Collaborative Professional Development: A Workshop on Teaching Revision

This past week routine things were canceled again due to another significant snowfall, but there was an event looming on the horizon offered by the Long Island Writing Project that I was able to attend.  It was a workshop on how to teach revision in writing to one’s students. Recently retired, I nonetheless like to keep up with new developments and trends. Revision is by no means a new topic, but I was curious to see how other teachers handle it with their students in the new era of the Common Core.

The workshop was led by a very wise and experienced teacher who works with college-age students and female prisoners.  However, her older students exhibit many of the same issues that students in high-school and even lower grades do when it comes to writing coherently and with depth. Her approach to starting the discussion was to throw out a question and ask the group to write a short response that would then be shared with the group.  This made me appreciate the Writing Project all over again, since their model of shared inquiry is so refreshing compared with the usual stuff that is passed off to teachers as Professional Development.
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In the interest of full disclosure here is where my own revision begins. When I first wrote this post several days ago, I gave a summary of the conversations that transpired through the two-hour workshop as we arrived at an understanding of the purpose of revision and how we could best communicate to our students the joy of revising as a piece gets ever closer to what we really meant to say.

This evening, however, I had an epiphany as I was taking a shower; one that caused me to change the focus of this piece. I realized that although covering the details of the discussion was important, what was more important to me was the feeling of overall satisfaction and happiness I experienced while collaborating with a dozen other teachers.

I am always fascinated by what teachers have to say; after all, aren’t they the ones walking the walk, not just talking the talk, every day? And since these are all teachers who are passionate about writing (since they are attending a LIWP workshop on a Saturday morning), they did have a lot of good ideas to share.

The first hour was devoted to how we present revision in our teaching lives compared with how we deal with it in our personal writing. The second part of the morning was spent talking about how we would handle reading a set of widely diverse papers on the weekend in need of revision and getting back to the class on Monday with a strategy for teaching revision. Almost everyone agreed that the revision challenges within a paper and moreover a set of papers could not be tackled at once; that the students needed time to reflect on their writing before they could improve it. As one of the participants stated, they needed to “ache with the desire” to revise their own words.
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Everyone was on board with the ideas being shared, but then the workshop leader said (I paraphrase here): “I do this with the students until the final couple of weeks in the semester and then I switch gears to teach them how to pass the writing test they will take for their final.” The air went out of the room.

Several teachers had already referred to how the Common Core demands had made it impossible to have Writing Workshop in their K-12 classrooms. How creative writing had gone out the window and been replaced by more formulaic writing such as: How would you take this document and compare it with the ideas in another given document? This kind of writing may be necessary in the adult world, but we all agreed it is not the kind of writing that elicits passion and commitment from young or developing writers. Nor does it help them to find their voice or tell their stories, all of which are essential steps in becoming a reflective, passionate writers.
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At the conclusion of the workshop, we were asked to write one sentence, a takeaway, about what we had learned in the workshop. The consensus was that the student writing must drive the lesson on revision. The teacher reading the set of papers must assess where the students are as writers and teach the next class based on their needs, not his/her agenda or the specific demands of the Common Core.

Though I was proud of our hard work at grasping the significance of revision and how to convey this to our students, I was even more proud of our collaboration. My takeaway was that this was a workshop which allowed participants to really listen to each other’s ideas, respond to the ideas presented and eventually reach a consensus that allowed for individual differences. This was real professional development; the kind teachers are rarely offered but the kind we really need to improve our own writing as well as that of our students.

“Houston, we’ve got a problem!”

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Has the World Gone Mad? Thoughts On Co-teaching ELLs in the Mainstream Classroom

Yikes!!! Things are happening in the world of Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), and they are NOT ALL GOOD! I’ve been reading and hearing bits and pieces about how the new CR Part 154 regs have changed (they determine the rules and parameters for ELLs and ESL teachers), but never did I imagine the current scenario: ESL teachers are now required to co-teach in mainstream classrooms on a regular basis.

Before I retired a year ago, after 22 years as an ESL teacher, I taught a mostly pull-out program. Although I often wanted to collaborate, I co-taught with only one willing co-teacher every day for three years in a third grade classroom, and occasionally I co-taught a special unit (ex. Chinese New Year) with several other teachers in the building who sought or welcomed my input. For the most part, all the teachers I interacted with preferred the pull-out model for their English Language Learners because they knew how “out of synch” the ELLs were in their classrooms, and how much they would benefit from differentiated instruction in my classroom. Whenever possible, I tried to support the work that the mainstream teacher was doing in the classroom while I had his/her students in my classroom. This, of course, was not always possible and never with Beginners, but everyone understood that. Usually they expressed relief when I came to collect a Beginner.

Here is a quote from an ESL teacher commenting on the new regs
(from a NYS TESOL listserv)that require ESL teachers to co-teach in a mainstream classroom:

“Here are my thoughts regarding CR Part 154: As a result of these changes, ESL teachers have lost their independence. We’ve been reduced to classroom aids at best. What a waste of talent, experience and instructional time. ESL is a discrete subject, with its own goals, knowledge base and methodology. All the good ESL teachers I know have a well-ordered system for imparting the English language to new learners, and know which materials are most effective and when to use them. Many of us have spent years collecting and developing these materials. Thanks to CR Part 154, all of this is out the window: We’re part of the regular ed. classroom now–too often in the same sense that the furniture is. None of the classroom teachers I know have training in ESL. None of them are aware of the revealed wisdom contained in CR Part 154. Even if they were, and cooperated fully, there is not enough time in a day to for me to stay abreast of the goings-on in five or six different classes and come up with lessons relevant to ESL students and everyone else. It is now impossible to work with beginners in any meaningful way without disrupting an entire class full of kids. More advanced students no longer have a sheltered environment where they can practice their developing language skills, or have a difficult concept retaught in a way that they can understand. Students with no English whatsoever are now forced to sit through lectures on Hamlet. Regardless of what the studies say, this is not what the parents of ESL students want. They simply want their kids to learn English in the most effective manner possible. For newcomers to America, mastering English is critical to success in school and in life. It is imperative that ESL be taught as a stand-alone class by people who know what they are doing and without unnecessary distractions.” (Comment by Stephen Blanchard: sfblanchard@yahoo.com)

I completely agree with everything this teacher has said. Are you experiencing these changes in your district? As a mainstream or ESL teacher, how do you feel about them? It took me nearly three years, including student teaching for the second time in my life (I have a degree in teaching secondary English), to fulfill the requirements for my certification in TESOL, and even so I felt it was really challenging for the first several years. Based on my 22 years of experience, without that kind of preparation, no one is qualified to teach ELLs.

What I would rather see happening is encouraging teachers who would like to collaborate,giving them some common planning time and making sure they have compatible schedules. There are times when it makes sense for co-teachers to be in the same classroom and times when the ELLs need to be taught separately because of their special needs. They are, after all, learning a new language; something that seems to have been forgotten by the policy makers

During the three years I co-taught with a mainstream teacher all our planning was done during our own lunch breaks, before school began, and often after school. Without this kind of support from the administration, co-teachers eventually become exhausted and stop co-teaching. Now teachers are being told to do this, still without the necessary support, causing resentment from both sides.

Would love to hear your comments….