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Why Workshop? It’s All Very Simple

Attending the University of New Hampshire Literacy Institute for the past two summers has been one of the best blessings in my teaching career. I’ve remembered what it means to be a student, replete with pages and pages of reading assignments, almost nightly research papers, and the expectation that I will participate in class.

Sure, I earned graduate credit, but more importantly, I sat as a student. I remembered what it feels like to have a teacher present a task, encourage a discussion, require I read something. I remembered what it means to be the pupil. And I wanted to learn.

I think all students want to learn. I also think that many of them do not know how.

Last week I met with my new friend Holly. We shared ideas about our plans for August and how we will more fully implement readers/writers workshop in our classrooms. We discussed what it means to struggle as a student in an English class where English is not our first language, and reading books is a new idea, and the lack of food in our home is just one component of the lack of security we feel every single day. We talked about what it must feel like to these children to fail state tests year after year. Because they do. Holly will be teaching 10th grade for the first time, and her ESL background will benefit her students immensely. I will be teaching AP English Language, and all my students will be in the AVID program. I am convinced the AVID philosophy is one every teacher should embrace:

Hold students accountable to the highest standards,
    provide academic and social support,
 and they will rise to the challenge.

It’s a philosophy every good teacher I know applies in his classroom. It’s also why so many of us choose the pedagogy of Readers and Writers Workshop. Our high standards might be the same for all students, but the support we must give them to help them rise to the various challenges with reading and writing must be individualized. Their needs are different; therefore, we must differentiate. One-on-one reading and writing conferences become daily events. We encourage, and nudge, and teach the skills that a student needs at that moment, during that task. This is authentic instruction. And it invites authentic learning.

As I think about this new school year on a new campus in a new district with new colleagues, new administrators, and new schedules (block days versus the traditional eight period days), I want to remember what it feels like from the student perspective.

“I need you to notice me, support me, show me how to learn.”

I had a colleague ask me recently, “Which is harder to plan:  teaching the traditional way with teachers making choices, or your way with students making the choices?” I should have said, “Is that really the right question?” which would have been a better response than the one I gave him.

It is hard work being a teacher in a workshop classroom. I have to know my students. I have to talk with them and know what they do with their time outside of school, who their friends are, what their dreams are for after high school. I have to be a reader, and I often have to read books I’d never read except to try to match the right book with a student who hates reading. I have to allow choice in topics, and get used to feeling uncomfortable. I have to give up control, and let teens be real in an environment that invites their opinions, and sometimes their scorn. I have to write in front of them and show my vulnerability. They have to see me struggle because all writers do. I have to love moving students as readers and writers because ultimately, if I am their English teacher, and I am not moving readers and writers, I am not doing my job.

Is it hard? Absolutely.

But here’s the thing: It’s really not a have to as much as it’s a get to.

“Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”  ~Steve Jobs

“It’s all very simple. But maybe because it’s so simple, it’s also hard.” ~Natuski Takay

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5 thoughts on “Why Workshop? It’s All Very Simple

  1. Mindy De La Rosa July 24, 2014 at 5:02 pm Reply

    I have been teaching a very long time, and I feel like when I first began teaching, 24 years ago, I did more to allow the students to create their own ideas, write about more, and read at a much higher level. I am not sure when it changed, but on our campus now, everything is geared toward data and the STAAR EOC. What can I do to start with the Reading and Writing workshops? I feel as if this is my first year and need a step by step plan of action. I have used much of what I see or “hear” on this blog. I have been in one place for so long now that I am in a rut of sorts. I am now the ELA Coach for my campus with many new teachers. I need all the help I can get. The writing portion of the exam is where we have the lowest scores…everyone is feeling the desperation to help our students do better.
    Thanks for your insight.

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    • steelmsl July 25, 2014 at 8:41 am Reply

      What I have found to be the most helpful is to have students read and write daily – the more they do, the better they get – it’s that simple. The way Penny Kittle works with her students (read Book Love) makes so much sense, especially the way she uses excerpts from a variety of novels for text analysis.

      When teachers begin to take novels, plays, poetry, and nonfiction, and begin to design tests around these that model mandated testing, it’s the kiss of death. I do not believe multiple-choice tests on novels do anything to help students understand literature (see Carol Jago’s Rigor for All). What I do believe works is to use released tests, such as AP or ACT, and analyze types of test questions. Released student answers also helps students see models of good writing. Test preparation does help but not as the basis for the entire language arts curriculum.

      I’m not an expert, to be sure. I do, however, understand your frustrations! I’m a 42-year veteran and still learning. Kudos to you for putting yourself “out there.”

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    • amyrasmussen July 27, 2014 at 12:24 am Reply

      I agree that the easiest way to start a workshop class is to have students read and write every day. I would add to that TALK. Students need to talk about what they are reading in order to think through what and how to write. I learned that from Kittle. “Writing floats on a sea of talk,” she says. So, what should students read? Anything they want. Now, total choice requires a lot of reading on the teacher’s part, a lot of talking about books and matching them with kids. This can be difficult if you are not already a reader of YA books, the kinds students choose to read. However, you can still get students reading by getting the school librarian involved in helping you. To be accomplished writers, students must read effective writing. So in addition to choice books, use short mentor texts, and allow the authors to be your writing coaches. Look at how the author constructs the meaning. Talk through the texts with students. Then write, using the mentors as models. And you must write, too. Teachers in workshop classrooms must walk the talk and be the readers and writers they want their students to be. Best blessings as you move into workshop. Let me know if I can help?

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  2. amyrasmussen July 23, 2014 at 10:38 am Reply

    Absolutely! Collaboration is key. In my experience, the difficult part is that those who get the idea of workshop, and those who provide the best support, are not always the colleagues our campus teams. We often have to reach out, cultivate, and hang on to those connections. That’s what makes Twitter so great. That’ also what makes someone like you so great. Being willing to comment and add to the conversation, an create those connections. I know you are on my “team” so to speak, and that’s important because you just joined my support system. Thank you!

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  3. steelmsl July 23, 2014 at 9:16 am Reply

    The choice that students receive during workshop time is the most valuable! That being said, it is so easy for veteran teachers (like me) to completely switch gears. We need support! When you mentioned that you met with a colleague to discuss how you will implement the workshop model, that resonated with me. We all need someone to collaborate with and to share our frustrations and successes.

    Where I work, we are all on teams – some teams collaborate well and hold each other accountable for the work they decide to do. Others simply check in from time to time. I would suggest that the collaboration piece is one of the most important in getting workshop off the ground – “fixing the plane while it’s in flight” is how my principal describes it. In short, collaboration is key.

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