Turning Discovery and Learning Over to the Students: That’s Workshop

On occassion, teachers ask me to explain what I mean when I start talking about my reading/ writing workshop classroom. The following is a response to an initial request on Twitter, which later expanded to questions and answers. Tweet: “I am thinking of switching to a workshop approach. Does anyine have any pointers?” Well, yes, actually, I do.

First of all, there are many definitions of “workshop.” Some gurus like Donalyn Miller go with an all student choice approach, while others like Kelly Gallagher and Nancie Atwell incorporate some whole class reading and instruction into their workshop classrooms. While my district is working to implement workshop into the curriculum this summer, we are trying to define what workshop means to us. This is what we’ve deciced so far:

Reading/Writing Workshop means students have a say in the titles and topics in which they read and write. Students read, discuss, write, and share in small and large groups. Teachers continually hold “book talks” and introduce new books, so that students have numerous titles in which they may choose self-selected reading. Teachers may also have short lists (perhaps 5-6 titles) in which students may choose titles and form small book clubs or literature circles. Students gain the pleasure of reading about topics and events that interest them; teachers focus on skills that help students become more critical readers. Students develop as writers as they choose topics that relate personally to their lives. They learn to take pride in their work as they take their writing thoroughly through the writing process and practice the habits of published authors. Teachers introduce mentor texts in which students analyze and model an author’s craft and style. Ultimately, students publish their writing and find pleasure and satisfaction in potentially getting feedback from their audiences.

As you can tell, we’ve combined several different “workshop” models into what we think might work best for our kids. When I first learned about workshop I read Atwell’s book In the Middle, which was great, but I quickly realized that her idea of a student-centered (and self-motivated) classroom would not work with the majority of my sophomores. I knew that I needed to offer more direction. My kids either jump off task and topic quicker than I can take a breath, or they are lumps of lard waiting for something exciting like the monthly fire drill. There’s no way Atwell’s “divide-the-class-into-groups-and-have-them-work-through-center-type-activities” would ever work with my on-level students (my AP kids another story). I had not attended Penny Kittle’s training yet, nor had I read her book Write Beside Them. Once I learned from Kittle, I knew I could create a workshop model that would work for my students.

I’ll try to answer your questions, and then really, you’re right– jump in with both feet! You’ll learn through trial and error, and if nothing else, your students will be reading and writing and engaged.

Q: Normally, we think of each grade level by the books students read. Juniors read American Lit (Huck Finn, Scarlett Letter), Seniors read Brit Lit (Beowulf, 1984). If we move to a workshop, what defines each grade level? What makes sophomore year different from junior year? Is it just a constant reinforcement of the skills?

A: Yes, it’s a skills-based focus. Pull out the standards and decide which are the most important. Texas now does this for us with our Readiness and Supporting standards. We did not join with the National Core, and I am not sure what those look like at different grade levels. I’m pretty sure that no matter there are some standards that must be much more recursive than others. Those are the ones we return to over and over again with reading and writing workshops. For example, our new state mandated test (STAAR), which starts this coming year, will include narrative & expository writing (9th grade), expository & persuasive writing (10th grade), persuasive & analytical writing (11th grade). Obviously, the skills needed to write in these forms will be taught throughout the year, ideally through the use of mentor texts, teacher modeling, and delving deeply into the writing process, which must be the focus–process–more than the product.

I believe it is still possible to move through thematic units with American Lit at 11th and Brittish Lit at 12th. My district still mandates a few “required” texts at each grade level, and the new workshop curriculum will reflect the same American Lit then Brittish Lit as you mention; we just now have the freedom to either do all of the text or just excerpts, and the approach is different– student-centered learning instead of the ‘ole Sage on the Stage: teacher at the front of the room doing all the talking, and kids glaring at their eyelids trying to remember what they read in Spark Notes so they can pass the end-of-class quiz.

Q: We have partial block. Monday-Wednesday are 50 minutes.. and then we block 90 minutes Thurs/Friday. So I only see my students four days a week. How would you recommend we organize the workshops with those time limitations?

A: I work within the constraints of 47 minute classes five days a week. I’d love to have your 90 minutes on Thurs/Fridays, but I’m not exactly sure how to tell you what I’d do with them. I think your organization will come naturally as you play with what approach to workshop feels right to you and works best for your kids.

Q: How do students keep everything organized? Do they have a reader’s notebook, writer’s notebook.. and then some way to publish their finished products?

A: Yes, all students have writer’s notebooks. We use the hardbacked composition books because they hold up so much better and are less of a hassle than spirals. Make sure to work in time for students to decorate and take ownership of their notebooks. This is vital. Also, teachers must create a notebook and model writing for their students as often as possible.

We made our notebooks “interactive” because our science department had great success with students cutting and pasting all handouts in their science notebooks. Students liked the Kindergarten-ness of scissors and glue…oh, and foldables, kids love foldables!

Q: I was thinking the publishing would be perfect on a blog. What do you do for that?

A: I have a class blog http://rasmussena.edublogs.org/, and my students all have their own blogs. My AP kiddos do great at publishing pretty much once a week. Three kids are even getting published as student samples in Tony Romano and Gary Anderson’s book Expository Writing. I’m proud! (a Twitter connection–another testament to PLN). I was not as successfull getting my 10th graders to take ownership and publish on their blogs. My fault. I expected more than they could give without more time in the lab and instruction from me. I will handle blogging differently with my on-level students next year, but so far, blogging is the best thing I’ve found for students to publish to a world-wide audience, and I’m determined to make it work with all my students.

Other publishing resources- Teen Ink, Teen Ink Raw and lots of online writing contests. Google it. I also want to compile a class anthology that students publish at the end of the year.

Q: Are there some things you can do as a full-class? For example: Macbeth with my seniors. I have the Folger book with the Macbeth activities that I love doing where the students act out portions of the play. Normally, I devote a month to Macbeth. Obviously, that would need to be drastically cut down in a workshop. How do you incorporate some of those whole-class studies that would be too challenging for the students to do on their own?

A: As stated previously, the definition of workshop is different to many people. Whole class instruction can still happen and be called workshop. Are students reading? talking about texts? problem solving? analyzing? Are students writing? responding to challenging texts? learning from one another? Yes?? You’ve got a workshop!

I attended a training last summer where Sheridan Blau of National Writing Project fame now a professor at Berkley (I think) held several “workshops” in the course of the afternoon. Blau called the following a workshop:
1. Read the poem.
2. Respond in your notebook.
3. Share response in small group.
4. Discuss and analyze poem in small group.
5. Share out in whole class.
6. Respond in notebook to whole class discussion.

I love the simplicity of this. I learned a similar approach from Penny Kittle. Basically, it’s turning the discovery and learning over to the students. It’s allowing and teaching them to think and share their thoughts. In my experience, students always find the literary elements and devices that I want them to learn. They might not know the term, but they can “find what’s interesting.” The interesting thing leads to me teaching them the skill.

Okay, that’s a lot of information, and I hope it’s clear. Questions? Ask away. I’m happy to help

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