Reaching Yin Yang in a Workshop Classroom

Over the past year and a half, my class has turned from a teacher-led classroom to a workshop model where I’m trying very hard to achieve student ownership in the work. If you’ve read my blog, you know I’ve done this

  • by encouraging struggle/failure by allowing opportunities for students to make up lost points or by just not taking points away in the first place
  • by offering a lot of choice in writing topics and reading specifics by focusing more on the skills of reading and writing instead of on the particular piece of literature or composition
  • by increasing relevance of the work by making major works be for authentic audiences beyond me, the teacher.

While this transition has been wonderful and I wouldn’t change any of it, every move is up for reflection. Sometimes I wonder if I’m providing enough leadership for those who need it. I mean, reading Thoreau’s Walden is a massive challenge and though I give models on how to make understanding and analysis, I’m just not sure if it’s enough to understand the most challenging texts. I feel more confident in my writing class, offering my students models of word usage and rhetorical strategies, but I still wonder if the students are pushing themselves in their own practice. I always wonder how I can push that, how I can guarantee that without being overly prescriptive. I need my students to have freedom to make decisions, but if they’re not shown a variety of options in reading and writing strategies with time to analyze and practice, they’ll just keep making the writing and reading decisions they’ve been making over the past several years. Isn’t that right?

In short (and, yes, to oversimplify in order to make the point) to teach as I had for the first ten years of my career, students would not have the choices to believe in their writing and they wouldn’t have the writing time in class to put their learning into practice.

But to go too far on the workshop side, students might not see their potential. They might lack focus in their writing and reading strategies; they might make safe decisions because safe literacy decisions could be the only decisions they know.

Like everything else in life, there must be a YIN YANG to this challenge as well–a way to allow a lot of time for writing/reading while providing guidance and risk-taking opportunities. There must be a way to demand complete, finished work while allowing opportunities for students to wander in their work–that is, to go back to something early in the term to revise it because the opportunity exists to make it better and they want to because they believe in the work and what they’re doing.

So, what’s the YIN YANG?

The YIN YANG is in the hybrid text–an idea discussed this weekend with my well-respected, hard-working, composition/poetry-teaching brother who lives in Bloomington, Illinois and teaches at Illinois Wesleyan University. Through a great conversation on how to make my upcoming class, Creative Writing, its absolute best, we came up with this. In this hybrid text, I can ask students to play with genres (poetry, fiction, drama, etc.) and show them all of the great elements of these genres, but give them the time to play and revise because the term will be working toward this final blog portfolio.

They will have more opportunity for choice, for struggle, for revision and I will have more opportunity to guide and lead them into writing fearlessness–in other words, the YIN YANG.

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