When I walked into the 6th grade classroom, I had Atwell’s workshop model in my mind, but I had never done it. I’d read In the Middle, in parts, and Lessons that Change Writers, in its entirety, but in my Teach for India classroom I had improvised so much and worked around my 50-person classroom to the extent that my pedagogy was a slapdash synthesis of instinct, reading, and fire-fighting that couldn’t be summarised coherently at all, let alone be considered workshop. But this was different – we had 22 students, the range of language ability was bound to be narrower, and the school was committed to the workshop model in English instruction.
In this new, and infinitely more supportive setting, I discovered the unique challenges of a majority English as a Foreign Language classroom. Students had varying exposures and attitudes towards English. In India, it’s common to assume that English is the language of the educated, and Indian languages such as Hindi and Marathi are less useful. English has the same role in schools that Spanish has in Latin American countries with high indigenous populations – it is the language of conquest, and hence, the language of globalization. This reality influences students’ attitudes towards learning English in varying ways. Some thought in Hindi or Marathi, but were embarrassed to admit it. Others were proud that their home language was not English and switched into Marathi without regard for those in the classroom who spoke another of India’s hundreds of languages in their own home. Still others were voracious readers and loved English, coming into the classroom with almost-grade level reading ability. A small number respected the value of English but were proud of their own language as their own. And our school has a small number of high-income students, many of whom really do speak English at home, and for whom the “English at a Foreign Language” label is incomplete and misleading.
In this fiercely diverse classroom, I thought about what it means to conduct workshop in a way that honors students’ home languages. Many studies indicate that strong primary education in a student’s mother tongue is one of the most reliable predictors of subsequent academic achievement. Studies in the US, New Zealand, and Peru have all found that students should not be taught in a foreign language just because it is dominant or common. I came into the classroom having read these studies, but not quite knowing what to do with them. While my school is a secondary school, not a primary school, my experience at my first school taught me that it is crucially important to honor students’ first languages. My consistent experience was that breaking down the primacy of English made students more comfortable in expressing themselves, willing to take risks, and confident in their potential. So, despite the fact that my new school required English in all spaces on campus, formal and informal, and that I knew none of the languages most common in my new classroom, I committed to honoring native languages in whatever ways I could.
In the partnership to learn and improve our writing, I was the one least equipped due to language (Hindi), not them . Nevertheless, I began by allowing students to switch into Hindi to ask questions or confer. I sought to achieve two goals. First, I wanted to explicitly and implicitly message language equality. Despite the hegemony of English in India, first languages are important, and I refuse to shy away from potential opportunities to learn them. Second, I could leverage my lack of knowledge to model what it means to be a student of language to my sixth graders. In these moments, I was careful to ask questions about words I didn’t understand and paraphrase to ensure my understanding was correct. I consciously projected both confusion when faced with words or phrases I didn’t understand and comfort with that confusion by asking questions whenever I needed to.
Halfway through the year, we decided to try out something new: collaborative writing. It was a risk and it was something we had never done before. Students, in groups, worked together to write “choose-your-own-adventure” novels. The goal was to give them the freedom and flexibility to imagine wildly, while introducing a genre that was conducive to extravagant plots without being dependent on nuanced characters or complex problems. It wasn’t so much that the 6th graders couldn’t develop nuanced characters or complex problems, but they simply didn’t have the vocabulary in English to be able to communicate complexity in their writing. My initial response would have been to remove fiction from the set of genres entirely, but Atwell and my fellow teachers were firmly convinced that 6th graders imagined, and their imagination needed an outlet. The “choose-your-own-adventure” genre seemed the best marriage of the students’ strengths and weaknesses and the need for a writing form that allowed for and encouraged the act of imagination. It placed the emphasis firmly on imagination and creativity, and depended far less on complexity of characters, description, or language.
The combination of a new and untested genre and a commitment to group writing was a game-changer. While I had had some sense that I was a weak communicator in conferences, this unit taught me that my lack of Hindi knowledge had severely impacted their ability to express themselves in conferences, but that it had also inhibited their ability to develop a vocabulary in English. Suddenly, conversations in student groups happened in mixed English and Hindi, and students worked out their stories in the way they were most comfortable. As their ideas bounced off of each other, they were able to understand the importance of narrow specifics in telling their stories. Students came to me gesturing excitedly, asking me for words to describe the propellers, blades, and sounds of a helicopter. They tried to describe to me the sound of ocean waves, and jumped in to each other’s sentences in a desperation to ensure I would understand. Because they were able to communicate with each other, every conference with me was a team effort to bring me onboard.
As I started learning that the group work was leading to more specific, engaging stories, I also started giving them tools to answer their own questions. After I fed them the words “propellers” and “blades,” (they already knew “helicopter”) they used Google and discovered the words “spinning,” “motors,” and more. The girls looking for the sound of ocean waves, after learning the words “ocean” and “waves”, found onomatopoetic words like “swish,” “rush,” “undulation,” and others .
Slowly, I worked with my students to uncover their innate “itch” to find the right word. This could never have happened if I had restricted them to English. They needed each other, and they needed their first languages (both Hindi and Marathi) to reach that desperate, earnest point where they as writers need to get something right.
Imagine your own experience in a foreign language class. I, for one, never felt like I could be a writer in Spanish. I tried to communicate the best I could, and gave myself credit for approximations that I’d never be satisfied with in English. I patted myself on the back when I was coherent, not when I was engaging, imaginative, innovative, or captivating. It was much later, when I wanted to gossip, giggle, and gush with my Spanish-speaking friends did I develop that “itch.” Our experiment with collaborative writing in the classroom brought this “itch” to students and they latched onto it with enthusiasm.
Writing and reading workshop as a pedagogy is rooted in assumptions that, as a teacher, I couldn’t safely assume in a classroom where the vast majority of my students are language learners. Students need to be committed not just to sharing their stories, but sharing them well, crafting and revising sentences until they can surprise their readers. In my experience, two things built that commitment: they needed to first see value in their own mother language and their skills in it, and they needed to develop and experience the “itch” in getting something right in that language before those feelings could be effectively leveraged to build skill in English.