This article was originally written for an Adolescent Literacy classroom blog, found here.
I love the workshop-style classroom. It brings me back to my Middle School experience– I had this amazing teacher, Mrs. Mela, who taught TV Production for 6th-8th grade. The class had two initial weeks of learning the system: cameras, computers, editing, scriptwriting, etc. Then, we were released to form teams and work on projects in a workshop-style classroom for the entire year. Some teams were assigned to do morning announcements (a 5- or 10-minute school-wide broadcast), other teams (usually 8th graders) worked on competition pieces. Each year, Mrs. Mela took all of her TV production students to the county-level awards show, where we won multiple awards for excellent work and creativity. We competed against high schools in our area, and won!
This class was invaluable to my enjoyment and engagement in Middle School. In this class, we had complete freedom to explore ideas as far as we wanted, within our deadline. We planned, researched, filmed, edited, and published our own content about things we found interesting. We developed our thinking skills through collaboration, problem-solving, and creativity. We could work as a group, or take a single task and work as a floater for all groups. We learned more about ourselves, how to work with others, how to get inside of ourselves. Of course, Mrs. Mela monitored, approved, and assisted us at every stage. The only real limitation was getting parents to drive us to a location we wanted to film, and working within a $0 budget for props and sets. We made news reels about current events, research pieces, fluff pieces, comedy sketches, short films, and more.
This style of education fits the English classroom, too. Of course, I won’t have access to two dozen nice video-editing computers, cameras, and boom microphones. But, I will have access to books, paper, and pens. In my classroom, piled on a shelf, are dozens of books, some trendy young-adult, some classic, some magazines and graphic novels. The room has space set aside for different activities; reading, computer research, group work. Students enter the room, and they go straight to their work. They have books to read, projects and presentations to prepare, blog posts and essays to write, and the freedom to do their own thing. They have time and space to develop their reading and thinking skills, with minimal and productive interruption from me.
I want to give my students the same freedom to dive in and explore that I gained from Mrs. Mela’s TV Production class. I want them to discover new worlds and new stories, and to have space and resources to creatively respond to those experiences. Of course, it is easy to make TV production fun! Students use special equipment, and go out to new locations, and make movies, and they get to be celebrities in their school. I think, however, with just a little more effort, that an English classroom could be just as engaging and challenging.
In Chapter 5, Randy Bomer says that “reading skill” and “thinking skill” are synonymous. Developing “thinking skill” is something I can’t force upon students. Thought-life simply can’t be externally controlled. However, creating space for students’ independent thoughts to flourish and expand, to challenge their thinking skill and ask them to go beyond simply reading a text; that is what English classrooms are for.
Bomer, Randy. Building Adolescent Literacy in Today’s English Classrooms. Heinemann, 2011.