Talking About What Matters by Catherine Hepworth

guest post iconWe’ve all been there. The conference room is crowded. It’s too hot. Every third person is clicking away on their laptop, answering emails or checking their phone, answering their kid’s plea to bring their forgotten gym socks to school. The presenters drone on, flipping through slide after slide on a fairly average power point. At the front of our minds, a constant throbbing pulse: how will I ever use this in my classroom?

There is no interaction between presenter and audience. There is no spark. All of us wonder: is it too soon to take another bathroom break?

Fortunately, this is the exact opposite of what we experienced when Amy and Shana came to teach us how to implement the workshop model at Franklin High School on two dreary days in February. The time working with them inside our little classroom was anything but dreary.

And teach is the key word here. The most important realizations I came to at the end of the second day were:  I can do this…and, I was treated as both a student and a teacher.

It invigorated me.


I’m in the plaid, exploring a possible independent reading book during “speed dating with a book”

We were exposed to a variety of activities for getting students to think, write, and talk about what they read and wrote. To really know how something will work in the classroom, you have to try it out for yourself. A big idea in the workshop model is that you must read books and write stories and essays alongside your students. As part of our two-day workshop instruction, we were reading and writing as if we were the student, so we could feel how each activity might go from the student perspective. Then we were allowed ample time to discuss and reflect on these activities as professionals.

Amy and Shana’s presentation modeled everything a teacher is supposed to do with a class of students.

Objectives were evident right from the start.

  • They gave clear directions.
  • They listened intently and attentively when we spoke.
  • They circled among us so they gave ample time to each group during small group discussion.
  • Their enthusiasm was palpable.
  • They made me feel like I mattered. They made me want to go out into the world and be somebody.

At the end of the day, isn’t this what we all wish for our students?

The best reading workshop strategy Amy and Shana taught us was one that engaged students in reflecting on their independent reading as well as talking with a friend about what they read. It all took less than 10 minutes.

First, students grab a post-it and write one insight they had about a character and provide a quote from the book that helped them achieve this insight. Then, students find someone else in the room (preferably someone they have not talked with recently), and share their post-it with that new student. The listener paraphrases what the student says and then they switch roles. The teacher collects the sticky notes from everyone, comments on the sticky notes, and hands them back (either within the hour or the next day).

As a “student,” this activity was really fun for those of us who like to talk about what we read. Because we are seeking a peer instead of being forced to talk to someone, it makes talking about what we read fun too. Lastly, each student must practice active listening skills. I especially like that Amy and Shana explicitly stated that the listener must paraphrase what they hear. I’ve already tried this activity with my students, and when we were done, several of them exclaimed, “Wow – it’s so nice to talk to others about what we’re reading; we need to do this again!”

For anyone who wants to change things up in their classroom and get kids more engaged, switching to workshop is it. The best way is to start small – dedicate 10 min of your class time to reading. Don’t think of it as “we have to read,” instead, think of it as “we get to read.” (This was an old trick used at Girl Scout camp. We didn’t tell campers “You have to collect firewood; rather we’d say, “You get to collect firewood.” It seems sneaky, but it’s not; it’s just a lot more appealing).

So teachers, think of it this way: you get to talk to your kids about the books and writing that matter to them, and those conversations will matter to both of you. Keep reading this blog for ideas and inspiration — it definitely helped me and my colleagues at Franklin. If you have the opportunity to invite Amy and Shana into your classroom/district, make it happen. We’re glad we did.

Catherine Hepworth has been teaching for 10 years; she currently teaches English and coaches Forensics at Franklin High School in Wisconsin. In the summer, when not reading books or frantically sewing historical clothing, she participates in living history events around the Midwest. Check out her living history & sewing blog at


Tagged: , ,

2 thoughts on “Talking About What Matters by Catherine Hepworth

  1. Amy March 2, 2016 at 4:38 pm Reply

    Thanks for this post, Catherine. You were the perfect student during those two days! I wish we had perfect success every day with our students, but you know — we don’t. Just like you, every day is a new challenge, but the beauty of workshop is in the ability we have to adapt to the needs of the individual. We talk to them as often as possible one-on-one, and we encourage them to reach beyond their comfort zones to become better readers and writers. I love this work, and I appreciate teachers like you who love it, too. Thank you for sharing your love of literacy with your students and with our readers here at TTT.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. jhuber2015 March 2, 2016 at 8:26 am Reply

    Oh, how I wish they could come to our school!
    This sounds so great!! Thanks for sharing and igniting yet another spark!


What are you thinking?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: