Teaching writers' workshop is the best thing I do all day. It is powerful to help young children to become writers. Great books, intentional instruction, high expectations, and wide open spaces. Think Katie Wood Ray. Think Ralph Fletcher. It all comes together here.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Teaching as Gentling a Wild Horse



My brother’s new hobby is gentling wild mustangs. (Yes, my entire family that grew up in the suburbs has turned into cowboys without me.) Twice now, he has acquired a mustang from the Bureau of Land Management and then spent months training it until it was ready to be adopted.

It’s a magical process, watching horse and rider learn to trust each other. It requires great skill, patience, and love of horses.

So the other night at dinner my brother was complaining about how much more work it is on days when his 19 year old client comes by to “help” with the training.

“It takes forever when I know he's coming. First, there’s all the thinking ahead of time about what we need to do. How to break it down for him.”

“Then as we’re working, I have to constantly explain everything--the reasons behind every decision.”

“We try it together, and I have to show him over and over again until he can do it himself. It takes so much longer than when I can just go out there and get it done.”

(Pause for reaction.)

Me: “Yeah, it’s called teaching.”

Half the look he gave me was a thank-you-very-much for the smart ass remark. The other half said, “So THAT’s what you do all day every day?”

Yes. Yes it is. (Except I love it.)

Here’s what’s awesome--he completely nailed the essentials of good lesson design: intentional planning, the I-do we-do you-do of gradual release (including think-aloud), the formative assessment involved in deciding when reteaching is necessary, making the learning hands-on and authentic.

I have no doubt that this kid loves working with my brother--he is so obviously a natural teacher. All grumbling aside, he knows what it means to help someone really understand and apply something new. It is work. But without all those troublesome steps, there is a risk of teaching without learning.

And the, “Well, I taught it!” rationale isn’t comforting while being thrown from a horse!