Samantha Bennett’s book, That Workshop Book: New Systems and Structures for Classrooms that Read, Write, and Think, is one of the best teaching books I’ve read in quite a while. The last chapter, Jenn’s Citizens, was my favorite. Jenn teaches middle school social studies and language arts, and her students were studying the principles of a democracy. Using a search and seizure case she found at www.landmarkcases.org, Jenn took her students on a four-week exploration of the Bill of Rights, the Constitution, and the powers of the legislative and executive branches, in order to understand who has the power in a democracy. The case she chose was one that would have REAL meaning to the students: Does a school have the right to search a student’s belongings without a warrant? It was astonishing to see how chapters-worth, whole textbooks even, of boring, theoretical, detailed, incomprehensible bits of knowledge were transformed into dynamic, driven, expanding galaxies of comprehension, understanding, and—can you believe it—APPRECIATION, perception, empathy, and GRATITUDE! Here were middle school students expressing wonder and admiration at how brilliant the founding fathers were in setting up the government the way it is.
Jenn presented a well planned, but very simple, social studies unit based on the use of language arts, that clearly changed the way the students viewed the world. It brought the idea of NEED TO KNOW to a whole new level. Students were deeply involved and engaged at every step and the entire unit and, although planned ahead of time, it was completely responsive to the daily needs of the students. Each day Jenn learned more about what her students were learning, and where they needed to go next, and she used this knowledge to plan the next day’s activities.
Workshop teaching is student-driven. It requires a teacher to use listening—listening to her students—in order to teach. It allows students to work on real projects, that have a real audience, with a real purpose, in order to reach a real outcome, in the real world. I truly aspire to reach the level of teaching that Jenn, Josh, and the other teachers presented in Samantha Bennett’s book, reach each day with their students.
I hope I’ll write better units as a result of “spending time” at this Colorado school.
Originally published on August 4, 2010 on another website.