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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?


#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.

Late Work: To Accept or not to Accept

Teachers Talk Teaching: This is the first 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.

A Real World Response: Accept It

Over the years, I’ve found myself like many teachers faced with the student, late paper in hand, who can’t seem to get his work in on time. I accept the work with penalty. Typically, the student will lose 10% of the overall grade per day that the paper is late. I find this to be the most fair response to the situation that I can muster. And I consider it fair for a couple of reasons: first, it is in line with the consequences of the world at large; second, I don’t think the quality of the student’s work is based entirely on her ability to hand the paper in on time.

I’ve got a mortgage bill that, like a majority of us, I pay on time monthly, but I’ve noticed that even banks have a policy for the late payer. At the bottom of the bill it says something to the effect, “if you mail this bill beyond this date add x amount.” How many Americans would be out of a home right now if missing a payment deadline was all it took?

While I’d like to have all papers on my desk at the same time so that I can grade student work, the reality is that some students make mistakes along the way. The mistake we are discussing is time based. The fact that a student has not handed his work in on time does not mean he cannot execute the skills we are practicing in the assignment. I prefer to have a policy in place that acknowledges there is a time the paper is due and skills we are measuring as well.

How do you deal with late work?

~ Dennis

A Practical Response: Don’t Accept It

I was tired.  I was tired of students continuously submitting late work.  I was tired of planning a lesson based on what the students had to complete for homework the night before only to have three students come to class prepared. I was tired of keeping track of the late point penalties.  I was tired of that end-of-the-quarter-here-is-all-my-missing-work student.  Most importantly, I was tired of the excuses.

One day, several years ago, I asked some students in my class, “Why aren’t you all submitting work on time?”  Their responses floored me.  “Because it’s not a priority,” one student said.  Another student stated, “We know you’ll accept late work so deadlines don’t really apply.”

What?!  Not a priority? Deadlines don’t apply?  How could they say that?

As teachers, we know the importance of deadlines.  We all had professors in college who would laugh at our excuses for trying to submit a paper a day after class had ended.  We were expected to have lessons and grades submitted on time.  Why shouldn’t our students be held to similar standards?  Isn’t one of our goals to prepare them for life after high school? If we uphold a standard “no late work” policy, then perhaps mortgage companies won’t need to create a policy for the late payer.

I pondered these thoughts for quite some time and came to a simple conclusion: I would no longer accept late work. Since it was nearing the end of the school year when I made the decision, I decided to wait until the following year to implement my new policy.  I knew it would be difficult to uphold; however, I realized it would be an important lesson for my students to learn.

~ Dan V.

The Difference Between a “D” and an “F”

            I can understand that you would feel worn out, especially when you had only three students who were coming to class prepared! That piqued my interest, so I did a little late-work number crunching for my first quarter classes this year.

I have five classes for a total of 95 students, and averaged 12 graded assignments per class for a grand total of 1,140 individual assignments. The total number of late assignments I accepted from students for partial credit was 13, a measly .01% of the assignments. This is a small number to me. One that I’m willing to deal with.

For me, it boils down to the following question: what is the difference between the student who is passing or failing my class? The student who attempts to make up his work is entering into the class conversation, albeit a little late sometimes, and grappling with the skills we are learning. The student who does not make up her work is checking out of class entirely, never practicing those skills, and is not participating in the conversation at all. Accepting work late does not have to be an invitation for mediocrity, either. If a student’s work does not meet competency, I hand hand it back over and say, “Try again.”

I don’t think students who have handed in work late have earned the right to make grade with the “A” students of the class, and the penalty for handing major assignments in late brings their grade down. But by bringing their work to the table they earn a right to have a fighting chance at passing.

~ Dennis

No Late Work=Students Rise to the Challenge

The point you make about students participating in class and learning the necessary skills, albeit a little late, is an interesting one and something I thought about extensively before I instituted a no late work policy.  My biggest concern focused on those borderline students—the ones who are not always engaged in class or the ones who hover around the 60% mark.  If I no longer accepted late work, would happen to them?

To my surprise, almost all of my students followed my expectations.  Yes, it was difficult to implement the policy and it was something I had to remind my students repeatedly—especially at the beginning of each new term.  I prepared myself for every excuse possible and decided that I had to remove any emotional or personal connection (the time one of my best students forgot her work and had to accept a zero was heart-breaking for me!).  I provided consistent and fair expectations and even those so-called struggling students eventually learned the importance of meeting a deadline.  It also helped that I began scaffolding many of my assignments so larger projects were broken down into chunks.

I think your comment, “By bringing their work to the table they earn a right to have a fighting chance at passing” is true and it applies to my class as well.  When I create assignments, I make sure students have plenty of time to complete them and because I teach mostly writing courses, we use class time as a workshop.   If students use their class time wisely, they shouldn’t have any difficulty finishing their work by the deadline.  The students who struggle see the other students working hard and over time, they also begin to work diligently.

A question I still have is, what do you do with those students who continually submit late work?  Sure, they are not earning the full points, but is it fair to the rest of the class? Do you find it difficult to manage the late point penalties?

~ Dan V.

The Extreme Side of Late

            I see late work as the difference between pass and fail not “A” and “A+”. Fairness is not at issue here. Both students, the one handing in work on time and the one handing in work late are expected to execute the same skills.

Managing late work penalties is probably the simplest part of this entire process. First, I do not accept late overnight assignments that need to be handed in for class discussions or class review. Those assignments are made up, without credit, by being a part of class and taking notes. Second, when a student passes in a major assignment like an essay or project late, I jot down the date on the top of the page. Accepting late work means that you’re accepting a piece that needs to be graded while some other stack of papers has been handed in on time. Work handed in on time comes first. Late work second.

If anything is stressful or difficult to manage it is that one student who comes along every so often who doesn’t look at a late work policy as a backup plan, but as his main plan. I find this situation difficult to manage because at some point the student’s focus on the skills we’re practicing is overpowered by his desire just to make up the work. That kind of work is often subpar and unacceptable. But this situation is the exception rather than the rule. To most students, I think the late work policy is a security net rather than an academic game plan.

The student who has trouble getting her work in during a given quarter is not particular to my classes. What do you do when she comes knocking on your door during a rough quarter and the zeros have piled up? We both know that getting back on your feet after a low “F,” even in a four quarter class, is difficult to recover from. I worry about that student who has missed one or two major assignments and says, Forget it, I don’t have a chance anyway. Is there no way to achieve those competencies and work out from under that “F”?

~ Dennis

Security Net: Not Usually Needed

Unfortunately, I realized that many of my former students used a late work policy as a main plan rather than a back up plan.  I was finding that even though they were more than capable of completing the work, they had a lackadaisical attitude about school work in general.  For some reason, they just didn’t follow deadlines.  I tried giving only partial credit for late work but far too often, I had students who abused this policy.  I know it might sound harsh, but the reality is that it just became easier for me to no longer accept any late work.  I should note that students with extended time options in their IEPs are always given the extra time if needed, but the extended due date is agreed upon when the assignment is given.

We all have exceptions to the rule: not every student I have will submit all of his work every time.  When I notice a student falling behind, I conference with him to figure out what we can do to make sure his future assignments are completed.  It’s during these discussions where we can talk about the competencies that need to be completed in order to earn credit for the class.  It may sound like a cliché, but almost every single time, this discussion (or even a parent meeting) is all that’s needed to rectify the low grade.  The students who fail the course would most likely fail even if I did accept late work.

The concern about a student who has a rough quarter and ends up with zeroes is valid and one I have recently faced. Last year, I had a student who was bright, articulate and a solid writer.  She had issues with attendance and would miss class on a regular basis.  Unfortunately, she neglected to make up some of her work and she received several zeroes during the third quarter which caused her to have a failing grade at one point.  She did start to give up and had the reaction you mentioned (“Forget it—I don’t have a chance anyway!”).   Like most teachers would do, I met with the student and we worked out a plan to ensure that her future assignments would be submitted on time.  We also looked at the big picture—sometimes showing a student that she won’t fail for the year by opening up our grade book can eliminate that “I don’t have a chance anyway” attitude.

The bottom line is this: with consistent enforcement and specific expectations, students will rise to the challenge of submitting work on time.  I was hesitant to believe it myself until I tried it.   All of my concerns about having a safety net or meeting the needs of the struggling students were pretty much eliminated because the students did what I expected them to do. There was no gray area for them. It was a great feeling for me to collect all of their work on the assigned due date and I know that it gave my students a sense of accomplishment as well.

~ Dan V.

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