As a classroom teacher, I saved everything because “I might need it in my classroom”—everything from baby food jars, toilet paper rolls, scraps of fabric, buttons, paper scraps, yarn, containers of all kinds, and a myriad of children’s and teacher reference books. Today I was unpacking my home office books and collectibles after our recent move to a new home in a new city. Long ago I had gotten rid of the baby food jars and toilet paper rolls when I left the classroom to become a principal. When I retired from the principalship, I still maintained an extensive home library of educational books and resources, but as our family prepared to put most of our possessions into storage for a few months until the new house was ready, I was very selective about what I saved. Today as I unpacked each box, I considered why each item seemed important enough for me to save.
Among my treasured books, I found I had kept only two teacher reference books from my earliest teaching years. One was a favorite on classroom management, and the other was spiral bound, typed on an actual typewriter (not a computer), and mimeographed (that’s the way we used to make copies). I knew why I couldn’t part with The Workshop Way (original copyright 1970) by Grace H. Pilon, a Catholic nun who taught all levels from kindergarten through university. Sister Grace’s book and life had a remarkable impact on my early teaching foundation. Her philosophy and teachings about children stayed with me over 35 years as an educator, and I think that most likely very few of today’s teachers have ever even heard of Sister Grace, although I believe her ideas about children are just as important for today’s children as they were 35 years ago.
I first read about Sister Grace in 1980 and then attended her guest lecture at BYU. I discovered that Kathy Whitbeck, a teacher in Alpine School District, was creating a Workshop Way classroom, so I arranged with my principal a visit to observe Kathy in action. I was awed by what I saw and began to immediately plan how I could create a Workshop Way classroom in my own first grade room.
Up to that point I had been teaching my first graders much like I had been taught when I attended first grade and just like I had seen modeled during my pre-service education at BYU. Students did their work in their seats and always worked quietly without talking to each other. My own first grade year was very traumatic; I was petrified of my teacher and lived in constant fear of being yelled at or humiliated. We only spoke on the playground at recess and never spoke with our peers during class. I was seeking a different approach to teaching from what I had experienced as a child and had observed as a teacher, and Workshop Way resonated with me—with my feelings about how my own children were learning and growing at home. I knew I needed to work with small groups of children to teach them to read because of the varying needs of my students, but I didn’t know what to do with the other children as I worked with a small group. The Workshop provided meaningful tasks for students to complete independently or with another student while I worked with a small group. Of course this was 1980—way before centers and independent literacy activities were the norm. I was first attracted to the Workshop Way schedule which facilitated small group instruction, but I later grew to appreciate even more Sister Grace’s philosophy that enables all students to learn how to learn, learn how to think, and learn how to manage life (Pilon, 1970).
Sister Grace taught teachers and parents that a learning climate where every child can learn and succeed is created as intellectual safety is nourished through the Five Freedoms (Pilon, 1970):
- freedom from fear
- freedom of movement
- freedom of position and location for work
- freedom of conversation while working
- freedom of choice frequently
Sister Grace taught me that if students are to learn and grow in an intellectually safe environment, they need assurance on some foundational ideas that many adults assume children understand, but children’s life experiences so far may have taught them otherwise. And so to promote freedom from fear I explicitly taught, continually reinforced, outwardly modeled, frequently spoke, and openly posted in my classroom the following statements from Sister Grace:
- It’s intelligent to ask for help.
- It’s okay to make mistakes while learning.
- It takes courage to take a risk.
As I embraced the Five Freedoms, my classroom structure and culture changed dramatically. My classroom Workshop provided opportunities for students to move around the room, work at their desks, at tables or on the floor, converse and collaborate with peers, and choose from among several Workshop tasks (where some tasks were required daily).
For 18 years the classroom rules I explicitly taught, openly practiced, and clearly posted resulted from my study of Sister Grace’s work:
- We respect the rights of others.
- Show good manners always.
The goal of Workshop Way is to help each child grow and develop individually and then do his part to make the world a better place. Teachers accomplish this goal by doing the following:
- Establishing a state of intellectual safety for all students by creating a work-life climate. This is partially accomplished through a Workshop Schedule of independent tasks students can accomplish when they are not being taught by the teacher.
- Fostering supportive interpersonal relationships among students and between teachers and students.
- Preserving personal integrity and human dignity in students while they are in the process of learning and growing.
Although Sister Grace was an amazing teacher, thinker, and advocate for children, her writing is often difficult to navigate. I think this somewhat affected the dissemination of her ideas, but there are still educators today who are carrying on her work. Sister Grace died in 1995 at the age of 85 after a lifetime of service to children. Kathy Whitbeck died in 2015. I thank them both for their impact on me and subsequently on all the children who were part of my journey as an educator.
If you are currently working toward a career as a teacher, seek great thinkers like Sister Grace who will help you forge your own philosophy about students and learning. Read great resources, observe stellar mentors, and then reflect on what you learn; formulate your own philosophy and values that will guide your work in the classroom. Teachers teach content, but more importantly they shape lives and help build character in tomorrow’s workers, thinkers, leaders, parents. What an awesome responsibility and great joy it is to be a teacher!
— Susan Huff
Pilon, G. H. (1970). Becoming a person the workshop way. New Orleans: The Workshop Way, Inc.