I’ve never been a teacher who started a countdown on his board to the last day of school. Now don’t get me wrong, I love summer. The chance to recharge, reflect, read and plan for the next year, and to spend time with my family without any work that is pressing is something I cherish. Still, though, I love teaching, and May is probably my favorite month of the school year.
When the year starts in August, my writing and reading workshop is a mess. Everything we are doing is brand new for my students. They’ve never chosen their own books before, they’ve hardly written at all, and they have to learn all the routines and procedures we use in class. In August, things take forever and students don’t know what they’re doing most of the time: they don’t know how to read, respond to, or talk about our daily poem; they don’t know how to choose topics for their writing; they don’t know how to decide what to do each day as writers; they don’t know how to plan, revise, or edit. In reading, things are a little simpler, but they still have to be taught how to prepare for roundtable discussions, how to write letter-essays, and how to choose books, and they forget lots of things: books are left around the classroom at the end of the period or at home after reading each night, and most of them need reminded each time to fill out their reading record when finishing a book. It’s exhausting.
Now, though, everything has changed. Students know how to choose topics and can make their own decisions about each piece of writing: what to do each day and when a piece is finished. They all have plans for books they want to read and know who to go to in the classroom for recommendations when they need them. Most of their letter-essays are smart, insightful, and a joy to read. I’m blown away by some of the observations they make about their books and the choices the authors have made. Their roundtable discussions are so much better too. Today, as we discussed this week’s topic, how fiction can reveal truth, I was thrilled by the insightful ideas and the questions they asked to keep the discussion moving forward. It was a joy to be a part of it.
I also love our writing workshop in May because of the all the options students have. We’ve finished all of our whole-class genre studies, so students can essentially write anything they want. Some are writing the genres we studied as a whole class, others are writing genres we read and discussed for a day or two, and a few are even attempt something we haven’t read as a whole class.
This week, there were all kinds of writing going on, and students were all at different stages of the process. On Monday we read some irregular odes by Pablo Neruda and a couple by former students, so several kids tried these. About twenty students were finishing up poems for their moms for Mother’s Day. Quite a few were writing free-verse poems on other topics and purposes, such as one girl’s poem for her grandpa’s birthday. A lot of kids are writing micro or flash fiction, our most-recent genre study. A couple were even writing memoirs and editorials. And finally, two boys decided they wanted to write haiku, a type of poetry we hadn’t read, so I gave them my copy of The Haiku Anthology and had them read part of the introduction (where it explains how 5-7-5 is a myth) and some of the poems in the book. Next week, we’ll read a couple “nutty” letters by Ted L. Nancy, and some students will write these to finish up the year.
Students are, for the most part, independent writers now. They decide what to write next when they finish a piece. They know how they work best and can make decisions about each step in their process. I love seeing students deciding whether or not they need to write out ideas before they start drafting or trying out different leads before they begin. They know when to have a peer conference to get extra feedback, and they can also catch so much more when they edit now.
All the variety makes sure that class is never dull, for me or them, and all of this freedom also helps avoid so many of the problems that creep into classrooms at the end of the year. This year, of my three blocks, there is one class where it’s a bit more of a challenge to get through our whole-class time each day, but kids have not checked out. They are still working hard as writers and still seeking out the reading zone each day in class. I’m confident that a vast majority of them will continue to work hard until the end of the year.
Next year, when I’m going through those challenging first few weeks where everyone seems so clueless, I’ll remember what the end of each year is like. These memories help keep me going because I know that my new group will eventually get there too.