELA, the district provides rough ‘frameworks’ but at least for the ELA group, they’re never done, or if they are, there is a conflict or confusion between the PLC created Common Formative Assessments and the district created ones. These are not mutually exclusive, but nor does this jive with the spirit of a PLC, and that is to be agile and responsive to student needs in an intentional means. Assessments that might be best for students at one middle school in the district may not be what’s most needed for ours.

Along with the PLC work, the administration wants us to focus on our grading practices, and the discussion is open and collaborative. It has always been my personal policy not to mark things down for being ‘late.’ Convoluted systems and make-up work tangles up the process, so I make it simple: there is a due date, and the assignment will ‘close’ a week afterward. It’s marked zero and missing to affect grades because if it’s not, the student isn’t aware it’s missing. These are middle school kids, remember. Once it’s done, I give it full credit. If it’s an assignment that is rubric based, they have time to redo it for a better grade. Assessments for our PLC and district are scored accordingly, but marked as “no count.”

Recently Ethical ELA posted an article about flexibility and student learning:

Deadlines and “Late” Work: The Potential of the Provisional

The writer used my favorite quote that I use as my tagline, and this–this is a fantastic idea:

What will you do with your one precious life? They reflected on their values, dreamed about what, who, and where they wanted to be, took a career quiz, read biographies, explored opportunities in high school, looked into part-time jobs, explored colleges, searched apartments, created a budget, read about philanthropic options, developed mottos, wrote a speech to synthesize the research in the voice of their future self (see an example below), and created a slideshow with images to support the content (e.g., Slides, A Life as an Artist, also see below). I set up a schedule for three students to be “guest speakers” each Friday through January, February, and March.

I may start off with my ‘ambassador of the table’ and then move to the guest speaker idea.

Before the break, the well-laid plans included a quick version of Greek mythology, then onto Box of Destiny! Ah, well. Add three snow days, a studio teacher workshop for the ELA department, the ‘no immigrants’ protest day, things did not go as planned. Do they ever? So, instead of the full-blown BoD presentations, I asked them to focus on just the story of their character from first-person perspective. Developmentally, this shift is very difficult for some students, and that makes it all the more valuable. Many had their stories done, many had them started, and many couldn’t get out of the starting gate, with all the scaffolds available. We did a modified writing workshop protocol on Friday, and I took the papers home to write feedback for one and all. Between my hand-written and typed feedback in Canvas, I hope to see some growth for the next project.

Life is not linear, that’s for sure. Maybe that’s why whenever I watch a Marzano or other expert they always use a math example, not an ELA or social studies one, because reading, writing, and history are messy indeed. But that’s okay: I know other experts to draw from, including my own knowledge and experience. If you want to come to the mountaintop with me, I’ll take you there.

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I’ve been doing a post-a-day faithfully since January 1, 2010. I skipped yesterday’s post. Instead, I spent from about 8am-3pm writing for one of my own personal BIG projects. And then I went with my family to watch “Alice in Wonderland” at the IMAX theatre in 3-D. (Kind of a disappointment, but visually breathtaking. Maybe Mrs. Wagner is right, and Tim Burton should just stick to set design; he can’t pick scripts.)

ANYWAY…in order to meet a big deadline, things, life, people, have been pushed aside while I focus on this…ONE….BIG….THING….and it does have a hard and fast deadline.

“Deadline” sounds so much more ominous than “due date.” Due date sounds kind of like, well, great if you get it done, but if not, it’s flexible. “Deadline” has the word “dead” in it, as in all life will cease to exist unless this task is completed on this metaphorical line. I keep thinking, “When this is over…I will…(fill in the blank).” The blank is filled in with everything from getting the oven fixed, paying bills on time, going shopping, spending more time with my sons, husband, and friends; spring-cleaning the house and writing the great American novel. (Or, at least a new script for “Alice”- maybe Burton can take a mulligan on that one.)

Sometimes I wonder if we (teachers) are doing you (students) a disservice when it comes to project-based learning.  Project-based learning is when the assignments are layered, building on one another to create one final project, like our Burning Questions unit. You had several steps along the way, and for the most part, you did a really good job. But I’m sure some of your other classes’ work/assignments were pushed aside. Now that you’re done with that, your focus went to other classes. We really are poor at multi-tasking, no matter what we say. But maybe we should embrace this more, recognize it, admit it, and deal with it:  wouldn’t it be great if in all of your classes, Math, Science, Social Studies, your Elective, Language Arts, and PE/Health, what you were learning was all connected at any one time? That’s called “integration.” It’s when your classes all work together to teach the BIG ideas.

For example, if you were studying Ancient Greece in World History, we would do our Greek mythology unit, and you would learn about Ancient Greece’s contributions to Math and Science, and maybe play Olympic style games in PE, and in your art elective, learn about classical art and architecture, and its influences on our own government buildings, including the White House. You would definitely have a deeper understanding of culture and influences over time, wouldn’t you?

Well, that’s just a dream of mine, to really have integrated curriculum, where you apply your learning across many areas. I cringe every time I have tried this and a student says, “This isn’t MATH CLASS!”

It’s not? Then why do I need to know how to read a bank statement, a mortgage loan document, understand my taxes, and be able to read contracts?

Those deadlines and due dates wouldn’t seem so scary if you knew that everything you were learning worked together, would they?

Deadlines and due dates aren’t going to go away. They will be part of your life from now on. When you work, you will have to meet goals in order to keep your job. Even if you’re a barista at Starbucks, they time you from when the order’s taken to the time you call the drink out to the customer. (I know, because I was a barista.) Each drink has specifications – extra foamy non-fat drinks need to weigh this many grams, and need to be at specific temperatures. And yes, there is a supervisor who comes around to all of the stores and checks to make sure you’re meeting quality standards. Thanks a latte.

In any job or career you choose there are standards and levels of quality performance. It may not be funny or fun to think about right now, and you don’t really have to. Dig into your learning now. I wish someone had said to me, “Gee, why don’t you go read a novel instead of cleaning the bathrooms?” but alas, that won’t happen.

Next time you’re grumbling about your free, public education with highly qualified teachers who are pushing you toward meeting and exceeding academic standards, perhaps you will think to yourself this is one deadline you can handle, and you don’t have to clean a toilet.