A Workshop for the Workshop Model

At the end of my first year teaching one student informed me that he learned nothing in my class because all he needed to do to get an A was memorize Sparknotes or reword what other students said during discussions. He explained that he was not challenged because all I cared about was that they had the “right” answer. I was crushed. And exhausted. And seriously doubting my career choice. I had earned a Masters in the art of teaching the year before for crying out loud. What happened? After several days (okay, weeks) of wallowing in self-pity I decided he was right. I taught like I was the most important person in my classroom that year and what I said (or rather, what my teacher manuals said) was the only correct answer. I felt like (still do if I’m being honest) I owed every one of those students an apology. I let them down. I let myself down.

That summer changed everything. I was introduced to the Workshop Model at UNH. And little by little over the past 5 years I have incorporated bits and pieces of this model into my teaching.

And then at the beginning of this year, in walked my past self, only she’s a lot stronger than I was as a student teacher: her name is Tori. She’s bright, fresh-faced, and eager and she challenges me daily by asking me what she probably considers easy questions.

This post is my attempt to answer her questions.

Question 1: What is the Workshop model?

Answer: Simply put, the workshop approach to teaching is a student-centered approach. The teacher and the content take a back seat. Student skills become the focus, the teacher becomes the facilitator (or coach) and the content becomes the vehicle used to teach / refine the necessary skills. The workshop model functions on the idea of authentic, real-world learning and encourages students to become independent, critical and resourceful thinkers.

Question 2: Is this only for English teachers?

Answer: Absolutely not. The key to workshop is a shift in our thinking. Teachers are no longer the only dispenser of knowledge. Students are introduced to a skill (mathematical concept, artistic medium, laboratory technique) and then time is given in class to hone that skill.

Question 3: How do you structure a typical day using this model?

Answer: This is the structure that works for me and I use it almost every single day:

  1. Time to read independently
  2. Time to quickwrite (prompts are usually connected to the day’s lesson or content)
  3. A Mini Lesson: teacher introduces a skill or idea and then models it
  4. Time to practice the lesson (independently or in pairs / groups) Teacher confers with students independently or in groups. This is the heart of workshop.
  5. Time to share (last 5 minutes)

Question 4: How can the workshop model work if we are required to teach content (like whole class novels)?

Answer: Balance is probably the hardest part of my job. And this is the question I am asked most often. For the record, I do believe there is a necessary place for whole-class novels in the workshop model and I have been modifying my approach to teaching the “whole-class novel” each year. Essentially, when I teach a novel like Lord of the Flies I try to work it seamlessly into the current reading lives of my students. They are expected to read each night at home for 30 minutes and during our LoF unit, those 30 minutes are simply spent reading our whole class novel. Do some students set aside their independent read for these 3 weeks? Yes. Others can read both. Essentially, the workshop structure remains the same. Students are introduced to a big idea (or theme) and then given time to explore that idea within the chapter, in class. In most cases, there is no one right answer. Students are expected to make a claim and then find evidence to support that claim.

Here’s my agenda from a class this past December:

  1. Time to read independently (first 10 minutes of class)
  2. Time to quickwrite: prompt from Tori: “He wanted to explain how people were never quite what you thought they were” (Golding 54). Using the quote, make a claim about one of the characters and explain how he isn’t quite what you thought he was. How has he changed?
  3. Mini Lesson on Dynamic Character: Give students the definition of dynamic character. They take notes in their Writer’s Notebooks. Then they work together in groups of 4 to analyze the chapter focusing on the death of Simon. Students are asked to pull quotes from that chapter to show the changes in the other boys on the island. Teacher monitors each group. Then, as a whole class, lead a discussion to connect everything to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs / Zimbardo’s definition as evil. The key is that the teacher is not the focus here. Students work together. There is no one right answer. Students workshop the chapter together and make claims, then find evidence from the novel to support each claim.

Question 5: What are the pros to using a workshop model?

Answer:

#1: Choice

When students are given the opportunity to choose what they read and write, authentic learning will occur more naturally.

#2: Volume

A workshop model increases the volume of output. Students read and write more on their own and at a faster rate. My first year as a teacher, my kids read maybe 5 novels and wrote maybe 5 pieces all year. At the halfway point in this year most of my kids have already read 10 novels and have written about 9 pieces.

#3 Differentiation

This model allows me to differentiate easier. A workshop model is the best differentiated approach to teaching and learning because students are treated as individuals and the teacher is better equipped to recognize the individual needs and growth of each student.

#4 Responsibility and Personalization

The key to the workshop approach is that the student takes responsibility for what he/she is doing (the topic they are writing about or the novel they are reading). I am no longer the most important person the in room. I am simply their coach. I demonstrate the skill and they practice it. Over and over again until it’s game time (or due). In this way, they are intrinsically motivated and excited about what they are doing.

Question 6: What are the cons to using a workshop model?

Answer: The workshop model is not a free for all. In all honestly, I have found this approach to teaching much harder than the traditional. It takes a deep understanding of students: of their needs, abilities and interests. And most importantly, it only works well if the teacher is able to relinquish some of the control. And for that to happen, you need to establish quite a lot of structure first. For many of us, one of the most difficult things to do is to share the control. It’s so easy to be in charge, to decide from our vast experience and continuing education what’s best for our students. But by making room for students to make their own decisions whenever possible, they will start to develop a sense of responsibility and ownership over their learning. This was exactly what was missing from my first year: ownership over what I was teaching. Finding my way as a teacher has been a journey the past few years, but one I am very thankfully to be taking.

Answers generated by Kristina

Questions generated by Tori

Teachers Talk Teaching: This is the second post in a series of posts on Teacher’s Podium between two or more people who weigh in on an issue important to education. Our approach to this series is captured most closely by our mission statement: “We have Masters degrees, but we are not masters.” These discussions are meant to be the start of a conversation not the final words.

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