My Classes are Only 45 Minutes — How Do I Do Workshop?

It’s a movement, you know — this instructional practice called Readers and Writers Workshop. More and more educators are catching the vision and clarifying their focus as English educators. (There’s also a lot of nay-sayers, which I think means they are afraid. Let’s be patient with them.)

I received an email that asked a question that I wish I would have had answered for me years ago when I made the leap into choice reading and the workshop pedagogy. It’s important, so I knew it needed to be a post on this blog:

English I teacher asked:  I have a question for you about classroom routine. I felt I needed to ask someone who can answer with authority about this because there is significant resistance from teachers on my campus to the whole idea of workshop, especially from my department chair. For various reasons that I won’t bore you with, we need to do a “by the book” implementation. We will be under a lot of negative scrutiny no matter what we do, but things will go better if we are following some sort of precedent on certain details.

I’ve found specific information about block schedule and the frequency of in-class silent sustained reading, but I haven’t found anything for non-block schedules. We are non-block with 45 minute periods. I think I read on your blog that you used to use Workshop in a non-block schedule. When you did that, how often did you do the in-class reading?

I am glad you asked about non-block scheduling for workshop instruction. Yes, it is doable! I taught class periods of 50 minutes five times a week prior to moving to my current school. When I was first trying to figure it out, the best advice I got was from Penny Kittle. She told me:  “You choose to do this, which means you choose not to do that.” Here’s how I interpreted that:

If I have 50 minutes with my students each day. Every minute matters, so I must be intentional in the choices I make. 

I used to choose whole class novels and read at least part of the novels in class. I used to assign students guided questions to help their understanding of those novels. I used to give lists of vocabulary words and ask students to define, write sentences, create images. I used to give writing prompts and writing homework. I used to expect students to read and write outside of class without ever showing them the messiness, the thinking, the discovering of ideas and emotions and writer’s moves on the page. I used to make all the choices, and I expected my students to go along for the ride.

Some did. Many did not. It finally started to dig at me that many was so much greater than some.

I choose not to do any of those things now.

Now, my students and I choose to read books we find interesting, engaging, and important to our lives. We read, discuss, and write about how the ideas inside these books are windows to the world outside our own, and how they are mirrors into the joys, aches, and heartbreaks we see inside ourselves and within our families.

I wrote about 7 Moves in My Workshop Schedule a while ago. These moves are non-negotiable:  read, confer, talk, write, revise, share, mini-lesson. 

To make these workshop moves work, we must also include these tools as non-negiotables:  writer’s notebooks, mentor texts, high interest books.

As you begin to plan for your 50 minutes, think about this:  How can you ensure that all students read, write, listen, and speak in every class period? (These are best practices for English Language Learner’s, which in my experience means they are best practices for all students.)

You specifically asked about the frequency of in-class independent reading in a class period of 45 minutes.

Read every day. Every day. Every day.

If you want students to become voracious readers, time is the greatest gift you can give them. Students need to know that you trust reading as your ally. If you believe that through reading students will grow in fluency, stamina, vocabulary acquisition, comprehension… and empathy, which has been written about here Scientific American and here Psychology Today you must make it a priority. So how might this look in your classroom:

She asked for a book that would help her learn science and accomplish her reading goals. Students will challenge themselves if we let them.

She asked for a book that would help her learn science and accomplish her reading goals. Students will challenge themselves. Really, they will.

Read at the beginning of every class period — 10 minutes. You do not need a bell ringer or any other focusing task when students know that the expectation is to come in the room and get to reading. The first chapter in Steve Gardiner’s book Sustained Silent Reading offers some great information — and quotes Nancie Atwell on the importance of choice. Encourage and challenge students to read outside of school. Help them create goals, and them help them hold themselves accountable to reaching them.

Confer when students are reading. Make this a norm. Conferring moves readers workshop instruction forward. And students want and need us talking to them about their reading, about their thinking, and about their lives. One-on-one instruction happens here, and it is through this teacher move that belonging, identifying, coaching, challenging, and empowering happens.

When you create a classroom culture of reading, discipline begins to care for itself. It’s a matter of setting expectations and then being consistent with them. If I have a student who refuses to read, which happens at times, especially early in the year, I make sure she knows that she has that right, but she does not have the right to interfere with anyone else’s right to read. Sustained Silent Silence instead of Sustained Silent Reading gets boring after a while.

You’ve read, and you’ve conferred. Now, you make other choices about what to include in your instruction. These are ideas that work for my students:

Write about their reading. Now, I’m not advocating for dialectic journals or questions about plot and setting, but it is important that students become reflective about their reading. Find a balance here. We do not want reading to turn to work, and demanding that students write about their reading way too much may turn them off to reading.  Think about the books you and I read. How often do we have to write an essay about a novel we read?

The topic notebooks in my classroom. We write in them about every three weeks. This is a fun way to share our thinking about our books.

Penny Kittle taught me about topic or “big idea” notebooks, and I’ve had a lot of success with these. (That link is to Penny’s Book Love handout, which has other great ideas for students to write about their reading.)

Teach skills in mini-lessons. I decide on mini-lessons based on two things: 1) my standards, 2) student needs based on what I learn in conferences.

Say I need to teach them about using the appeals in an argument, I may teach a mini lesson on logical appeal one day. Then I will ask students to do some flash research and find evidence of this appeal in either their independent reading, a news article, or an online text. We’ll share our findings and do a lot of talking — Why’d the writer use that appeal? How does it contribute to the argument? etc. Then, students will know I need to see them use that appeal in their own writing. We write (and confer) for the rest of the class period. Or, we share our writing in our writers’ groups.

Or, say I’ve conferred with half the class about their reading. I’ve found that half of those students are having trouble finding books with enough higher-level vocabulary to add to their personal dictionaries. I know I need to teach a mini-lesson on text complexity and what it means to challenge ourselves as readers. I may choose a few books with similar topics or themes and show my students a reading ladder:

Tears of a Tiger by Sharon Draper

Dopesick by Walter Dean Meyers

Homeboyz by Alan Sitomer

Tyrell by Coe Booth

The Absolute True Diary of a Part time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Letters to an Incarcerated Brother by Hill Harper

We’ll talk about why one book may be more complex than others. I might challenge students to read all of these titles and then tell me if I have the ladder right. (I may not, I haven’t read every one of these books, but I think I’m on the right track.) I’ll teach students about syntax and how that impacts text complexity as much, or more, than vocabulary. Then, I’ll challenge students to keep track of the complexity of the books they choose, not only by keeping their personal dictionaries up to date, but by adding codes to their reading lists. E – easy, C – comfortable, D – difficult. I show them my writer’s notebook and how this tracking helps me understand my reading habits.

Allow time to work. The greatest indicator that workshop works in my classroom is student engagement. When I allow students time to complete writing in class with me available to talk to and ask questions, they engage in the writing process more efficiently and effectively. I’ve let go of wanting a product, and now we enjoy the process of writing. We discover as we write. We revise because we know our writing improves as we revisit it. We share our writing because all voices in our classroom matter. The only way to accomplish these things is to build time to write right into the class schedule.

I wrote Choose to Become a Classroom of Writers a while ago. I still believe focusing on writing creates the smoothest transition to workshop instruction. Why? Because writers are readers first. Check out this post of 40 Inspiring Quotes about Reading from Writers. (Just a little proof.)

But that’s probably another post for another day.

Best blessings to you as you take off on this wonderful adventure with your students. Write any time: for support, for clarity, for whatever you might need. You’re blessing the lives of children. Our future –our society — needs educators like you.

Press forward (nay-saying department manager and all).

Warmly,

Amy

Dear reader, any advice you can offer our friend?

 ©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

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21 thoughts on “My Classes are Only 45 Minutes — How Do I Do Workshop?

  1. […] the end of a post I wrote last August called “My Classes are Only 45 Minutes — How Do I Do Workshop?” a reader named Andy left this comment:  I am at kind of a roadblock mentally and could use a […]

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  2. Andy Mayer January 5, 2017 at 11:59 am Reply

    Thank you for all of your expertise and your sharing. I am at kind of a roadblock mentally and could use a push…I teach 8th grade reading in a building that still has both “reading” and “language” classes. While I am slowly transitioning to more of a workshop approach, I am still getting stuck on a few things. For our second semester, we have always read a whole class novel, but I would love to get away from that. Have any of you done read-alouds in your classes? I am beginning to think that maybe a better option would be to have students vote on a novel with a certain theme and do a read aloud and work on certain aspects of reading. My one concern that I can hear being brought up by administration is making sure I have enough assessments and grades…

    Wondering if you have any advice…

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  3. […] that matter. The timing, especially in an even shorter class period (See Amy’s post on workshop in a 45 minute class period or Shana’s post with her ideas for workshop in a short class– it CAN be done!), are […]

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  4. […] out of the park lately. Amy has written a really important post about reading and writing workshop: My Classes Are Only 45 Minutes–How Do I Do Workshop? And Shana shares how she’ll do a mini-lesson at the beginning of the year about reading like […]

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Are you ready? | miningthemagic August 23, 2015 at 11:10 am Reply

    […] and Amy Rasmussen’s recent post on Three Teachers Talk on doing Workshop in 45 Minutes . […]

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  6. Kara August 23, 2015 at 10:34 am Reply

    Amy,
    I’ve been feeling really at odds the past few weeks. I’m in the same school but switching from teaching primarily 8th grade ELA in which I was free to workshop away to 11/12 semester-long English electives (there are no core 11/12 English class, just semester electives–don’t get me started) and US History 11. My English classes don’t have predetermined texts but do have themes: in the fall I’m teaching “Banned Books,” and in the spring I’m teaching “Short Stories.” Needless to say I’m feeling myself pulled back into the whole- text orbit. This post has helped remind me to pull back, that it’s not about content, it’s about skills, and that English class is not only about formal written papers. So thanks. I feel like this year is going to be a real challenge for me in that I going to be working on squishing the predetermined theme for my course into the workshop mold.

    Along those lines, what are your expectations about how often high school students turn in polished work? Any thoughts about how to deal with the topic of students’ polished work given that my course does have a theme? In the past, we’ve focused more on different modes of writing, as per most recommendations for workshop.

    Also, Kelly, I’m very interested in learning more about Barnes method of response. Thanks for bringing it up.

    Inspirational as always. Thank you!
    Kara

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    • Amy August 23, 2015 at 11:14 am Reply

      Kara, sounds like you are in for an interesting adventure. I would have loved to have taken a Banned Books or Short Stories course! I also know you can make workshop work. It’s only been in the last few years I’ve been cognizant of using themes to tie my skills-based units together. I like using themes for lots of reasons (besides that research says it’s a good idea), but I also like the idea of letting students connect ideas and build the theme together. You could do something like that in either of these classes: select texts that relate somehow, and then as students select texts ask them to read with a lens to make similar connections.

      To answer your question about how often high school students should turn in polished work: it depends. In the past I’ve thought quantity was important, so my students wrote and wrote, and few excelled at finding their voices, or writing about engaging ideas very quickly. When I pull back, and allow more time during class — at least trying for a balance of out of school writing and in school writing — my writers see that I value the process, and they put more thinking and practice into the task. Long-winded answer with no answer, I know. I’m thinking with my AP Lang kiddos this year, we will shoot for a “best draft” paper every three weeks or so. However, they will be taking one, maybe two ideas, and building on that as they explore different writing modes throughout the year. (Remember, I see my students every other day.)

      Your other questions about “topic of students’ polished work”: Is there a way for you to prompt them to think about ideas from your reading? This way students still have choice, but you are planting seeds of some of the choices kids might select. For example, I’m going to challenge my students to read a book that deals with social justice — many topics will be addressed in these books. They will choose a topic from their books to expand into an argument…defend, challenge, qualify…something like that. I can see this working in either of your semester courses.

      Best wishes to you and your students. Thank you for the comment– and the questions. I love how you’ve got me thinking. If I can help further, write me amyprasmussen@yahoo.com

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  7. […] Read: So many feels when I read Amy’s My Classes are Only 45 Minutes—How Do I Do Workshop? post on the Three Teacher’s Talk blog. Like Amy, this is a question that I wish I had an answer […]

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  8. rlkurstedt August 19, 2015 at 8:46 am Reply

    Amy, Hope you had a great summer. Love this post and the links embedded. Will definitely use these posts with my graduate students this semester.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Amy August 23, 2015 at 3:40 am Reply

      I love that you are teaching your grad students what I wish I learned in my program. They will be so far ahead, and their students will be so far ahead. Thank you!

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  9. Kelly Mogk August 18, 2015 at 11:20 pm Reply

    I have roughly 50 minutes with students also, to teach both writing and social studies. Like Amy, we have a dedicated practice each day when class begins — but students aren’t reading right when we start, they are writing. They know to come in and start writing — anything they want, though I often have a picture or video or poem up for them to view as inspiration.
    I also chose to drop several activities from my normal routine, and now we write, share, read mentor texts, discuss, and write and share some more. 🙂 It’s not unusual to get odd looks or comments that “surely you can’t teach it all” the way my classroom is managed. The great thing is, much of the learning happens organically through what we read and write. I’m just there to make sure we stay on track, that learning keeps moving forward, and our standards (and then some) are covered.
    I say wade in to the workshop and see how it feels. I bet you’ll never turn back. 🙂

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    • Amy August 23, 2015 at 3:35 am Reply

      Kelly, I’ve missed you! Thanks for sharing your wisdom and routine here. I love this line: “I’m just there to make sure we stay on track, that learning keeps moving forward, and our standards (and then some) are covered.” You are the best kind of teacher!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Rebekah O'Dell August 18, 2015 at 7:10 pm Reply

    Great post, Amy! We, too, teach workshop in a 45- minute period. I can testify — it CAN work. On the note of doing this and not doing that, I will second that I used to do a lot of “activities” in my class. Now, writing IS the activity. That’s what we are doing. Far less poster-making. Far more meaning-making.

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    • Amy August 23, 2015 at 3:33 am Reply

      Oh, the “activities” — I used to dream up the best of them! Simply a waste of time. Time that could have been spent on writing, or reading, talking about writing and reading. Thanks for this comment Rebekah.

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  11. Rin August 18, 2015 at 4:56 pm Reply

    I’m really intrigued by workshop-driven classrooms and I’m anxious to test drive it in my own. But I’m curious about grading.

    If I had my way, I wouldn’t assign number grades and instead I would write an individualized note for each student. But, alas, I am forced to give number grades. What and how do you grade?

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    • Kelly Mogk August 18, 2015 at 11:15 pm Reply

      This year I’m using Mark Barnes’ SE2R feedback model and not giving any letter grades in class. I assess daily as they write, noting where students are with a mastery level scale (Marzano) I taught my students. They know they will receive verbal and written feedback and when we conference we will look at where they are on the mastery scale with each standard we’re working on. I have a translation from the mastery scale to letter grades to use in my required online gradebook and report cards, which I’ll reference as we conference. There is a way to move away from grades in a workshop model! 🙂 check out Cris Tovani’s SO WHAT DO THEY REALLY KNOW and Rick Wormeli’s FAIR ISN’T ALWAYS EQUAL along with Barnes’ work for more info.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Lorin O September 18, 2016 at 7:57 am Reply

        I started reader writer workshop in my sophomore honors classes this year. 4 classes of 30 for 48 minutes. Only one in school doing this. This post helped, but I still can’t get my mind wrapped around how to translate this to grades in my grade book. We need a minimum of nine grades and the class is weighted so it can’t be just formative and all get an A for completion. I feel like I can’t move forward without the grade dilemma solved. I am stuck in my head with deciding what assessments replace quiz grades and how to justify for demanding parents. Kelly or anyone else reading this-can you help me with this??? I feel stuck. Thanks.

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    • Amy August 23, 2015 at 3:30 am Reply

      I love Kelly’s reply about grades, and I need to read more of Barnes’ work!

      While I do not have a perfect system, and I often feel the pull of the AP English writing rubric by nature of my classes, I’ve let a lot of what I used to believe about traditional grades go. I do a lot more talking to students about our objectives, letting them decide how their work should be scored, conferring throughout the process, and allowing them to self-evaluate at the beginning, middle, and end.

      This is hard for AP students who’ve been brought up grade grubbing. I’ve found the key is making sure they know the target —here’s what we need to learn and do — and then making sure they evaluate their work based on how close they come to learning and doing it. The hard part is helping some students understand that what they consider hard work does not always equate to quality work and objectives accomplished — or at least improving. I have to coach them, but they do learn how to give themselves honest assessments, and with very little variance, most students are spot on to where I think they’re at with the standards we’ve focused on for that piece of writing.

      This kind of grading is liberating — for me and my students. I will never go back to me being the judge and stamping on a verdict.

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  12. Jean Zepp Kanzinger (@jzkTeach) August 18, 2015 at 1:16 pm Reply

    Great essay, Amy! I will be sharing this with colleagues this year.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Ramona August 18, 2015 at 12:24 pm Reply

    Love your final advice – Press forward! This addresses so many concerns felt by teachers wanting to transition to readers writers workshop.

    Liked by 1 person

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