A Team of Learners Innovates Writing Workshop

On rare occasions, I sometimes think it would just be easier to go start another school instead of working on teams of educators trying to innovate curriculum and instruction that has a long history and tradition. However, each and every day (seriously) something or someone brings me back from that relatively irrational cliff face. One of the great hallmarks of my current school – my place of work for the past 16 years – is our regular practice and willingness to analyze and consider ourselves. And I don’t mean admiring ourselves, although all people and institutions can fall into that trap periodically. No, I mean “considering ourselves” in the sense of examining our practices and asking if we can do better for the learners in our care. No matter how frustrating some issues of static inertia or dynamic change may seem, I believe we are genuinely into continuous improvement.

A few weeks ago, the chair of the English department came to see me. He said he had been thinking about what PBL (project-based learning, problem-based learning, passion-based learning, etc.) would look like in a 21st century English classroom. Now this man is a great thinker, so when he said he had been “thinking about,” I knew he had put some serious time, research, reflection, and conversation into the effort. In short, his idea for 21st century PBL in English involves the complexities and integrated nature of publishing. An idea with genius and endless potential!

What to do with the idea? Well, we work in PLCs (professional learning communities) in the Junior High. While not everyone is formally involved – YET! – it is our developing way of working…our ethos of working and learning together. So…the idea was taken to the JH English PLC and, specifically, the Writing Workshop team. Several members of this team had been thinking about potential innovations to the Writing Workshop course and its intersection with Synergy and Economics, which are two more courses in a triad of classes for our eighth graders. Now a confluence of thinking and thinkers used Steven Johnson’s “coffee house” to swirl and rift on some possible manifestations of publishing in the Writing Workshop course. What a blessing that we have four hours a week built into our work days in order to collaborate in this way. May we never take for granted that we have a developing infrastructure to get us anywhere we want to go!

Largely because we could collaborate in PLC meetings, a proposal was quickly drafted and presented to a few administrators. Largely because we have a dynamic vision statement for our work as a school, a foundation existed that practically inspired this type of curricular and instructional innovation and improvement. This week, we were able to send a letter to parents of rising eighth graders explaining that Writing Workshop would be innovating for 2011-12 in order to utilize topical or thematic electives. Here is the letter that was sent:

Today, rising eight-grade students will hear about the innovations in group homeroom, and they will be able to respond to a survey which requests their desired topic of elective focus. Now, they have a choice much greater than that which existed before in this course. Now, they will be able to develop an authentic audience through publishing work. Oh the places we could go!

Possibilities and realities enacted through the passions and determinations of a team of educators. How fortunate I am to work with these teachers! How fortunate I am to work with these learners! How fortunate I am to learn with these learners! It’s about learning!

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