A few years back our high school was on a four by four block schedule. Students had only four classes a day for 18 weeks. Teachers had 90 minutes to balance reading and writing in the classroom. When we moved to reading and writing workshop the transition seemed seamless. We had the time to balance both, even if we only had the students for one semester during the year.
And then our school made the switch – the one that was in the best interest of all of our students, but tough on teachers. We are now on an 8 period day and students are in our classes for 50 minutes all year long. Instead of having 90 students a semester we have 150 students. Instead of having a 90 minute plan period plus a common department lunch, we now have a 50 minute plan, 50 minute lunch and have added a supervision to our load. It hasn’t been an easy transition, but we have learned that you still can balance both reading and writing workshop in the classroom.
As I was thinking about writing this post, I was reminded of what Amy Rasmussen posted back in 2015, My Classes are Only 45 Minutes – How Do I Do Workshop?, and Shana Karnes’ post in 2016, Making Workshop Work in 45 Minutes. I reread those posts and shared them over and over with my colleagues who were struggling with how to make reading/writing workshop work on our new schedule. If others could do it, so could we! Amy said it best, “As you begin to plan for your 50 minutes, think about this: How can you ensure that all students read, write, listen, and speak in every class period?” We learned very quickly that time flies in a shortened class period and we need to be intentional about every minute, every day.
These are our non-negotiables in our reading and writing workshop:
Students read for 10 minutes every day in class. The only way for them to build a reading habit outside of school is to give them time inside of school to enjoy their books. This semester our 24 freshmen read a total of 25, 905 pages and 113 books in 18 weeks. We couldn’t have had those numbers without choice and time in class to read.
Confer with students all the time. Sometimes this looks like a formal conference, sometimes it is a quick check in while they are reading or as they come into class, sometimes it is a quick book talk or book tasting while others are reading, and sometimes the students come read aloud to us. **The only day we don’t confer with students is on the first day of the week. We want students to read the full 10 minutes so they can set their weekly reading goal and mark it on their weekly reading log.
Be intentional in your lesson planning. Every lesson we teach, we connect back to our standards and we look to build on those skills over the course of the semester. We don’t just use mentor texts because “we have done it in the past.” We think about our students and what will engage them in the learning. Each mentor text and the expectation of what students should do with that text gets more difficult as the course progresses.
Don’t try a lesson with students that you haven’t tried yourself. This helped us learn early on if the mentor text was the right text for what we wanted students to do. If we couldn’t do what we expected students to do, then we had to find a new mentor text.
Balance between reading and writing mini lessons. With only 50 minutes, we no longer have the luxury of reading a long mentor text and then writing about it during our class. So now we balance our time and take 3-4 days to teach, practice, and assess reading standards and then move to writing standards. The writing process does take more time, so beware that if you aren’t intentional about incorporating specific reading mini lessons into your class, you will become a writing course. (We learned this the hard way.)
Pull excerpts from books to use as mentor texts. These are great book talks without actually formally doing this in class. This semester our students read chunks from…
- Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt
- Butter by Erin Jade Lange
- The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
- Booked by Kwame Alexander
- How it Went Down by Kekla Magoon
- A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi
Give students time to work in class AND time to talk to one another while working in class. Students need time to process the mini lessons we are teaching them, and apply them to their work. Most of the time the processing requires them to talk through what they have learned. Our students sit in pods and are encouraged to share their work with one another. They give each other feedback and discuss their questions together.
We expect a lot from our students. They work hard for those 50 minutes and it can be draining on us as teachers, but our students have responded to the structure and are growing as readers and writers.
How do you make workshop work in the time you have to teach English? What are your non-negotiables that I may have missed?
Melissa Sethna is enjoying every minute of the 50 minutes a day she gets to spend with high school freshmen. When she isn’t teaching, planning or grading, Melissa can be found planning professional development for staff and reading YA books. Her favorite YA book this month was Past Perfect Life by Elizabeth Eulberg and her favorite professional books were White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo and If You Can’t Manage Them, You Can’t Teach Them by Kim Campbell.