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.
The 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.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:
- Offering choice, slowly at first.
- Increasing our use of the writer’s notebook as a space for ungraded, low-stakes writing.
- Making time for independent reading every day.
- Giving booktalks every day.
- Growing my classroom library and my own reading repertoire.
- Learning to read like writers and study mentor texts.
- Shifting the cognitive load of curricular choice from me to my students.
- Valuing talk as an assessment, instructional, and practice tool.
- Keeping records and compiling data that were valuable and authentic.
- 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!