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Acts of Doing

A roundtable discussion evolved into how teachers offer differentiation and choice while still managing to work through the standards inspired a change in my classroom. An elementary school teacher planted a seed when she shared an overview of how she designs various stations (built on individual standards) throughout the classroom. Kids literally have to move around the space–station to station–to complete each task.

For example, this fourth grade teacher used the PA Common Core Standard (CC.1.1.4.E Read with accuracy and fluency to support comprehension) as her example. A small group of students gather up the iPads, take them to a comfortable chair and record their reading of a grade-level passage and an above grade level passage on a similar subject. Then, students are asked to record a brief summary (and eventually analysis) of the similarities and differences between the texts.

After completing this station–which might take more than one class (and that is ok!)–students would move onto another station in the order that they choose.

In one elementary classroom, there might be anywhere from 4-6 stations all built on the standards. The standards become the actions and expectations of our students. It becomes messy and noisy and kids are playing with words and ideas. The teacher emerges free to mentor students through what they do. And she mentioned that students will even opt to take their independent reading time on different days–”because that is just what they want and need.”

I wish I remembered this teacher’s name. Even though she is in Pennsylvania, someplace, I met her in Minneapolis at NCTE. I thought her method and attitude were brilliant. Everything we discussed crystallized the standards for me into acts of doing. Not what I do, what the students do. Since last November, I have been chewing on what this model might start to look like in my classroom and then I saw an image shared by Penny Kittle on Twitter.

Now, I am not certain how Penny facilitates her goals for her students, but her image looked an awful lot like the stations the elementary school teacher described–and what I imagined for my classroom.

Inspired by conversation and sharing, I created the first “Writer’s Studio” this week (a work still very much in progress).

Standards lay the foundations for each the individual tasks in this studio approach. For example, in the Punctuation Station (sounds alliteration, eh?) I used two PA Common Core Standards (E08.D.1.2.1 Use punctuation (comma, ellipsis, dash) to indicate a pause or break; E.08.D.1.2.4 Use punctuation (commas, parentheses, dashes) to set off nonrestrictive/parenthetical elements) to build a task.

The order of the tasks at each station (Punctuation, Elements of Nonfiction & Literature, Grammar, Elements of Poetry) is to read something, discuss it, reflect on it in writing, and then try the skill or element in an original piece of writing. Four tasks over two weeks–and this still allows for one independent reading day each week.

The benefits outweigh any initial resistance to change or doubt in my mind:

  • We generate evidence of each student accomplishing each standard.
  • Students write with choice throughout each station.
  • Every day, students collaborate, talk, write, and follow their curiosity.
  • Students move at their own pace.
  • I get one-on-one time or small group conferring time every day.
  • Students revise writing naturally as they move station to station as some choose to work on the same piece of writing at each station.
  • Students have the opportunity to develop multiple drafts on different subjects and in different genres as they move station to station. I encourage students to choose to write whatever they want at each station: poetry, essay, recipes, obituary, fiction, travel blog, et al. Anything at all.

A few takeaways have emerged over the past two days. First, students absolutely thrive under the conditions of collaboration. Yes, some students need my guidance to remain on-task, and students often need help understanding specific concepts, but they willingly work together to learn together. For example, in the Elements of Poetry station, students are reading Oranges by Gary Soto, discussing the presence of imagery, simile, and metaphor, reflecting on it in their notebook, and then writing their own poem using Oranges as a scaffold.

While some are writing a collaborative poem, others are writing individual poems and using writing partners to help them get “unstuck.”

I go table to table and teach students in small groups or individually. I have worked with many on finding the metaphor in Oranges (an early struggle). I have shared mini-lessons on verb moods and the difference between direct and indirect characterization. I have had to show some students what an ellipsis looked like. And there are others who had a working knowledge of most of these concepts and have steamrolled ahead, deep into a piece of writing.

As students write, I notice them writing together–individual poems, but they assist one another with their ideas and word choice. Their writing is social and as the insight of James Britton was channeled in recent PAWLP blog post “floats on a sea of talk.”

Part of me feels like I am late to the game (in designing a classroom this way)–and part of me wonders if am I on to something that others might benefit from. Regardless, change is happening. And change was born through professional conversation and sharing.

And so I ask, does anyone do anything similar in their classroom at the middle school or high school level? What tips can you offer if you do?