When I first started teaching, I ran a “4 x 4 classroom.” My students read four “big” books a year (one per quarter), and they wrote four “big” papers a year (one per quarter). Four big books and four big papers—a 4 x 4 classroom.
At the time this made sense to me. It took a week or two to teach students how to write a specific essay. They took another week or two to move their papers completely through the writing process. Then it took me an additional three weeks to read and comment on 180 papers. (While students were waiting for their papers, I shifted the focus in the classroom to the core work we were reading). By the time I eventually returned the essays, we were into the next quarter and it was time to start thinking about the next big paper.
The same pacing held true when I taught core novels and plays. I took a week to prepare my students for the reading of Book X. We then spent six weeks reading the work, stopping frequently to make sure students were analyzing it to death. Then we spent a couple of weeks revisiting the work via numerous “beyond” activities. By the time students finished these culminating activities, we were into the next quarter and it was time to start reading our next core work.
Years later, I have come to understand the severe limitations of the 4 x 4 approach. The central reason why 4 x 4 doesn’t work can be summed up in one word: “volume.” Volume matters a great deal and, simply put, students stuck in 4 x 4 paradigms do not read and write enough over the course of the school year to significantly improve. A 4 x 4 approach ensures adequate progress will not occur.
Considering the importance of volume leads me to think about my students’ reading and writing journeys this year and I noticed two important things. 1) when students are given choice in their selections—whether limited or wide open—they read and write more, and 2) I recognized that grading everything slows my students’ reading and writing growth.
The volume of writing is the key ingredient. If I provide good modeling, but my kids do not write much, they will not grow. If I confer with them, but they do not write much, my students will not grow. If I provide a lot of choice, but they do not write much, my students will not grow. Modeling, conferring, and choice are critical to growth, but if my students are not writing a lot, these factors become irrelevant.
In my school system, I am required to score essays, and I imagine this may be true for you as well (Atwell runs her own school and gets to create her own rules). But let’s not lose sight of the lesson Atwell teaches us here: students should be writing way more than a teacher can grade (I have a goal of at least a 4:1 ratio). When teachers grade everything, the writing pace of the classroom slows down. Volume suffers. It is only when students begin writing (and reading) more than the teacher can grade that they approach the volume necessary to spur significant growth.
I cannot shake the feeling that despite the progress in my classroom, my students are still not reading and writing enough (especially considering the deficiencies some of them have). My thoughts are already turning to next year’s classes and I am already wrestling with some big questions: How can I build more choice into the curriculum? When and where can I provide more modeling? How can I build in more time to confer? What else can I do to increase the volume of my students’ reading and writing?