How I Made the Move to Workshop: 10 Key Steps

Like many teachers, I established a very traditional classroom when I began my career.  I taught whole-class novels, gave multiple choice tests, and assigned long essays that I thought were full of academic rigor.

After struggling to engage kids, battling behavior issues, and watching kids grow to hate reading, I realized:  none of what I was doing was authentic, and much of it was not research based.

I didn’t even know why I was teaching the way that I was teaching.

Of course, in hindsight, I know I was doing what I’d seen modeled:  years of traditional schooling, a 4×4 model, and strict assessment modes.  It was all I’d experienced, and despite learning about more authentic workshop methods in my education program, I didn’t know how to put those in place because I’d never seen them.

But I decided I didn’t care that I had no idea what I was doing…I was tired of seeing kids unhappy, and being unhappy as a teacher myself.  So, slowly, I made the move to workshop.

I’ve been inspired lately by one of our readers, who comments under the handle ML.  “I’m so ready to try workshop,” ML wrote several weeks ago.  I suspect ML was feeling the same fatigue that I was while running a traditional classroom.

Then, ML wrote, “Ok, I’m in!” last Friday on Jessica’s post.  I can’t wait to hear how the move goes, and as I wondered, it got me thinking about my own journey to a workshop classroom.  Apparently, ’tis the season for this kind of large-scale reflective thinking, as I wrote a post about a year ago about what teachers need in order to feel sustained.

But now I’m thinking about what teachers need to make the move to workshop, and how we might take these steps.  Here are the ones I took.

imgresThe first change I made was offering choice.  Keeping the anchor texts and assignments I’d been using in place, I began to offer some choice in assessments.  On essay tests, I gave several options for prompts.  For projects, I created many different possible products.

Next, I began to offer some choice in reading and writing.  I added Free-Write Friday to our daily notebook writing routines, and increased time to do independent reading in class from once per week to every day.  I slowly started to grow my classroom library, too.

Over the course of a year, I gradually stopped making so many of the choices in my classroom and started offering them to students instead.

In terms of reading, we read fewer books as a class, and when we did read a work together, students guided the discussion, and assessments became more authentic and choice-based.  I began to notice that students were much more successful with their reading when our fabulous librarian, Lara Walker, recommended specific titles to kids during our biweekly library visits.  So, I added booktalks to our routine; first weekly, then daily.

My reading life began to change when I started to give booktalks.  I realized that I was quickly running out of titles that I knew would hook kids, so I took a two-pronged approach to fixing that issue:  first, I began to read much more widely.  Second, I redoubled my efforts to grow my library so that it filled up with titles kids would actually read.

Autonomy in reading spread to other areas of my curriculum quickly.  Kids felt emboldened to offer opinions on whole-class texts, so we moved to a more dialogic mode of learning rather than a traditional autocratic one.  I stopped giving tests in the traditional sense, abandoning multiple-choice questions and regurgitation-type essays.  I wanted kids to have some wiggle room in their writing just as they had in their reading.

I knew how to teach a thesis statement or a critical lens, but I’d never had a class on how to teach kids to WRITE commentary or satire or poetry–only how to read them.  In studying those genres to figure out how to teach them, I realized that I was doing exactly what my students needed to do: read like writers.  They began to read not only sample written products like writers, but also the books they were enjoying as well.  Mentor texts came from everywhere, with my students beginning to shoulder more of the cognitive load of finding and analyzing pieces of writing.

Many of my colleagues turned up their noses at my approach, wondering how I knew if my students were reading and writing if I wasn’t reading the same book they were or giving a test or a paper over it.  I argued that teaching was both art and craft, and that I just knew my kids were succeeding:  I talked to them, didn’t I?  I watched them read, I heard them bemoan twist endings with friends, I read their revision-riddled notebooks.

I had mountains of data that weren’t tests.

As all of this happened, my students grew as readers and writers, and we grew closer as teacher and students.  I cultivated friendships with my kids and took on an identity not just as a teacher, but as an usher toward a love of reading and writing.

Love, some colleagues said.  Fun.  Phooey!

But, as the brilliant Pam Allyn said:  love leads to practice, which leads to fluency, which leads to stamina, which leads to mastery.  You can’t do a thing well if you don’t love it.


A good representation of my workshop classroom

My traditional classroom faded away.  Rows were replaced by table groups, textbooks were replaced by a huge classroom library, and mountains of essays to grade were replaced by a tower of teetering writer’s notebooks.

I made the move to workshop organically, almost on my own, but aided by the brilliance of classes from the National Writing Project, the University of New Hampshire Literacy Institutes, and the work of many teacher-writers:  Penny Kittle, Tom Romano, Kelly Gallagher, Donalyn Miller, Tom Newkirk, and countless others.  They reaffirmed that the moves I was making were the ones that were best for kids.

In sum, here’s how I made the move to workshop:

  1. Offering choice, slowly at first.
  2. Increasing our use of the writer’s notebook as a space for ungraded, low-stakes writing.
  3. Making time for independent reading every day.
  4. Giving booktalks every day.
  5. Growing my classroom library and my own reading repertoire.
  6. Learning to read like writers and study mentor texts.
  7. Shifting the cognitive load of curricular choice from me to my students.
  8. Valuing talk as an assessment, instructional, and practice tool.
  9. Keeping records and compiling data that were valuable and authentic.
  10. Reading lots of blogs and books and journals and articles that helped me add research-based practices to my pedagogy.

I hope ML will keep commenting and let us know how the move to workshop is going.  In the meantime, can you share with us the story of your move to workshop?  Please tell us in the comments!


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17 thoughts on “How I Made the Move to Workshop: 10 Key Steps

  1. […] can never grow if we aren’t comfortable discarding our old skin, and there’s no reason to be ashamed […]


  2. […] was so close to falling into the trap that I fell into when I first began teaching, and simply reverting to doing what I’d seen done. Β The first week assignments were due, […]


  3. Angela Faulhaber December 13, 2016 at 11:06 am Reply

    I love this blog post. Smart (of course) and super approachable. I’m sharing with teachers all over the place!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Shana Karnes December 13, 2016 at 11:12 am Reply

      Ha! That’s how I think of you: smart and super approachable! 😘


  4. Lisa Dennis December 13, 2016 at 10:33 am Reply

    My work with independent nonfiction reading is happening now!I love your idea of quote analysis. We’ve been working on it through the lens of author purpose. What are the rhetorical strategies used to achieve the purpose. Small group discussion is going to be the assessment format at the end. Have fun!


    • ML December 13, 2016 at 1:10 pm Reply

      Very cool! I like the small group discussion idea. I was thinking of making it like a book club/chat kind of thing. If you want to work together on this, let me know. I’m up for collaboration!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. frienddo December 12, 2016 at 4:23 pm Reply

    Amy, I feel like you just narrated my shift too! I was just a little slower to get here than you were, but it’s been the best move! I love reading and learning with my students; it’s made all the difference in loving my job. I’ve always liked it, but now I love it! And I know I’m doing right for kids.


    • Shana Karnes December 13, 2016 at 9:43 am Reply

      Hey Donna! This is Shana’s story…but I think Amy is going to write hers, too. πŸ™‚


  6. ML December 12, 2016 at 1:51 pm Reply

    Hi friends! ML is loving life! πŸ™‚ It’s so cool to read this blog post!!

    I’m so excited to finally try the workshop model, albeit in baby steps. We are using our notebooks every day. (I actually started with a digital format because we started midway through the year.) I have really motivated students, so it’s worked out well. In fact, they told me today that they like this format, but I will try using paper/pencil next semester with my next set of classes.

    We are starting independent nonfiction reading, so if you have any pointers for that, let me know. I’m thinking of having them analyze significant quotes that relate to a central idea.(One of my classes is AP, and I decided the rest needed to be exposed to nonfiction as well.)

    We are getting ready to try narrative writing in conjunction with preparing for college essays, so I’m curious to see how that goes. Can’t wait!

    Your blog has been invaluable. Keep up the great work!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Shana Karnes December 13, 2016 at 9:45 am Reply

      Baby steps are the best way to go, I think! I can’t wait to hear more.

      I think your nonfiction reading with quote analysis could be fantastic–how will they choose the central idea? Maybe you could get them writing about things that are important to them in their notebooks, and from that they can determine some central themes in their own lives, then find quotes that connect to both the theme and themselves in their books.

      Keep us posted on how it goes!

      Liked by 1 person

      • ML December 13, 2016 at 1:12 pm Reply

        Love this idea! Connecting it to their own lives will make it that much more practical too. I’m a nonfiction freak, so I hope I get some converts. lol

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Lisa Dennis December 12, 2016 at 9:09 am Reply

    Woot! When kids see that their opinions and insights are valued, they are far more likely to share them (in my experience)! Love it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Shana Karnes December 13, 2016 at 9:44 am Reply

      “The only converts I care about are my kids.” -Lisa Dennis, Atlanta, November 19, 2016

      Liked by 2 people

      • Lisa Dennis December 13, 2016 at 10:21 am Reply

        I said that?! How deep of me. Lol.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Amy Estersohn (@HMX_MsE) December 12, 2016 at 7:41 am Reply

    One of my favorite aspects of workshop model is that it provides common ground for a diversity of learners. I have readers and writers who are attempting ambitious projects that go way beyond anything I would think of for whole class instruction. A workshop model allows students space to take risks and be ambitious for its own sake.

    Liked by 3 people

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