One of the things that I have worked hard to do this school year is to give more power and control to the students in my classroom. One of the things that has surprised me the most is how much my students have struggled with this. I did not anticipate that my students would push back on being given more control, more responsibility for their own learning, and more power over what they learn and how they learn it. But, like so often happens, my students showed me that there were things that I just didn’t understand.
In the past, I have had students turn in a draft of their writing after they had done a round of revisions on their own. We have used a revision checklist in the past that lists all of the strategies that we have learned through our mini-lessons and they were responsible for choosing the strategies that they thought could help them the most to make their writing better. They made these changes to their writing and then turned in their work. Then, I would sit with each of them and have a revision conference. I would look at the changes that they made, notice the work that I had seen them do and then suggest additional changes that might make their writing even better. Then they would make one more round of revisions and call their writing finished.
It worked well. The revision checklist gave them concrete ways to make their writing better and our time spent conferring was a wonderful opportunity for me to notice what they were doing and push them even further.
But this year, as I started to allow my students to lead more often, the system that I had put into place in the past just didn’t quite feel right. At first, I wasn’t sure what it was about the system that wasn’t working for me, but as I thought more about it I realized how much power that gave to me in deciding when a piece of writing was finished and when a child was ready to move on to another piece of writing. It gave the students very little control over these decisions.
So I made a change.
This year, my students are still encouraged to use the revision checklist. I think it helps them, in a very concrete way, to know how to make their writing better. I think that we often tell them to revise, to look for ways to make their writing better, but we don’t often tell them how they might do that. So, for us, the checklist helps. So we will continue to use it. But, what will be different is that after making revisions, the students themselves will decide when their writing is finished. And because their writing has more purpose this year, they will decide when they are ready to move ahead with the purpose of their writing. So for this unit, they will decide when they are ready to print off their stories to give to the people in their lives who they are writing them for. And when they are ready, they will move on to their next piece of writing. And if they are working on a story and they feel like they need a break from it, they will leave it and go work on a new story. Or, if they are stuck on a story, they will stop working on it and start another one, knowing that they can always come back to their story when they are ready.
At first this new plan made me feel like I would not be able to get to the students in time to help them. However, when I just jumped in and tried this new system, I realized that it was the exact opposite. I am now able to confer with students when they need me most, while they are drafting their stories or while they are working on their revisions. In the past, I mostly met with students after they had already decided that they were done with their writing. Therefore, it often made it meaningless to discuss their writing and potential changes. They made the changes I suggested simply because they felt it was what I wanted. In their minds, they were already finished. This year, I am meeting with the students at a variety of points throughout the writing process and I am able to better help them with the writing while they are in the thick of it.
It’s been wonderful.
Except when it hasn’t worked. And here is the biggest thing that has stood in my way: the kids. I know that sounds harsh, but it is true and it is not their fault. At all. We did this to them. Our students have been trained to believe that a piece of writing can’t be finished until a teacher has given his or her stamp of approval. They believe that a piece of writing doesn’t have much worth in this world until a teacher tells them that it is good enough. We have created these beings who are so dependent on us and then we lament the fact that kids often don’t work to solve their own problems without us. We made them this way.
Every time I told a child that he needed to turn in a piece of writing and meet with me about it before it could really be done, I was telling that child that I did not trust him to know when a piece of his own writing was finished. Every time I insisted on offering one final suggestion, I was telling that child that I didn’t believe her writing should go out into the world until I helped her to make it just a little bit better. I created children who believed that they needed their teacher to check their writing because they could not be trusted on their own.
So I should not have been surprised when my students this year struggled with what I was asking them to do. When they told me they were finished and I told them to start their next piece, they were confused why I wasn’t going to check their work. They were confused how they were supposed to know if they were really done. They were confused with how to move on without the approval of their teacher.
And I had to remind them that I am indeed here to check their work. I notice their successes and I help them find strategies to deal with their challenges. But now, I can do that throughout the writing process and I can put more of the power into their hands to know when they have done all they can do at that moment with a piece of writing.
As I learn how to better give power to my students, they are learning how to take that power and to be okay with it. As I learn to trust them with more, they are learning to trust themselves. These lessons that we are all learning, they are important and they matter. They might not be the lessons that I thought I would be teaching in writing workshop, but sometimes those are the ones that turn out to be the most life changing for all of us.