Our First Teacher Workshop … in the Participants’ Own Words

Author: Alythea McKinney and the August 2011 Workshop Group

Posted by Alythea

Our first, three-day teacher workshop, “Critical Exploration in the Grade 4 – 12 Humanities Classroom:  An Introduction,” held in August, was focused on poetry as well as on history.  In addition to engaging in large group critical explorations, participants worked in small content groups with others interested in the same topics — ancient Egypt and ancient Greece, for example, or slavery and the Civil War, or the Civil Rights Movement.  For this pilot workshop, we developed several key features, including opportunities  for participants to choose texts and then images from collections of possibilities provided for their topic, to engage a partner from another group in a critical exploration of the chosen text or image, and to work on extending that initial exploration by creating a critical exploration activity or assignment.  Through three days of these activities, the participants were able simultaneously to experience and think about critical exploration more generally and to experience and think about the more specific project of helping students explore the content they actually teach.

For this blog post, we requested participants’ permission to reproduce excerpts from journal entries they wrote during the workshop.  We know these excerpts document the thoughtfulness of this wonderful group of educators.  We hope they also suggest how the shared experience of choosing and exploring particular texts and images gives rise to experimenting with and rethinking not only single activities and assignments, but also larger classroom structures and units of study.

The workshop was conceived as a seminar and limited to seminar size in order to support intensive thinking and learning.  We wanted to ensure that, in every session, each participant could speak and interact both with other participants and with the facilitators.  Thirteen educators attended — six Massachusetts public school teachers, four independent school teachers from Massachusetts and Virginia, and several education researchers and teacher educators, including one from the Library of Congress.

Here are the excerpts from the participants’ writing:

“One aspect of today’s work that I thought was interesting was continuously pushing my learner to make meaning out of the poem even when she thought that she was unable to do so.  Carefully constructing questions was key.”

Jenny Janovitz, Holland Elementary School, Boston, MA

“I was most struck by how much I can learn from others’ observations in a critical exploration setting.  Frequently throughout today I was surprised by another’s idea or observation, which caused me to shift my view.”

Katharine Millet, St. Mark’s School, Southborough, MA

“My partner and I had two extremes in the texts we each had chosen.  I read a brief, four-line poem in simple language, whereas my partner read and compared two lengthy, dense pieces.  It was a wonderful opportunity to see how this protocol plays out in different contexts.”

Lisa McDonagh, Watertown Middle School, Watertown, MA

“I love the time spent today working with our images and texts and thinking about how we might actually use these with our students.  It was extremely helpful to me to get the feedback and even more important, I am truly excited right now to try out my ideas!”

Ellen Fitanides, Watertown Middle School, Watertown, MA

“Working with two other people in creating my assignment really reminds me of how valuable it is to spend the time together developing the work, to articulate thoughts, purposes, and goals.”

Lynette Goulet, Watertown Middle School, Watertown, MA

“Working with other teachers to design activities in the spirit of critical exploration has empowered me to incorporate this work into any unit or lesson.”

Mike Fishback, The Potomac School, McLean, VA

“I think that the most important thing I’m leaving with is that learning is a journey — it morphs along the way and giving students the opportunity to explore and veer off the ‘track’ is part of that journey.  The destination (which is so often the ‘right answer’ for some educators) is not as all important as the process one experiences in getting there.”

Gail Petri, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

“My looking at the piece [in Steve Seidel’s session on looking at classroom work] felt like an ‘opening up’ process as opposed to the ‘narrowing’ feeling or process I sense when ‘correcting’ or typically ‘commenting’ on a student’s work.  The order of the steps encouraged wondering and, in the process — awe.”

Holly Turner, The Common School, Amherst, MA

“In ‘Unprescribing the Curriculum,’ the author wrote how problems to be investigated in class need to be problematic.  How can we make ancient history reflect that?  How can we turn our dull unit question on Mesopotamia, ‘What are the characteristics of a civilization?’ quite a bit more juicy?!”

Kerri Lorigan, Watertown Middle School, Watertown, MA

“I’m feeling much more confident about how to set up structures in the classroom to promote student thinking and dialogue.  …  These past 3 days have given me a sense of ease and trust that the materials and students themselves will instruct. … What I want is honest student thinking and to know they are thinking is celebratory itself.”

Amy Gonzalez, Maria L. Baldwin School, Cambridge, MA

“I wish other aspects of the education ‘system’ could engage / talk to this process of critical exploration.”

Kajal Sinha, Curriculum Development and Pedagogy, King of Prussia, PA


Sounds wonderful! I hope to attend in the future.

Jen Killpack

Fabulous work! I, also, hope to attend in the future!

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