By Christine M. Dawson
Crrr-unch. Crrr-unch. I watched as Shannon’s knife bit into the onion, chopping through layers in neat, parallel lines. She gripped the onion in one hand, curling her fingers into a claw to keep them away from the blade she maneuvered with her other hand. “Now remember to cut almost all the way to the cutting board, leaving just a little bit to hold the onion together,” she instructed, then turning the half onion and making new cuts, perpendicular to the first round. Turning the onion once more, she deftly demonstrated a final series of cuts, resulting in a pile of neat, uniform pieces on her board.
I was standing in front of Shannon, gathered with a group of friends around her demonstration counter at the beginning of an evening cooking class. We were going to be making butternut squash soup, among other things, and along the way I was finally learning how to chop an onion “the way chefs do.” I had chopped a lot of onions in my life before this point, so I wasn’t a complete novice. But I always seemed to end up grimacing at a pile of oddly shaped pieces through burning eyes. I was hopeful that I was approaching a culinary turning point.
Before long Shannon sent us back to our own cooking stations, where ingredients and cutting boards and knives awaited. I picked up the knife before me, trying to hold my hand in the way she had demonstrated, and easily cut off each end and removed the outer skin. I then contemplated my newly naked onion and realized I had no idea what to do next. I wasn’t even sure I could adequately chop the onion my old way, even if that had been an option in this fast dicing room. Which way do I cut it in half? I wondered. And then which cut side do I face down, and which way do I point the rest of the onion?!
My eyes roamed the room, trying to get a clue from watching someone else nearby, and a quick burst of anxiety coursed through me. Fortunately, Shannon spotted the utter wholeness of my onion and came to assist. She patiently broke down the directions again, re-positioned my hand, and watched my progress.
As I stood there in that class, struggling to dice, I had a bit of an epiphany about teaching and learning, especially related to writing. I should have been an ideal student in that cooking class. I was highly interested and attentive – I would have even taken notes if I thought my friends wouldn’t have made fun of me. And I was learning a skill that I knew I would use, from someone who had modeled and explained each step. Yet still, when I got back to my own station, I got lost. It was honestly a bit embarrassing, as I watched everyone around me get to work.
In that moment, despite my familiarity with writing workshop pedagogies and constructivist learning processes, I initially blamed myself for my confusion. Yet it should not have surprised me that I might need additional help moving from what I had observed to what I could do on my own. Here are several lessons I took away from that experience.
Place the Tools in Students’ Hands…With Support
In that cooking class, I realized that until the knife was actually in my hand, I wasn’t fully learning, because I wasn’t doing the work. Despite my interest and attention, despite Shannon’s strong modeling and explanations, without being able to try the skill for myself, I was pretty limited in what I was taking away from the experience. After stumbling and wobbling a bit on my own, Shannon’s step-by-step guidance at my side was necessary before I could really begin to make my own cuts independently.
Similarly, while mini-lessons are critical in a writing workshop, it is when students try using a new strategy in their own writing that they begin to take ownership and truly learn. While some students will quickly add a new strategy into their writing repertoires, others will face their notebooks the way I faced that onion, with trepidation and uncertainty, aware that peers are at work around them while they still wonder how to start. If they feel a lack of confidence or interest, then it truly might make more sense to them to put down their pen again, page untouched, rather than face the discomfort of trying and struggling through.
In these moments, especially early on in a writing workshop, students need additional guidance. This in-the-moment support may look different from holding a writing conference, where we engage a student in a longer conversation about their work, or providing feedback on student texts. In my cooking lesson, Shannon did not spend more than a few minutes with me to quickly observe my confusion, help me make adjustments, and get me started again. She helped me figure out what to do next, and then she moved on to another group of students.
It is also significant that while Shannon may have repositioned the onion or demonstrated the grip on the knife one more time, at that stage she made sure I was the one making the cuts. Likewise, in a writing conference, we want to help a student keep the pen in their own hand as much as possible, so that they can begin to practice and apply a strategy themselves.
Help students understand learning processes
My cooking experience also highlights the significance of the gradual release of responsibility, often associated with an “I do, we do, you do” instructional design, in which a teacher models a skill (“I do”), supports the students as they apply that skill collaboratively and with support (“we do”), and then monitors as the students apply the skill on their own (“you do”). While I knew this model as a teacher, I had lost sight of what it felt like as a learner.
In my own classroom, when I observe students who might resist getting to work, perhaps eyeing their papers with vague, confused stares or hastily trying to catch a glimpse at a peer’s notebook to figure out where to begin, I try to recall how disorienting it can feel to transition from watching a model to trying out that skill on one’s own. I try to remind my learners that this gradual release of responsibility is part of a learning process, and that it is normal for them to need assistance as they begin to apply strategies on their own.
Over the past 20+ years, I have modeled many processes and strategies, attempting to carefully explain each step before sending students back to “have a go” in their own writing notebooks. I wonder, had all of my students understood that the workshop time was intentionally supported writing time, where I expected them to need additional help, and where I did not anticipate immediate mastery? Had I built in enough peer and teacher support opportunities?
Clarify our instructional and writerly purposes
As writing teachers, we also must have a clear sense of our instructional purposes, both short term (this lesson) and longer term (in the overall growth of our student writers). Students’ skill and strategy work in writing needs to be in service of their literacy needs and interests, to help them build confidence and agility and explore ways to make those skills suit their emerging writerly visions and purposes.
When I took that cooking class, my goal was not to merely chop a pile of onions – I had little interest in snacking on the translucent bits and pieces by themselves. I was learning to chop an onion for two reasons: to make my work easier and less tedious as a cook, and so that I could use those onions to flavor the soup I was about to make. My skill learning had both context and purpose.
To a student writer, a pile of disconnected writing skills, whether on worksheets or in a notebook, is little more appetizing than a pile of raw onions. I need to share with my students that, as a fellow writer, I take the time to study a sentence structure or writing technique in order to help me use that structure or technique in my own writing. My students need to be able to see how and why they might use a new strategy, both in the context of their current projects and in their overall work as writers.
Continue to reflect on our own teaching and learning processes
I teach curriculum design and literacy at the college level now, and I’ve brought three separate cohorts of beginning teachers to Shannon for lessons on cooking. I want them to experience and analyze their learning in an unfamiliar setting, especially one in which they feel less confident. We always start with onions. I stand by, watching their intent faces during the demonstrations, smiling as they confidently move to their cutting boards, and waiting for them to realize they need more help. I always pray they don’t cut themselves.
And then we talk about our experiences and assumptions as teachers – especially when we feel pretty confident in our demonstrations and explanations. What do we assume about our students who are not quick to get started? Would those have been fair assumptions of us, as learners, in this context? What can we infer about the nature of learning, about the importance of who holds the pen, and about what kinds of instruction matter when and for whom? And how can we remember these lessons as we think about our goals as writers and as teachers of writing?
Empowering writerly “chefs” requires us to remember that teaching and learning can be complex processes. As teachers, we must strive to release responsibility to our student writers, allow them to take their pens in hand as often as possible, actively provide support across their writing processes, and ensure opportunities for students to apply their learning in the context of their own compositional entrees.
Note: Image is original and permissions obtained by author. First names used by permission.
Christine Dawson, Ph.D., is a writer, teacher, writing researcher, and teacher educator. She is the author of The Teacher-Writer: Creating Writing Groups for Personal and Professional Growth (Teachers College Press, 2017) and collaborating author of Writing Instruction That Works: Proven Methods for Middle and High School Classrooms (Applebee and Langer, Teachers College Press, 2013).
Peer reviewed through the Writers Who Care blind peer-review process.