Narrative as a Vehicle for Centering the Writer in the Workshop

Alignment matters. Defining the standards we expect students to meet, making them accessible to the kids we serve, and assessing and supporting progress toward them–this matters.

Much.

I’m not merely referring to state standards, either. I’m referring to the standards that our best practitioners–the experts in our field–have defined for us, based on decades of research. I’m referring to our personal standards and the ones that our school communities hold dear. I’m referring to the standards our students set for themselves, too.

There is a difference between seeking alignment and centering our curricula or the work that it produces inside of our workshops, though.

And I worry that in our efforts to seek alignment, this has become a common practice.

If you know me well, then you know that I typically facilitate sustained learning and work inside of schools. I help teachers design curricula, document learning, design assessments, shift to standards based grading and reporting, and elevate instruction.

I prefer to work in this sustained way because my twelve years in the classroom left me weary under the weight of countless fractured initiatives that were facilitated by different well-meaning and talented staff developers who did not have a system in place that enabled them to speak to one another, let alone coordinate their efforts. This resulted in the development of competing initiatives.

I can’t tell you how often I was asked to reinvent the wheel because the work of one of those initiatives happened at the same time that the work of another was happening, and the decisions that were being made in those separate spaces conflicted and gummed up the works.

Needless to say, I’m very grateful to those who trust me enough to work in a bigger and more meaningful way inside of their districts. This is complex stuff that benefits from a framework and detailed (but agile) strategic plans. My framework is below, and I tend to share specific district plans with anyone who asks, as long as I have permission from those who truly own the work–the administrators and teachers I serve.

The framework defines the four dimensions of writer-centered workshops.

These are the same dimensions that I invite teachers and administrators to consider when they’re striving to do the same. Your feedback, as always, is most welcome.

It’s big. I know, but I remind myself often and share the same with teacher friends too: This is the work of a career, not a single workshop or initiative or lesson or unit or year. I have to be getting better at all of this stuff all of the time and forever, if I hope to do it well. And if I’m getting better at it, that means I’m probably bad at at least some of it all of the time, too.

The fact is that I screw this stuff up on the regular. All. Of. The. Time.

So I need you to know that this framework isn’t an evaluative tool. It’s something that helps me plan better and reflect when I make a mess of things, too. It helps me define my own learning goals, and it also helps me identify and solve problems.

When I was a young teacher, I didn’t know what most of the concepts inside of this framework meant, really.

Standards weren’t a thing yet, but lesson and unit planning were king then.

For many, they still are.

But we know better, now.

The entry points vary in every system I support.

I’ve found that when we grow in any one of these areas, that growth improves another area or illuminates a greater need within it. I find that this framework helps us keep writers–not curricula–at the center of our workshops. We’re teaching a bit differently as a result.

And this often helps–although that’s certainly not always the case.

Trust matters.

So does evidence. Data. Data matter.

Sometimes, when the people that I support haven’t come to know me well they worry that I will disrupt the curriculum they value or the best practices that have served their students so well–practices that took a great deal of time and energy to make consistent. Sometimes they worry that when I start speaking to cultural capacity, I’m planning to task every educator in the room with investigating and defining the cultural identity of every kid in their room and then designing dramatically different lessons or instructional approaches for every single one. And that is completely unreasonable and less than ideal in a thousand different ways.

The fact is that I don’t have the solution to anyone’s problems, and I can’t pretend to. No single person does. I am getting better at de-centering myself inside of the work in ways that have made it much better, though. And this is why:

As a high school student, an undergraduate, and a twenty-something pursuing her graduate degree, every single one of my teachers was white, and with the exception of three of them, they were all male and over the age of fifty. I attended a rural high school–the same one Timonthy McVeigh attended. He also attended my Catholic church. I went to Catholic elementary school. My undergrad experience unfolded in a college town that was even smaller and more remote than my hometown. My graduate degree was earned in the city of Buffalo, on a diverse campus that I spent precious little time exploring, because I was the mom of two kids under the age of three at the time. My husband and I lived in the city, then. On the white, middle class side of the city. I taught in the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, and then I taught in an incredibly small, rural school district, and then I taught in a diverse and relatively affluent school district. All of my initial teaching experiences happened in New York State in the company of people who (mostly) looked and spoke and lived a lot like I still do. 

Do you think that this is important, all?

I wonder: If I asked you to share a similar story about how you identify as a teacher, would it sound at all like mine?

Do you think that this story–your story–is important, too? Do you think our stories influence who we are as teachers? What we’ve learned and come to value? Who we truly see and how we serve them?

I’ve always thought that my cultural history was meaningful, but until recently, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. I’m still not at all certain, but I’m grateful to find myself surrounded by more and more people who know that it’s long past time to do something. Something better. Something different. And I can promise you I’m trying.

Here’s what I’ve discovered, too:

Different doesn’t have to look like throwing things out. It doesn’t have to look like ignoring what decades of research have suggested might be useful to young writers and the teachers who are working so hard to support them, either. Not at all.

Different doesn’t have to look like tearing down the load-bearing walls inside of our curricula, covering the best of what we have always done in drop-cloths and shuttering the windows.

In doesn’t have to look like hunkering down.

It’s not about preparing for a storm.

Different can look like opening up. Creating a space. Raising the blinds. Noticing what–and more importantly–who has gone unnoticed for far too long.

Different can look like standing down. Stepping back. De-centering ourselves and making room for everyone in the workshop. Especially those who haven’t been seen. Those who have been forced, instead, to blend.

This month, I’ve promised to share a series of posts that might offer new ideas and perspectives on narrative writing.

I know what most readers are expecting. I know what people want. And I promise to share some of those tangible strategies, lessons, and unit ideas here soon.

But it is way too soon.

So, I’m offering these questions first:  How might we use narrative writing as a vehicle that enables us to center writers rather than ourselves in our workshops? How might we approach story in a way that allows US to do some deeper identity work of our own? Then, how might the writers that we support use story in a similar fashion THEMSELVES?

Do you think their stories–the ones that reveal important things about their identities–are important? Do you think they might matter? Do you think it’s dangerous to invite writers to create and share them? What are the potential unintended consequences? What are the possibilities?

How does this compare to what you currently do? I’d love to hear from you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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