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Why Workshop Teaching DOESN’T Work

I’ve been a “workshop teacher” for a long time. 7-8 years? You could cut my educational-arm and I’d bleed workshop. I’ve been to Teacher’s College. I’ve read most of the books and stalked every publication Lucy and her peers have posted.  I love that you have to dig in and know they “why” behind the “what.” I love that they encourage you to write your own units of study. I’m trying to say that I believe in their work. I respect their work.

And yet I find myself defending workshop teaching more and more.

Some quotes I’ve heard:

“I’m not gonna just teach for 10 minutes and send them off to read for 30. That isn’t rigorous enough…”

“They don’t work. They play.”

“It’s so hard to assess them. I never know what they are doing.” 

Here are some thoughts I’ve had regarding this subject.

1. Classroom Management 

Running a workshop in your classroom can quickly so south if your classroom isn’t a well-oiled machine. The workshop structure gives you a chance to teach a quick mini-lesson and then they are sent off to work for a chunk of time while you confer and meet with small groups. If your students struggle to work independently or lack the autonomy to work without your presence, then as soon as you say “off you go” they will go off…to play.

What can you do?
Tighten up your classroom routines, make sure your kids can work without you constantly monitoring them, and practice, practice, practice! They need to know where to get their materials, how to get settled in, and under which circumstances they can interrupt you while you are teaching or conferring (hint: never. unless blood, fire, or puke).  It’s not easy to confer when you are telling Jason and Leah to stop throwing books at each other or showing Jessie where the paper is to make a new book. They can do that stuff without your help…if you teach them to.

2. Students have no accountability/Mini Lesson lacked clarity 

Maybe you have great classroom management but you still feel like your kids aren’t working when you send them off to work. Here are a few reasons that that might be:

 a) The mini-lesson that got away. I’ve been there. You wanted to teach them ONE thing. ONE thing that would be added to their repertoire of strategies to help them as they work. But you got going, one thing led to another, and bam, just like that it’s 20 minutes later. Your kids are sort of confusedly staring at you …or playing with their Velcro straps. You realize what you’ve done and send them off to work…and they go into autopilot or they do whatever they want. It’s happened to better teachers. But it could certainly explain why they aren’t working! They don’t know what to do! They could just be confused.

b) You haven’t given them tools of engagement that will keep them accountable during their work time. There is so much more to their work time than you just saying “go read” or “go write.” YES we want them to read, but you have to put some things in place in order to encourage on-task behaviors. That could include reading mats, copies of learning progressions or rubrics that they can use to grade their work, or exit slips. There are TONS of ways that students can self-regulate and stay on task without bothering you. But again, it has to be taught.

What can you do?
Make sure your teaching point is crystal clear. Also, remind students of the overarching goals of the unit. Figure out what tools you can use to keep them on task without your help.

3. You don’t have the other Balanced Literacy components working for you.
I’ve written extensively about this here. In short, there are some components in your daily schedule that can help to you hit some of those skills that you might notice a lot of your kids struggling with. You can model tons of skills via shared reading, shared writing, interactive writing, and read alouds with accountable talk.
What can you do?
Make sure these components are in your schedule AND make them work for you!

4. You aren’t sure how to really assess progress and/or collect the data that your standards call for. 
You might even be having a hard time lining the standards up if you live in a state (like me) that didn’t adopt the CCSS. Now it’s your job to go through your units of study and assign standards. That takes time! Also, teaching in a workshop means that you have to assess students individually. We don’t get to pass out a test on Friday, score it, and enter grades. At least not on everything. That makes a lot of us uncomfortable, so the assessment seems haphazard.

What can you do?
Front-load. Know your overarching unit goals, secondary goals, and standards deeply. This will help you as you are conferring and doing small group work. You’ll be able to quickly ascertain your students’ mastery levels and collect tons of data. You’ll know strengths and weaknesses on each of your students.

5. You’re approximating what workshop is.
And to be totally honest, I don’t even blame you. Our profession! The ever-swinging pendulum of learning methods. I’ve been teaching for 10 years and I’ve been well-versed in Four Blocks, Literacy Work Stations, Basal Programs, and whatever else was mandated at the time. It can be overwhelming to learn so many new programs! Let alone the fact that so many teachers are new to the profession, new to a building or district, trying to keep their heads above water, call parents, collect the book orders, apologize for not getting attendance taken on time, typing up the newsletter…I mean…you get it.
I implore you. Don’t approximate this one. Don’t just say things. Because it’s good. It’s sooo good. It teaches kids to be thinkers and life-long learners. It gives you a chance to individualize instruction more than any other structure that I’ve used!  It gives students the power of CHOICE. It gives them a chance to love what they are working on.

Also, you have to read to really get the workshop “bang for the buck” and lots of us don’t have the time. The good news here is, once you get the rhythm of workshop, you don’t have to read so heavily. My first year, I taught the units of study almost verbatim. But after that year, I was so familiar with the flow, I wrote my own units of study and mini-lessons!

What can you do?
…Read anyway. Find some greats in the field and pour over their knowledge. I know we don’t have time. But we kind of do. We have the same hours in our day as the leader of the free world. And Beyonce. We can squeeze something in. Some of them even have youtube videos and podcasts you can listen to on the way home from school. Don’t just get in front of your kiddos and say whatever you want to say in the name of a mini-lesson. K?  {Group Hug}.

6. Your school (as a whole) isn’t on board. 

This is the hardest one. The reasons from number 5 could apply BUT you could have a situation where (for example) kids are getting workshop teaching from 1 or 2 teachers in K-1, none in 2nd, again in 3rd (maybe) and 4th and 5th grade wants to pass the test so they throw workshop out altogether and do skill/drills. You could be the best workshop teacher in the world and you could end up with poor scores because you are trying to teach them in a way that they are not familiar with. You might have kids that had a great workshop experience in 1st grade, a workshop-ish experience in 2nd, etc… That could result in a group of confused kids with little mastery.  It could also result in frustrated team meetings, unfocused school-wide professional development sessions, and a lack of teaching-solidarity.

Now… imagine the school that has every teacher on board! The fourth grader has been doing workshop since the day he walked into Kindergarten. There is no need to launch the reading workshop in fourth grade…we’ve been doing this for 4 years already so let’s jump right in! This kiddo can read long and strong, can write with amazing word choices and voice, and has been exposed to tons of genres throughout his schooling. This kid…can probably pass any standardized test that comes his way. Now, understand that I’m not saying every child that has had years of workshop can automatically pass a standardized test. There are always exceptions.  But I think we could get a lot more done when a workshop can be up and running on the first day of school because your students know exactly what this is and what to do.

What can we do?
On this one…I got nothin’. I’m sorry about it. It’s tough. I think schools all over struggle with this- not specifically with workshop but with WHATEVER program that the school is supposed to use. I’ve done professional development with various schools and I hear this frustration from teachers all the time…”everyone is doing something different and we aren’t on the same page….”

I once heard a pro-workshop-anti-basal educator say, “I’d rather a teacher teach from a basal program than to teach workshop poorly.” It was tough to hear but gosh…I agree. If we think we give a 10 minute unfocused mini-lesson and send them off to fend for themselves, it won’t work. It will hurt. If we don’t own what we teach because we believe in it and not because we were told to, it’ll show. And if those things happen, we will miss out on a wonderful experience for ourselves and for our students.

So, do I think workshop teaching works? Of course I do. It’s the best way for me to differentiate instruction for my entire class on a daily basis. And in my opinion, it sure beats the heck out of a text book curriculum.


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