Try It Tuesday – The ‘Secret’ to Workshop Success

At this point in the school year, teachers do a lot of counting. Counting days, counting essays left to grade, counting books missing from a classroom library (Seriously people, it’s not cool to steal from teachers. Your growing passion for reading is the bee’s knees, but my own kid may have to pay her way through college at the rate I spend on books for you. Might you return them? Please? Thank you). At graduation this past weekend, I found myself counting seniors I had taught and I began imagining all the opportunities in front of them. Interestingly enough, this year, I looked at those seniors and saw…books.

Zak raved about Ready Player One early this year. It was one of my first workshop successes.
Zoey emailed me over the weekend a few months back about The Girl on the Train.
Jenna plowed through Brain on Fire recently, after Zoey’s recommendation.
Larissa swears that Walden will change your life.
Ellen blushed when she told me she absolutely loved The Sociopath Next Door.
I counted at least eleven kids that read and sobbed over A Monster Calls.

Birds singing and happy little clouds everywhere.

And now…for a moment of full disclosure in the opposite direction. As my department makes the transition to workshop, sometimes the numbers are overwhelming and scary. We are one of only a handful of high schools moving to this model in the entire country. The path before us is paved by K-8 workshop instruction, but the number of secondary schools already doing workshop is relatively limited. This makes the sheer volume of curriculum we’re creating staggering and models hard to find.

On top of those numbers we have extremely limited common prep time, surface level understanding of the best way to break up our 86 minute class periods most effectively, and hundreds of new classroom texts we are working to keep track of (not to mention read). All with three preps for most of my colleagues and a grand total of one hour of collaborative PLC time per week.

In short, this transition isn’t easy and it’s already had some pretty sobering/ugly/weep-worthy moments.

We’re wrestling with very real questions about how to hold students accountable for their skill progression, how to keep track of meeting student need most effectively, how to appropriately conference with all of our students in large classes throughout the school year, and how to balance a need for college/career readiness with our desire to afford students the choice that will fuel their passions for both reading and writing.

At the end of the day, and the end of school year in which we have all been working to


AP Language Super Readers – Simrah discovered nonfiction, Louise (our school salutatorian) delved into the study of language, and Ellen and Kaley blew through Brain on Fire.

incorporate more and more workshop practice into our daily instruction (knowing we will be expected to operate in the workshop model to fidelity next year), we are tired. Tired, overwhelmed, and nervous.

However, the visual of an Escher-like hellscape I’ve just created for you, thankfully, isn’t the whole story. As I reflect back on this move to workshop, the overwhelming nature of the preparation involved ultimately pales in comparison to the positive feedback I’ve received from students.

I was sitting on the patio a few nights ago with my husband discussing the class-feedback forms my students had just emailed to me (What did you learn from this class? What did you enjoy? What should I work on for next year?) with the completion of our regular class work and impending exam week. I expressed to him how proud I was of the number of students who commented on reading more, enjoying writing more, and basically being more invested in English class than any other year I can remember.

It sort of dumbfounded me as I recalled the emails over the course of the year. The casual


My 2A AP Language Crew – Dema read Black Boy after a book talk, Bennett read Ishmael and says it changed his life, and Larissa fell in love with American Classics.

conversations with kids that showed their deep thinking about topics they cared about. Countless peer to peer discussions with overheard snippets such as “Oh, I loved that book. You need to read it” and “Yeah, I just couldn’t put it down” and “This topic sentence is really good, but if you combine it with this idea, the paragraph will make more sense.”  The longer I talked with my husband, and the more I recounted the year in student snapshots, the more surprised I was to realize that my stories of the year had little to do with content I “taught” and everything to do with the students themselves – what they were doing with the content. The difference of 2015-2016 was choice and encouragement to be readers and writers. In short…workshop.

So with my recent numerical obsession (did you know it’s only two more sleeps until the last day of school?!), I compiled the following rundown of my first year of exploring the workshop model:

Workshop by the Numbers

1 – Teacher playing around with workshop. Discovering its benefits, its challenges, and its similarity to and differences from her current instruction. Exhausting in the way teachers love. Some call it masochistic. I call it professional development.


We learned how to make paper cups on the last day with our seniors…a nod to the practicality of English class…then we read. 

3 – Teachers (Talk) who journeyed to the wild North during February to instruct the Franklin High School English department on the day to day of workshop instruction. Exhilarating.

11 – Colleagues opening their lesson plan books and starting almost from scratch to first play with and then make a full transition next year to the workshop model. Collaborative.

117 – Students who read for 10 minutes of every class period we shared, wrote and reflected during every period of second semester, and changed as readers and writers in ways I’ve not seen before in my 13 years of teaching. Thrilling.

180 – Days in the school year to remind students that they will grow as readers and writers with practice, passion, and a commitment to question, explore, and expand their views of the world. Daunting.

2088 – Hours of summer to read the 16,983 books on my “To Read” list (No time for love, Doctor Jones…or sleep for that matter). Delicious.

So many opportunities.

But now, I am going to be brutally honest once again. As previously stated, the move to workshop can be scary. It’s new. New to us, our students, and in a formal sense, it’s relatively new to secondary education altogether.

However, here’s the part that sort of sounds like cheating:

Though teachers, myself included, are very rarely afforded the opportunity to take it easy, there are few things easier than throwing open the doors on choice and seeing what happens. Of course, there are many systems that need developing in my classroom and so much of workshop requires routine and consistency, but the heart and soul of workshop is really


1B AP Language and Composition – The seniors have left us, but this crew still has final projects to present

choice – choice, talk, and lots of writing – all of which mainly require simply being honest with, invested in, and responsive to student need. No, it’s not totally easy. It can’t be a free for all. It can’t be totally haphazard. But it can be trial and error. It can be learn as you go. It can be beautifully impactful.

To provide proof, here is a sampling of student reaction from my class-feedback form this year. I tried a lot of different things. I messed up a lot. We backtracked often. I sometimes forgot to book talk. I sometimes didn’t provide enough modeling or take the time to write every time they did, but we worked with choice, we wrote more, and we talked more than ever before.

Here are just a few reactions from my AP Language and Composition class:

This year I really learned to be literate. AP Lang actually taught me that I can read books that I want to read and no matter what they are I can discuss them in a scholarly way because even if the book is something like poetry or a comic it is still a book. I’ve learned that all books have something to teach and that’s why they were written in the first place. I’ve read some amazing books this year and I’ve learned how to discuss my opinions on things using a higher vocabulary and assertions that are beyond the obvious. I’ve learned that you can look at anything in life a little deeper and you might just learn something. My tendencies to look deeper into things was fostered and practiced through books and reading so thank you Mrs. Dennis for helping me become a scholar. The first time you called us scholars I didn’t really think you were serious, but now I feel it. I feel like I want to spend my entire summer reading and I plan on trying to finish a large chunk of my I want to read page because reading truly and utterly makes one a better person. Reading makes you a better thinker, citizen and friend. Language is truly a beautiful thing. Also, you should know that coming into this class I was intimidated and almost dropped. English is not my strongest suit as I want to go into premed, but now I can be a poetic Doctor am I right??
Thank you also for always being a nice person and a smiling face to see in the morning.
Mrs Dennis,
I loved this class, a lot. I’ve never really felt like I’ve learned much from English classes, but in AP Lang this year, I’ve grown so much as a writer and a reader and a thinker. Part of that is the class itself, part of that is the practice work we’ve done throughout the year that forced us to think for ourselves (I actually like doing one pagers now), and a big part of that is you as a teacher. You made us want to be smart. I wouldn’t change a thing, and I think that I’ll probably look back on this class as one of the most valuable I’ve taken in high school. I’ll miss having you as a teacher next year!
Thanks for everything,
Mrs Dennis,
I always thought becoming a man would require some sort of coming of age. Some sort of ‘killing the beast and dragging it home’ type situation…
I began this year as a boy and ended it as a man. Throughout the year I became increasingly disillusioned with being a dependent, in ideology and in living situation. I read books about Manliness, articles about what it “means” to be a man and looked far and wide for what the distinction was.
There is no amount of *physical contact*, “macho” rites of passage, or waking up one day transformed that made me into a man. Oddly enough, it was sharing my feelings that made me a man. The turning point was the day you told us “Feel free to share more feelings in your one pagers”.
“Sharing my feelings” translated to me having to figure out WHAT I felt and believed and WHY.
Instead of having some book tell me that I should be principled and have virtue (which is simple enough for me, and not only a manly thing) AP Lang and you made me feel like I had a SAY in my own life and thoughts. AP Lang made me no longer dependent on others for what I believe and why, giving me the ability to evaluate, challenge, qualify AND support things.
AP Language and Composition MADE A MAN OUT OF ME.
I am eternally grateful,
Encourage everyone to read Walden, strongly encourage. It’s life-changing.
Continue teaching everyone to question ideas or anything at all; I think that was really fundamental in my growth as a student as well.

And here, ladies and gentlemen, is the secret formula…

It’s no secret at all.

These are the simple changes I made to my daily practice. And though I have a lot of work to do in regards to running a true workshop classroom each and every day, the results this year have felt amazing. Give it a try!

  • Provide 10-15 minutes per class period for students to read books of their choosing. It’s time well spent. Best spent, actually. 
  • Conference with students during that reading time to better understand what, how, and why they read. This will assist you in recommending further reading and in determining mini lessons your students need to make them better readers and writers.
  • Have students write each and every day. Encourage them to write without stopping (building fluency), revise something every time they write (building capacity to internalize the writing process), share that writing (to build community), and take pride in that writing by choosing and developing ideas.
  • Use additional class time for more conferences with students around what they are reading and writing. Students can work individually, in pairs, or in small groups during this time, depending on the mini lesson for the day.

Of course, readers and writers workshop involves so much more, but this is where I started this year. This is what resulted in the student response above.

If my calculations are correct, I have roughly 25 years left in the classroom (holy, holy, holy). That’s 3000 students (conservatively) over 4500 days. Talk about an opportunity. Or rather, 4500 opportunities.

What books will they love?

What great stories will they tell?

Whose life will change by becoming a reader and a writer?

I can’t wait to find out. Because the secret to workshop success is no secret…it’s the students.


3A Sophomores – Trevor said he read more than he ever has, Errin and I read Metamorphosis  together, Josh read (and loved) Moby Dick, and Lauren’s “To Read” list is two pages long. 

What moves have you made to workshop that have made a difference in your practice? Please feel free to leave your comments and questions below!




3 thoughts on “Try It Tuesday – The ‘Secret’ to Workshop Success

  1. Pat Delzell June 14, 2016 at 4:37 pm Reply

    A stupendous success!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. […] the Three Teachers have been reflecting on the school year that was. Its trials, tribulations, successes, explorations, and even goodbyes (That’s four links to awesome posts, by the way. […]


  3. cmadeleine0816 June 8, 2016 at 7:13 pm Reply

    This is so wonderfully amazing and Bennett’s letter seriously brought tears to my eyes! Sharing feelings made him a man. Oh! How beautiful. Keep being more awesome FHS! 2016-17 here we come!

    Liked by 1 person

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