Readers-Writers Workshop: But, Does It Work? by Jessica Paxson

1444217.pngThere are many things that are frustrating about teaching in general, and teaching SENIORS.  They are almost adults who think they are already adults, and say they want to be treated as such, but show that they want to be treated like a child for just a little while longer.

Me too, guys.  Adulting is HARD.

This makes for quite a few venting sessions during our PLC time.  A few days ago, a fellow teacher was venting about our Shakespeare unit.  She and another colleague noticed that the feedback from walkthroughs seemed to be nudging us more toward skill teaching rather than teaching whole works, especially in Shakespeare.  She then began to vent about college readiness.  They will HAVE TO read whole works in college.  If they’ve never read anything cover to cover, they will never survive in college!

Obviously I began to feel my Reading/Writing Workshop senses going off.  They’re much like Spidey Senses, but possibly even more dangerous.  These topics are often thin ice with teachers, and if you stomp too firmly into the conversation, you’ll break right through and be left to freeze on your own in the frigid pool of, WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU DON’T WANT TO TEACH SHAKESPEARE?  In an effort to be heard and not misunderstood, I gingerly began to ask questions.

  • But will they need to have read THESE works, specifically?
  • Do you think non-liberal arts majors will encounter an entire work of Shakespeare during their time in college?
  • Do you think what they need to know is the stories of Shakespeare, or how to parse difficult language in general?

Then, finally, quietly, with the shaky hands I often get when I’m about to make something dear to me vulnerable to scrutiny, I asked: Have you ever read Book Love by Penny Kittle?

I’m surprised how many issues have come up this year during PLC to which the best solution would be, emphatically, give them choice on what they read; write more than you can grade; give them choice on what they can write; start where they are and gradually encourage more challenge and nuance.

I thought it would be helpful to write about some of the most Frequently Asked Questions I’ve received about RWW, even with less than a year under my belt of these practices.  Here they are, in no particular order:

  • How do you make sure your students are reading challenging books?
  • How do you test their knowledge?
  • What if they lose your books?
  • What do you mean, use mentor texts?  Are you talking about your Creative Writing class?
  • How do you grade if they all do different stuff?
  • Why are you making this so hard on yourself?

I have to tell you, I don’t know a definitive answer to all these questions.  By no stretch of the imagination have I perfected Reading/Writing Workshop.  (If you have, I’d love to borrow your brain for a day or five.)  

What I do know, is that it works.  

Don’t other things work, too?  Maybe, but it depends on your goal.  If the goal is for students to know facts about the plot of a handful of works, and know how to fill in a graphic organizer, sure.  


Now, if only I could figure out how to answer questions on the spot, we might be in business!

Jessica Paxson is an English IV and Creative Writing teacher in Arlington, TX. She also attempts to grapple with life and all of its complexities and hilarities over at Follow her on Twitter or Instagram @jessjordana.


9 thoughts on “Readers-Writers Workshop: But, Does It Work? by Jessica Paxson

  1. mrsturnerblog March 9, 2017 at 7:46 pm Reply

    Please please help! I want to try workshop, but I need some training. What would be a good source for that? I teach high school (specifically juniors and AP Lang, so I would love something that was focused on older students). Amy, won’t you just run a workshop for people like me? 😊


  2. […] texts we read, and writing about our world through the texts we write. Last week Jessica wrote Readers-Writers Workshop: But, Does It Work? and Lisa wrote Looking to the Future: Students as Changemakers. Both address the needs of the […]


  3. Amy Rasmussen February 6, 2017 at 5:30 pm Reply

    I once had a teacher ask me: “Is it easier to teach your way, or the traditional way?” Of course, we had been talking about choice in the ELA classroom, and my passions ignited the red flare I get in my neck when I get excited (or nervous). But his question made my nerves twitch. I wish I had been quicker with my Spidey reflexes, and I cannot even remember what I said. What I’d wish I’d said was: “Are you seriously asking that question?”

    Teaching is hard in general, isn’t it? But even then, should we be thinking about what is hard for us as the teacher, or what is beneficial, important, and even life-changing for our learners?

    Every single person on this planet wants choices. Humans crave autonomy. We want to have our say — and to be recognized for saying it. Choice works because it speaks to our core.

    Perhaps the best response to anyone who has never tried giving students choice is a simple challenge: Just try it.

    And we say it over and over and over again.


  4. Smith-Chavira Terri February 5, 2017 at 1:11 pm Reply

    Beautiful! Is anyone listening?!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Lisa Dennis February 5, 2017 at 9:19 am Reply

    I think questioning is at the heart of any great reflection, and thereby change, in our teaching. Amy E’s suggestions for independent novels or pairing with a study of those Shakespeare plays are spot on.

    It’s also helpful to look at how what has traditionally been done can and should have a place within the workshop classroom. Sometimes choice is what’s read. Sometimes choice is an assessment or how to score it.

    If your colleagues were looking for suggestions on how to work with Shakespeare, again, Amy’s pairings are awesome. Perhaps students could form book clubs, and if they are freshmen (who traditionally experience and can struggle with R&J), class work with the play (or parts of it) could be mentor comparison. With my AP students, who have worked with a Shakespeare play or two by the time they get to me, we study Hamlet’s soliloquies together during our unit on analysis. We look at how the Bard conveys Hamlet’s angst through diction, syntax, and figurative language. Because I do think it’s important for students to struggle through complex writing to grow as readers, we use this as a perfect opportunity for exploration with teacher support. Then, because Shakespeare was meant to be viewed, we watch the play and discuss other elements of drama. Will most students encounter a full Shakespeare play in college, probably not, but the reading of the language can be a great benefit to their reading comprehension and some cultural literacy over all.

    I have a brilliant colleague who uses Romeo and Juliet as an opportunity with her honors students to work through the language of the play in competitive groups. Concurrent with their study of the play, wherein Erin uses mini lessons to get at specific skills for that reading comprehension, groups are competing for points and bragging rights by creating unique Shakespearean language puns for group names, crafting masks for the ball, taking a few fun minutes to learn and demonstrate the Saints and Pilgrims dance.

    As always, in my experience, it’s about finding balance. Student choice and classics can go hand in hand. It takes the innovative journey you are on to make it happen. Keep questioning and keep exploring with your department. There are great gains ahead.


    • Jessica Paxson February 20, 2017 at 1:30 pm Reply

      Love this competition idea! I find I’m often not quite organized enough to do competitions to this extent. It takes a lot of planning, trial and error! That sounds great.


  6. estersohn February 3, 2017 at 2:27 pm Reply

    Please do!

    Here are some (slightly forced) examples of how common YA trope map onto Shakespeare:

    ROMEO AND JULIET — the romance that wasn’t meant to be

    The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon
    When We Collided by Emery Lord
    The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

    THE TEMPEST – isolation, overprotective parents

    THE RAFT by S.A. Bodeen
    COMPOUND by S.A. Bodeen

    MACBETH, power, revenge, magical realism

    WE WERE LIARS by E. Lockhart


  7. estersohn February 3, 2017 at 10:58 am Reply

    There are great ways to teach Shakespeare and there are terrible ways to teach Shakespeare. Unfortunately, the terrible ways to teach Shakespeare, and the terrible ways to teach Shakespeare are easy and numerous. Worksheets and plot quizzes… I shudder.

    If I were challenged on the question of how independent reading can help kids with Willy, I’d probably offer the following:

    1. Students learn how word choice impacts meaning through independent reading books, such as realizing that a character is giving them the skeevies even though she hasn’t done anything bad (yet).

    2. Students need support tracing common literary conceits like characters who are neither 100% good nor 100% bad and characters who learn a lesson only when it’s too late to use it.

    3. Students use independent reading to get used to unraveling enigmatic language that may have internal contradictions and multiple meanings. Example from Red Queen, a popular YA fantasy, would be “Anyone can betray anyone.” Example from The Hate U Give, upcoming YA release: “It’s dope to be black until it’s hard to be black.”

    Liked by 2 people

    • Jessica Paxson February 3, 2017 at 2:00 pm Reply

      I completely agree with you! “Willy” is so valuable, but I definitely think he deserves more than plot quizzes! These are helpful details, I might use them as examples in sharing, if you don’t mind!

      Liked by 1 person

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