When I first watched the Rita Pierson TED Talk titled Every Kid Needs a Champion, I found myself shouting, “Yes! This lady gets it!” Our job is to help kids feel connected at school- to ensure that kids feel safe and taken care of while also giving them the best educational experience possible. This TED Talk catapulted me into thinking- How can we do things even better? How can we reach more kids? How can we ensure that every student feels connected to their school and their teacher? Don’t misunderstand me- I work with the best teachers around, who love kids and are passionate about the work they are doing in their classrooms. However, we can always do more and get better, right?
I am a high school administrator, that is lucky enough to work with the English department. We serve almost 3,000 students on a daily basis. It’s my job to ensure that every kid has a champion, someone they trust and feel has their best interest at heart. It’s also my job to ensure that we are providing the best educational experience possible for our students because our students deserve that. James Comer said, “No significant learning can occur without a significant relationship.” That’s where the workshop model comes in. The workshop model provides us with the opportunity to give students choice in what they read and an authentic environment to write about things that hold value to them. It provides an avenue for our teachers to get to know students on a deeper, more personal level because students are ingrained in work that matters to them. Teachers are able to work one-on-one with students through reading and writing conferences. Teachers are able to have in depth conversations over current events through philosophical chairs and classroom debates. Students talk about what they’re reading on a daily basis. Students improve their writing because they have great mentor texts and a teacher who is writing with them and modeling writing for them. In short, we know our kids better because we have implemented the workshop model. We are also able to teach all the skills we need to through choice reading and providing authentic writing opportunities for our students.
I love Amy Rasmussen’s blog post, So You Don’t Think Workshop Works? 5 Reasons You are Wrong, because she makes key points about why the workshop model can and does work in classrooms everywhere. I found that as we made the shift away from a more traditional classroom structure to the workshop model, we encountered some people that questioned its effectiveness and its validity. Some questioned how it would impact our state testing scores (they’ve gone up and we are closing the gaps for our students), some questioned whether students would actually be reading and learning the required TEKS in our classes (they definitely do and on an even deeper level than before), some questioned whether or not you could teach a PreAP or AP class through the workshop model (I see it happen on a daily basis). It’s important to know your why and your purpose. When you know and believe that the workshop model is what is best for students, because of the positive impact it has for them both academically and relationally, it’s easy to defend.
As the workshop model has become more pervasive, and people notice the positive results happening within our department and in our district, we have received lots of requests for campus visits (which we love!), and I get asked quite often about how and why we made the shift to the workshop model in our department. I thought I’d share my top tips for implementing and sustaining the workshop model in hopes that it helps you carry on the great work.
- Teammates. You need a team of people who “get it” and believe that building student relationships is the key to success in education. You need a team that understands workshop and why it’s essential in the English classroom, or at least a team that is willing to learn. Hiring and retaining the best teachers around will help make your workshop thrive. If you have an administrator, or teachers, that don’t understand the value, send them the Three Teachers Talk blog! Point them towards professional authors such as Kyleen Beers, Penny Kittle, Jeff Anderson, Donalyn Miller, Kelly Gallagher, etc. Have them attend conferences so that they are able to immerse themselves in the work. Take them on learning walks so they can see it in action, or utilize technology to view workshop from afar. It has been my experience that you have to see it in action to truly understand the work. You need to talk to students to understand the impact it is having on their educational experience.
- Professional Learning Communities. Whether you have a team of 6, 3 or 1, PLCs play an essential role in getting the workshop up and running and then also sustaining the workshop model. Teachers need to collaborate with others. We need to talk about the work we are doing, how our students are doing, what engages them, and even what frustrates them. We have to learn from each other. At my school, we team within our school, our district, and even with teachers in other districts. Additionally, I love blogs and Twitter and consider them a vital part of my learning community. I strongly encourage you to connect with as many people as you can while you are navigating the wonderful world of workshop.
- Conferring. Andrea Coachman, a Three Teachers Talk guest blogger and also the English Content Coordinator in my district, wrote a post about Accountability Through Conversation which details our district’s journey of implementing the workshop through one of the most important aspects- talking with our students. This area was a big learning curve for us. The tendency is to think that having a teacher table or holding daily student conferences is an elementary concept, but in reality it’s what’s best for students at all levels. The teachers I work with would say that conferencing with students has been a game changer. They know their students strengths and weaknesses in reading and writing better than before, and they are able to target specific skills that each student needs.
- Money. Every school allots a certain amount of budget money to each department. It really doesn’t matter if it’s a lot or a little, but you need to commit to spending your budget money on professional development for teachers and also books! Teachers must have the training they need to run the workshop. It’s always a good idea to send them to professional development where they can learn from the experts. My teachers always come back and share with the department, so we all benefit from their learning. If money is an issue, apply for grants and scholarships to help teachers attend professional development. There are also a plethora of professional books written to help teachers with workshop- check out 10 Pedagogical Must-Reads for Workshop Teachers. Another important component of the workshop is having classroom libraries; they are a key component because our students must have a selection of books to choose from. We have been lucky that our Media Resource Specialist has purchased many of our classroom libraries. However, our teachers are also great about adding to their own libraries as well.
- GRIT. Angela Duckworth wrote Grit which examines why some people fail and others succeed. She defines grit as a combination of passion and perseverance for a singularly important goal. It takes a lot of work to get the workshop up and running because the teacher is creating mini lessons based on their students needs, helping students find choice books, modeling writing with mentor texts, and conferencing with students. We are in year 3 of implementation and are still learning and adjusting each day. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
Workshop works and it’s worth it. At 7:30 AM this morning, I was on hall duty, and a group of students came walking by, and said, “I love starting my day with English class. It’s so fun- we read, we write, and we talk about it all. My teacher is the best! It’s the best way to start the day.”