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#3TTWorkshop — Teaching Students How to Thrive in Workshop

#3TTWorkshop Meme

We received the following request from our UNH-loving friend and inspiring educator Betsy Dye who teaches in Illinois. She got us thinking.

Betsy’s email:

What advice do you have for a teacher about introducing workshop to classes who are unfamiliar with it?  What are some of the effective ways to explain to students what they’ll be doing if they’ve never experienced a workshop classroom before?

While of course I’ve had students who have taken to and embraced the idea of workshop immediately,  I’ve had others who often fall into one or more of the following categories:

–students who have become so apathetic to what they’re doing because of no choice that they now prefer to be told exactly what to do which doesn’t require a lot of effort on their part
or
ninth graders who used to be enthusiastic readers and writers until middle school when whole class novels replaced independent reading and when whole class prompts were assigned for all writing and who’ve consequently lost their passion for reading  and writing
or
students who have been told they will have choices … but then have been pigeonholed when an actual assignment was given (‘you can write about anything you want as long as it happened in the 1700s in England’; you can read anything  you want as long as it’s a fictional historical novel’); these students don’t really trust me when I say I’m all about choice
or
seniors who have spent three years stuck in the whole class read/whole class discuss/whole class write essays cycle, and who have read only about 4 to 6 novels a year

I’ve also had a few colleagues ask how to get started and while I’ve been able to provide a few suggestions, I’d sure love some other input.

Amy:  First of all, I think asking ourselves how we get students, no matter their predisposition, to engage in a workshop-inspired classroom is something we should revisit often. Every year and every new group of students deserves our focus and best efforts so they have the best year of learning possible.

I have to remind myself that just because one group of kids understood and engaged well one year does not mean the incoming group of kids will the next. This year is a perfect example. I’ve wracked my brain, but I must have missed a core piece of the buy-in pie at the beginning of the year because many of the things that have worked in prior years have produced constant push back in this one. I’ve already got two pages of notes with what I want to do differently, or better, next year.

What advice do you have for a teacher about introducing workshop to classes who are unfamiliar with it?

Shana:  My strongest piece of advice is to make sure students know what they’re doing and why they’re doing it during each lesson segment in a workshop structure.  At the beginning of last school year, I had a student named Robert who was constantly angry with me for what he saw as workshop “catching him off guard.”  He didn’t know how to predict what we might do next after ten years of whole-class novel sameness.  He felt afraid that choice amounted to a trick, and that he wouldn’t be able to be as successful as he’d been in previous English classes.  

Robert reminded me that for many of our students, the workshop is wildly unfamiliar, and that for many teens, change is scary.  I had to be deliberate in my language, in our routines, and in my classroom organization in order to constantly reinforce for students what we were doing and why we were doing it.  I made sure to always have an agenda on the board, including a “what’s next” segment that showed how the day’s lesson related to the next class, and also made sure to review and preview during each day’s mini-lesson.  I found that once I reiterated to students that a day’s lesson was going to be used in a specific way, they began to make the connections between lessons that I only saw in my lesson design.

Lisa: Our district has been utilizing workshop for several years in the K-8 realm, but high school workshop is relatively new to our department, and completely new as the prefered delivery method. That said, I think the most important element to stress with teachers is that the enthusiasm they project has a huge impact on student willingness to buy in. This is true with or without choice, but when I am suggesting to my students that they be readers and writers, I need to model, live it, breath it, and love it.

Amy:  One of my first exposures to workshop instruction came from Marsha Cawthon who teaches in Plano, TX. She invited me to visit her classroom. Wow. The walls were painted deep inviting colors, and she’d moved out the ‘school-looking’ furniture and brought in home furnishings. The room welcomed something different. At that time, Marsha told me that when the room is different than what they are accustomed to — desks in rows and stereotypical school posters, etc — students know that the class and the instruction will be different. I started painting my walls, grouping my desks into tables, throwing a rug on the floor, and bringing in cast off furniture and book shelves.

Lisa:  Amy speaks about the impact the physical classroom has on this process. I think that makes a huge difference, too. Our enthusiasm shows in our classroom design. We as teachers know that we are selling a product. That means if we convey our enthusiasm through the way our rooms look, the level of excitement we project about a text through a book talk, and/or our sincere line of inquiry during conferences, students know if we really practice what we preach and use what we are selling. Let your enthusiasm for literature and writing, and in this case they are broad terms because they afford so many options, set the foundation for the year. Ask students a lot of questions, invest in their answers, and moving forward with confidence in what you have to offer them can, and in many cases will, empower them and change them for the better.  

What are some effective ways to explain to students what they’ll be doing if they’ve never experienced a workshop classroom before?

Amy:  Of course, I tell students on day one that the teaching I do and by extension the learning they will do will be different in my classroom. I know they don’t believe me. I teach 11th grade. Talk about kids that are set in their ways. Some checked out of school a long while ago, and they are just going through the motions. Most hope to go to college though — that’s a plus for the AVID program in which all of my students are a part of. I have taught 9th, and 10th grade before though — often the students at these younger grades are even harder to convince that workshop instruction differs from a traditional approach where the teacher makes all the choices in reading and writing. Sometimes kids do not want to make choices. It’s sad, but they are way too jaded already. I know everyone who’s taught for even a little while already knows this. So what can we do?

Rituals and routines. I think that’s at least part of the answer. We set up rituals and routines that we stick through like super glue, and we do not waver or change plans if at all possible. We practice, practice, practice until the routines become the norm. We help students recognize the moments that work and work well. For example, my students read at the beginning of every class period. The routine is set:  walk in the door, get out your books, begin reading. When I am on my game at the beginning of the year, and I welcome students at the door and remind them to sit down and begin reading, I have a much easier time than the daily reminder I end up resorting to. We save valuable reading and instructional time when we get right into our books. Then, when students read, I confer. This routine is the spokes in the wheel that keep my workshop instruction thriving. The more I consistently confer, the more students read and write in abundance and at high levels.

Lisa: I will echo what Amy says with wild abandon. Routine. Use the precious minutes for, as Penny Kittle says, what matters. Again, with our students entering high school with a workshop background, I think the biggest challenge for our official move to workshop next year will be for teachers to learn/grow through experimentation and for students to see what the accelerated expectations are at the high school level. Though, I think for all students, whether they have workshop experience or not, the routine provides a normalcy that quickly unifies the classroom. When students know what to expect every day (time to read, book talk, mini lesson, etc.), expectations have already been set. Then those routines can be built on to encourage consistent reading, deep analysis, focused revision of work, collaboration, and ultimately, the community of readers and writers forms.

Shana:  Again, we are in accord.  Routines and rituals are essential to the workshop.  Once those student-centered practices are made normative, and students know that their risk-taking within a workshop community will not result in punitive actions like bad grades, it is then that we can encourage the freedom and autonomy essential to advancement in a workshop classroom.  In addition to all this, I’ll say that after a few years teaching at my high school, my class established a reputation, and students entered the room trusting my practice rather than questioning it.  Students talk to one another about workshop classes, and those who’ve heard about the concept come in willing to try it out because they know the gist of what it’s all about.

How do you help inspire learning and engage those students who seem to prefer to be told exactly what to do?

Amy:  Everyone on the planet loves to have choices. This includes students who seem to be so apathetic they wait until we make the choice for them. Of course, Don Murray said something like this “Choice without parameters is no choice at all.” Sometimes too much choice looms too large for students. Lighten the load. Lower the stakes. Instead of saying “Read anything you want,” say things like “Why don’t you try a book from these interesting titles?” (and set down a stack of five or six) or “Let’s talk some more one-on- one. I bet I can make a reader of you yet.” This puts the challenge on you instead of on the student. Interesting how many non-responders will respond. Sometimes it takes awhile, but we can almost always win the challenge of engagement.

Shana:  I agree–all choice is no choice.  That’s why I like to consistently model what choice in literacy looks like.  When students see my example–I know the kinds of books I like, and I choose from within those genres, or I know the kinds of writing topics I’m interested in and write within those topic frames–they begin to understand what choice might look like for them.  Lisa’s colleague Catherine wrote about intentional modeling here, and I think that’s an essential part of the workshop.  When students see my passion for creating my own path of literacy advancement, they begin to see what theirs might look like, too.  Oh–and never relenting when kids ask for the easy path helps, too.  🙂

Lisa: What comes to mind immediately is how ironic that teenagers would ever want to be told what to do! In so many areas of their lives, like all human beings, we desire to forge our own path if we are truly given the resources and support to do so. Students often want to be told what to do when they are too afraid to take a risk or too trained to let other people think for them. Shana’s point about being a model is my strategy here too. Never be afraid to be geeky about your love of reading and writing.

Where I think I may have gone a bit wrong in the past is that I would try to translate my love of reading and writing through the texts that only I chose. This will hook some students, but without the ability to take a passion for reading and apply it to what they want to read, I was only ever hitting a few kids with each text. It’s like mushrooms. My husband, sweet as he is, has been trying to get me to like mushrooms for over a decade. Now, I do enjoy food, and I will gladly eat all day long, but I am never going to like mushrooms. In fact, when they appear, I am basically done eating (and yes, mushrooms just appearing is a real, hard hitting issue). Mushroom rants aside, we can’t take what we like and expect kids to invest.

We need to show them that we read and write, that reading and writing connects us to what it means to be humans (all humans), and we can all grow from it. Sometimes it takes a long, long, long time, but with the wide expanse of choice, we have a much better chance of reaching each and every student. And…bribe them. 😉

How do we reinvigorate a student’s passion for reading and writing?

Amy: I hesitate to lay all the blame on middle school, but I do think something happens during these years that can often dampen a love of reading and writing in our students. I remember reading a text by Alfie Kohn wherein he said something like “Just when students are old enough to start making wise choices, we take the choices away from them.” I know some would argue that sixth graders are not very wise, but I’d argue right back. Sure, they are. They are wise to the things they like to read and the topics they like to explore in their writing.

My twin sons had a workshop teacher in middle school — the only two of my seven children who did — I think it was seventh grade. Both Zach and Chase learned to like reading, something that did not happen in middle school. They also learned to write. They chose topics like football and winning the state championship like their older brother. They wrote hero stories about saving their friends as they imagined themselves as soldiers surrounded by gunfire. My boys are now close to 22. Chase has spent his first full week at Basic Training with the Army, and Zach plans on joining the Navy when he returns in a year from his mission in Taiwan. They are both masterful writers and eclectic readers. I owe a lot of thanks to that middle school teacher.

Lisa: Show them you care about what they care about, and you care enough to push them to care about a wider and wider world.  That means meaningful conversations (conferring), opportunities to explore student interests (choice writing/reading), passionately sharing your own ideas and insights (book talks, selection of mentor texts), and subscribing to the motto that variety is the spice of life.

I’ve read a lot in the past few months that I would have thought was out of my comfort zone. For example, I read my first graphic novel, Persepolis. Ahhh-mazing. I’ll be honest. I was judgey about graphic novels before, but now, I am hooked! Once hooked, I book talked the text and shared with students the story of how wrong I was about graphic novels. We talked then about books, genres, and experiences with reading that surprise us. I think it’s good for students to be nudged (shoved) out of their own comfort zones sometimes. At the same time, they aren’t going to jump back in the game without those experiences that come from a place of pure passion and joy. So…we must really get to know our kids, make suggestions that speak to them as best we are able, and then give them time. Time is precious to all of us, but to teenagers, it would seem, they have little to no time to read. We must make time for them in class (give them a taste) and then work with them to make the time (even ten minutes at a time) to keep coming back for more.

Shana:  Confer, confer, confer.  When we talk to kids and find out what they are passionate about, we can help them see the connections between their passions and literacy.  Further, we can introduce them to important links between success in their interests and how reading and writing can put that success within reach–my vocation-driven West Virginia students aren’t interested in the literacy skills that college might require, but they do care about being able to read or write a technical manual.

We can also help students discover new passions through reading–after reading Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air in tenth grade, I fell in love with Mt. Everest, and I still read anything I can get my hands on about it.

We’ll continue with part two of this discussion tomorrow. In the meantime, please add your comments. How would you answer Betsy’s questions? What did we leave out?

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5 thoughts on “#3TTWorkshop — Teaching Students How to Thrive in Workshop

  1. […] for teachers or for students.  Our discussions this week–on student and teacher buy-in and how to get students to thrive–have focused on helping both teachers and students to grasp the many moving parts of […]

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  2. Cyndi Faircloth May 19, 2016 at 5:13 pm Reply

    I appreciate this discussion and am generating lots of ideas about how I will change my practice in my classes next year. I’ve been drawn to follow links to other posts and am really enjoying this conversation. I have to say it reminded me of this comic from the Sunday paper that I cut out to share with my students:
    http://www.gocomics.com/nonsequitur/2016/04/10 (I love Non Sequitur anyway…but this one was especially English teacher appropropriate)

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    • Amy May 19, 2016 at 5:47 pm Reply

      I love that comic. And remember, we’ve been practicing workshop for a while. The fun is in the process. (Okay, not always fun.) We’ll help anyway we can. Ask questions as you think of them.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Tricia Ebarvia May 19, 2016 at 11:11 am Reply

    This is a fantastic conversation. It’s go great to be able to “listen in” on your thought processes. I agree about the routines… they are so important. I’m still moving toward a fuller workshop model, but so far, even the small changes I’ve made from year have made a tremendous difference.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. […] post is the continuation of a conversation from the previous post in response to an email we received from our friend an UNH colleague Betsy […]

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