Professional Learning Teacher Inquiry

Working with a Mandated Curriculum

I learned quickly during my first year of teaching a key principle for classroom success: Be flexible. Know when the lesson plans you’ve spent hours perfecting must be tossed aside. Whether it’s because of a fire drill, computer or copier malfunction, a flu epidemic, a last-minute assembly, or that “duh” look that signals your students don’t have a clue, you must be able to bend, tweak, twist, adapt, adopt, or literally toss your lessons in the trash.

Flexibility is among the most important skills a teacher can have. Our lesson plans, no matter how beautifully written, may fail. Even so, this kind of flexibility affects a small percentage of our daily work. I can handle this, but when flexibility entails an entire shift in teaching strategy, that is a problem.

Recently, my administrators, one of whom had been my first-year teaching mentor, told all the seventh grade language arts teachers in my district to stop what they were teaching and how they were teaching it and implement a writer’s workshop model that outlined exactly how many minutes would be devoted to teaching minilessons, how many to independent writing, and how many to sharing. We were required to follow a combination of Nancy Atwell and Ralph Fletcher and JoAnn Portalupi’s models altered to fit our forty-two-minute class periods. Up to this point, many of our classroom routines included grammar or writing skills, time for the students to practice these skills using a variety of learning styles, and then assignment of the homework. I had incorporated a lot more writing in my classroom than many other teachers, but even so, my writing assignments and expectations differed from the models my administrators now wanted me to follow. In my classroom, every day was different. Some days we wrote and shared, other days I taught a genre or a principle of punctuation—or whatever I felt students needed that day based upon previous objectives and writings. With the change inflicted on us, I was no longer able to have this same kind of variety. I had to adhere to a specific time schedule: five- to ten-minute minilessons, twenty to twenty-five minutes of silent writing and five to ten minutes of sharing.

This mandated change caused many teachers to balk, and they were soon on the hotline to their NEA representatives and to school board members. As veteran teachers, they had seen teaching pedagogy shift from sentence diagramming to whole language to portfolio use to skills and drills and back again. They were not only leery of yet another change, they were angry that this change was coming midyear. Many had outlined their semester plans; others were prepping students for our standardized test, the one on which both they and their kids would be judged. Many were just plain tired of administrators, many of whom hadn’t been in the classroom in a long time, telling them what would be best for their students. When the news of this change came to me, I was just about to enter a well-designed reading unit that I had spent more than fifty hours creating. I had read six different novels, choosing books like The Cay and Island of the Blue Dolphins for my low-level readers and Walk Two Moons and Lord of the Flies for my more advanced readers, creating activities for each text that included every learning style conceivable and making sure that there were activities to meet the various needs of my 120 students. These lessons were, of course, typed and placed in color-coded files ready for distribution. When I was told that I wouldn’t be able to carry out my plan and needed to implement this new workshop model, I became sick to my stomach—literally.

But somewhere in the back of my head, a voice was telling me “Be flexible.” I had taught for two years in the public school system and then left to work at a local college. While at the college I learned I could fight my administrators, make enemies, and still be required to submit to what they wanted, or I could listen to that voice in the back of my head that said, “Be flexible, adjust your plans, your teaching style, and go home every night knowing you are doing the best possible job.” I learned you either adjust or leave.

Now I was back in public school, where I felt I belonged, and I was again being faced by dictates from on high, but I wasn’t ready or willing to just up and leave. I told myself that even though some of these administrators hadn’t been in a classroom for a long time, they sincerely felt they were making a decision that would be good for students. After all, we were talking about introducing writer’s workshop, not about reinstating the dunce cap. As a result, I threw out those beautifully designed, color-coded lessons I had spent so much time perfecting.

This was in February. I had two weeks to change gears, read all the materials I had been given, write lessons, and implement a new classroom procedure that I would need to apply and the kids would need to follow. It had taken months for me to instill a workable routine. Sure, I might be flexible, but what about these twelve- and thirteen-year-olds who were just realizing that they had to bring pen and paper to language arts, yes, every day?

My principal, the assistant principal, and the “downtown” administrators promised to “float through” my room to ensure the kids were following the new rules and routine. On the one hand this meant they’d help me with discipline problems, but on the other hand, this meant they’d also be watching me. In an attempt to ensure the kids followed the new rules, I explained the procedures verbally, had the kids copy them from the overhead, and gave them handouts. I was going to cover all the bases. To further stress the importance of these new rules, I laid on a guilt trip, “It’s very important that you follow these rules because a lot of people will be watching me, and if you don’t follow the rules, then they’ll think I’m a bad teacher.” These kids like me, I thought, and they’ll want to do well.

And they did. Despite the fact that many of them might have been happier discussing two-stroke versus four-stroke engines or which girl was going to beat up another after school, within two weeks of implementing the new workshop model, both the model and the students were working well. Every day they listened intently to my ten-minute minilesson, wrote about their various topics for twenty to twenty-five minutes, and asked questions during their conference time with me. And, surprisingly, every day, at the end of class, I had too many kids wanting to share their work for the five to ten minutes the administration had allocated. Were there ever problems? Sure. Sometimes students were more interested in going to lunch than sharing their work. There were days when I had to relinquish the tight grip of the silent writer’s workshop model and let students talk quietly at their desks while they wrote. My after-lunch class was full of girls who, rather than writing silently, wanted to discuss the notes passed to them at lunch or who was going out with whom, but these were not new problems, and they were fixed with a quick tap of my finger on the desk and a reminder of the new rules. The respect that I had worked hard to gain from the start of the year continued despite my fear that it wouldn’t because I was being forced to change teaching styles.

I, on the other hand, wasn’t adapting as quickly. I was staying up late trying to read Atwell, Fletcher, and Portalupi and many others. Was I following their models closely enough? Was I following their models too closely? Was I shirking the standardized test requirements and thus hurting my students’ chances at raising the scores the district said I had to raise? I was questioning not only these new plans for teaching, but whether I should join some of my colleagues in trying to buck the system and stick with what I had been doing all along. Was I being too quick to change? Was my flexibility simply a sign of being a pushover, blindly following what I was told to do? Some of my co-workers thought so, but then I had to wonder how miserable were those teachers who implemented the workshop half-heartedly, complaining daily to their students about the change, or those teachers who fought daily to keep the workshop out of their classrooms rather than accept that the change was going to happen, no matter how hard they fought, and then try to learn more about it and adapt to it.

I knew that these veteran teachers had years of experience to guide them, but I had to wonder if they were primarily concerned that this change would hurt students or rather if they were unwilling to accept this new model because it was different or because it was just one more thing the administration had insisted they do. I wasn’t sure, and because I wasn’t quick to jump on their bandwagon and join forces with them against the workshop model, they wouldn’t tell me exactly why they didn’t want it—they just made it painfully clear that they didn’t.

But I had to ask myself whether, if my administration had given me something I really didn’t believe in—like a daily diet of fill-in-the-blank workbooks—I would have balked as these teachers had or would have done it anyhow, despite my convictions. In all honesty, I do not know. What I do know is that the day I wake up and no longer feel that I’m doing the best job I can—and feel good about it—is the day that I should find another career. But I couldn’t see how the workshop would hurt students. I still loved teaching, and I wasn’t ready to quit—until, at least, I had had the chance to learn more about the workshop model and try to do what was asked of me. And I thought about my students, who often balk when asked to do something they don’t feel like doing. I always tell them that they at least have to try it before they say they won’t do it. Indeed, I needed to practice what I teach. I had to be flexible enough to learn more about the workshop model and experience it before I said absolutely I wasn’t going to adapt.

Ultimately, I knew that the workshop wasn’t going away. A new wave of administrators was taking over, and they felt strongly enough about this change in teaching practice to pay, during a tight-budgeted year when teacher layoffs were highly possible, for several of us to drive to Omaha and hear Nancy Atwell speak. She addressed many of my concerns. She assured the audience that her kids did better on standardized tests because they had become good writers. She gave us examples of their work. And despite the fact that her classes are half the size of mine, and despite the fact that she teaches at a private school that allows her much different rules and accountability, I began to believe in her model.

On my long drive home that day, thinking about my experience so far with the writer’s workshop, I realized my students had been far more flexible than I had been. When I presented the new workshop format, the new rules and procedures, they just accepted it and moved on. They didn’t need coercion or guilt. They just needed me to outline the rules, stick to them, and validate that they were doing a good job. When it was time to switch from my old way of teaching to the new writer’s workshop model, I had made a conscious effort to keep my questions and concerns separate from the implementation of the model. Like a parent protecting her children from confusing adult issues, I shielded students from the fears I had of lowering their test scores, of their not being able to write for twenty to twenty-five minutes every day, and of their not being able to handle any of the other changes that they were undergoing in my classroom. Instead, I bragged about how well I knew they’d do with the new model. Each day I stepped into my classroom, I left at the door the late nights spent reading, the arguments I heard the other teachers making against the change, and the deep-seated fear that somehow I was betraying my teaching profession by doing what my nonteacher administrators told me to do. I built the kids up with praise and high expectations rather than inflicting my fears on them.

In the process, I turned the writing over to the kids. Rather than tell them what to write, I guided their practice through minilessons about improving writing, but I let them choose what they wanted to discuss in their writing. On those days when I was worried about staying on the strict workshop format or worried that I was a pushover, most of the students were hungrily awaiting writing time so that they could describe their first turkey hunt or discuss why they should be allowed to chew gum in school. Never did they complain about writing too much or the new responsibility that writer’s workshop was “imposing” on them.

In the midst of realizing that my students were more flexible than I was, I realized I needed to assure myself that I, too, would be all right. When I got home from the Atwell conference, I stopped frantically reading the books about writing workshops and just dove into the classroom experience. My plan was to follow the model as best I could by adapting and tweaking what I had been doing all year long. I also kept track of my daily minilessons, conference questions, and routine to see what worked and what didn’t. I kept notes on what the students were doing and saying in a way I hadn’t done since my first year of teaching. I promised myself that I’d use the summer to reflect on those observations, read through the piles of books, and apply to the local affiliate of the National Writing Project. There, I’d be able to piece together the entire experience into a well-designed, color-coded plan for beginning the next school year with the writer’s workshop model as outlined by my administrators—who will, inevitably, decide to spring a last-minute assembly, fire drill, or some tweak in teaching strategy that will cause me to remember: Be flexible. Everything is going to be okay.