The Making of a Handbook: How Do We Codify a Changing Process

By Austen Osworth

The nice part about being a small organization at the start of its long life is elasticity: because we are a small board with a small number of fellows, we can be extremely responsive to each individual fellow’s needs, the needs of each diverse and dynamic classroom, and the changing (often explosive) world around us. It feels nice to work with each pair of fellows’ teaching style; it is specific and often successful to help them create a new syllabus for each new semester. However, if any of the core three folks working on WriteOn got hit by a bus tomorrow, the organization as a whole, while it might not cease to function, would be severely impacted.

I wanted the business of this handbook to be figuring out how to codify the methods that my colleague, Catherine Bloomer, and I piloted back in 2016 when we first set foot into the George Jackson Academy classroom. But as part of our methods include responding to creative needs of specific groups, the questions were difficult to answer: how can one codify dynamism? The only solution I could come up with was to teach processes and pedagogy to new fellows, rather than prescriptive content. The way I teach the fellows to talk to each other and think about their students’ work is important; how I exactly write a lesson plan and choose a reading is not, though it may provide inspiration.

In drafting this handbook, I decided to focus on something I can hand to new fellows at the time of their orientation that would take them through outlining their syllabus and their first lesson plan in the ways that they collectively decide they would like to do so. I decided to give them a jungle gym to play on in the form of “scaffolding,” a pedagogical term for the intellectual and creative stairs one must lay out for students to progress. One of the first things we were told was not to underestimate the students; we quickly made the decision to teach the same things we would teach our undergraduate students, but to do it with more scaffolding. In this way, we have seen eighth graders undertake workshop and revision in the same ways graduate students do.

I condensed my and Catherine’s technique for approaching a lesson plan into four scaffolding steps: Introduction, Information, Implementation and Introspection. Introduction is the act of warming up the students’ brains on the topic at hand, usually with something we game-ify. For instance, in teaching a lesson about science fiction and fantasy world-building, we put several different world conditions on slips of paper and had the students draw from a hat and read what they’d chosen aloud. Then the students had to imagine how they’d be different if they’d grown up in the world they picked: one where New York City existed, but a mile beneath the ocean’s surface, one in which every person had a face on the front of their head as well as a face on the back of their head. Then they had to write their biography as though the world had impacted them—what would they have done up to this point in their lives? By introducing concepts in this way, we can lower the stakes on trying something new and encourage artistic play. The students already begin making connections without worrying about whether they’re right or wrong.

The Information phase can land on students in several different ways, but it usually provides further examples or contexts for the topic at hand and permits a deeper dive. It comes most often in the form of a reading, followed by a discussion where we break down the piece of writing into two components: What was being written about and How did the author write about it? For the Implementation phase, students take some of the Hows we talk about and work it into the piece of writing they wrote under game conditions. And for Introspection, we examine the pieces as a class or individually and try to determine How those Hows affect the reader—what’s working, and why?

I’ve been teaching them to our incoming Fellows for about a year without the aid of a handbook—I think this was the right move, as it gave us the opportunity to receive feedback. I’d thought this was a fairly broad system that allowed for a lot of freedom, but setting up a post-semester debrief with all the fellows allowed us to ask what they wished they’d known at the start of the semester. While the scaffolding was helpful and gave them a way to think about individual lesson plans and exercises, the feedback we received was that it didn’t give them a way to conceptualize an entire semester. The Fellows were actually being stymied by the amount of freedom—it became hard to choose what to do because the options were endless, rather than easier because the sky was the limit! Back to the drawing board—how to codify dynamic needs while providing an actual scaffolding for the Fellows as well?

“Back to the drawing board” turned out to be an accurate way to think about the problem. I thought back to how Catherine and I began to distill a method from our madness and it became the method we teach today. I drew it out as a ladder, with a rung for each step, to imply the need to build from one step to another. Perhaps the key, here, would be to describe our method and then ask the fellows to come up with a structure for their semester that they could draw out.

Right before drafting the handbook, I had the pleasure of trying this method out on our latest set of fellows. We included the Spring 2018 structure in the handbook so future Fellows can see the possibilities.

I pulled back even further and revisited the ideas that brought me to the handbook in the first place—how could we both give Fellows concrete direction and encourage them to roll with the punches and experiment?

How We Decided to Codify Elasticity

  1. Show examples of other Fellows getting creative. Including the current set of Fellows’ structure was one example, but we threw in a couple other examples of Fellows solving problems.
  2. Give them contacts and resources rather than requirements. Instead of giving curriculum requirements, those applying for the Fellowship now have a class to take: “The Teaching of Writing.” We followed the department’s lead by pointing the Fellows in the right direction rather than giving them strict curriculum guidelines to follow. We have a contact section and require the Fellows to set up a meeting with the folks at George Jackson, so they can be updated on what’s new with our partner this semester. We set out people to talk to and encourage question-asking, so the Fellows are empowered to make decisions by themselves, but aren’t without help or guidance.
  3. Still write down concrete guidelines, so that if something goes awry there’s still something to grab onto. Sure, there’s the requirement to reach out to the folks at George Jackson at the beginning of the semester to form a relationship, but if there’s a concern about a student, there’s an instruction to tell the Head of School immediately.
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