|Listening to Each Other|
Original artwork created for Dewey to Delpit, by Paris Mancini
This is the first in a series of posts that I intend to write on an innovative literacy program that I've been observing for the past six months at a public school in Chinatown. (Read previous observation-based posts on Dewey to Delpit)
At 2:15pm on a Wednesday afternoon, the students in Amy Piller’s sixth grade humanities class gather on the rug at the front of the room. Some take seats on low, wooden benches, most kneel or sit cross-legged on the floor. A girl with wavy brown hair takes her station at the document camera—the digital version of an overhead projector—and begins to read from the hand-written manuscript projected on the pull-down screen in front of the board. “A Review of European Fashion in the 1600s, 1700s, and 1800s,” she announces. The writing is her own and the subject just what the title promises, but the approach is novel: the writer has placed herself in an imaginary 17th century English clothing boutique, in which the opulently-dressed proprietor comments on our narrator’s “poor looking, filthy” 20th century clothes, before stuffing her into an elaborate outfit so heavy she can barely walk. (“The women must have to have muscle to carry this elephant on them every day”). She departs the boutique happy with her new finery but worried about her wallet. It cost “a lot of euros,” she concludes. “I figured I didn’t have enough for dinner.”
Quirky and playful as the story may be, like all writing done in Ms. Piller’s class it’s based on detailed research. According to the writer, she used five sources on 17th century English apparel, and the background work is visible in her elaborate descriptions of dresses, wigs, veils, jewelry, and embroidery.
When she has finished reading, the class thanks her in unison for sharing, and it is then that, from a pedagogical standpoint, the really interesting part begins. A cup of popsicle sticks, each bearing the name of a student in the class, is handed to the writer, who moves from her position at the document camera to a seat amongst her peers. She picks a popsicle stick at random and calls out the name written on it. A blond girl in a white t-shirt has been selected, and she pipes up without hesitation: “I really like your piece,” she begins—but she thinks the writer needs to check the thesaurus for some synonyms for embroidery, because that word is overused. She also wants more description of setting—she doesn’t feel like she’s getting a sense of the context.
Another popsicle stick is drawn, and the critique continues. It is detailed, various, and always forthcoming: everyone, it seems, has an opinion. Having an opinion on its own isn’t remarkable, but what’s going on here is: every single student called on gives specific, constructive feedback; their ideas are well-articulated, and they build off each other’s comments, frequently referring to points made by other students, agreeing or disagreeing, building or counter-arguing—they’re really listening to each other.
Equally remarkable is the manner in which the writer is listening to them. The suggestions range from positively framed (mostly from girls) to one or two that come out sounding pretty harsh (from boys, naturally), but they’re all direct and substantive, which means the class talks a lot about what’s missing and what’s wrong with the piece. A lot of adults don’t do well with that kind of feedback, and I’ve rarely seen a workshop, even at the college level, that is this blunt; but the writer takes it all with unflagging good spirit. She seems genuinely interested in the feedback and excited to apply it to her story. In response to one particularly aggressive demand for more description of setting, from a blond boy in the middle of the rug—the second or third comment she’s gotten to the same effect—the writer gives a big thumbs up and a loud “Cool!” I can’t tell from where I’m sitting whether the gesture says “ok, I get it, enough already” or “great idea,” but either way, it’s so upbeat, so positive, so composed, I’m blown away.
A variety of viewpoints are expressed by the class, but certain common themes emerge. Several students want to hear more about setting. A number of comments address issues of plausibility that, as an adult hearing a child’s writing, didn’t bother me, but which, as sixth graders trying to hold themselves to adult standards, bothered them: the shop-keeper is dressed like a rich lady, so how come she’s working in a shop? How does this time-travel thing work? If this is 17th century England, she should be paying in pounds, not euros. Etc.
The most sophisticated discussion centers around the elaborate description of the clothing, and here again, I discover them to be a more demanding audience than I. I was impressed by the detail of the description, but the students are not satisfied with mere detail—the description must also be dynamic and engaging. Several say they found it, in their blunt words, “boring.” The writer, as good-spirited as ever, asks, in response to these kinds of comments, whether she should include more of her own opinions about what she’s seeing. Her peers think that’s a good idea, but they also want to hear things like, say, that she twirled the silver brocade between her fingers or that the shop keeper was playing with her beaded bracelets. These scattered examples gesture at a stylistic issue too sophisticated for these young critics to pin down to a category, and it is here that Ms. Piller, for the first and only time, speaks up: “Actions,” she says. “I think a lot of people have said more actions.”
The activity we’ve just witnessed is called a “Writing Share,” and it happens twice a day, every day, in Ms. Piller’s classes. With about 20 students in the class, that means each student presents his or her work once every two weeks, which must account for the sang-froid that our time-traveling fashion reviewer displayed during her critique—but the regularity of the activity alone cannot explain the seriousness and focus with which the students approach the critique, the specificity and concreteness of their feedback, the attentiveness with which they listen to one another; and it cannot explain their ability to carry out the activity almost entirely without their teacher’s input, either instructional or managerial. Those qualities are products of a confluence of excellent teaching and a very new and very innovative approach to literacy instruction that is in use throughout Ms. Piller’s school.
To be continued...