It seems like a contradictory situation, but a scripted reading curriculum package taught me a lot about how to establish and maintain a workshop-style classroom environment. Its basic structure was: review the previous lesson, state the goal/objective for the day, conduct a mini-lesson with explicit modeling, then allow for partner or group work time with a check for understanding via discussion. Move on to independent work time with reading and written response to an open-ended question, then do some type of closure. In essence, that program is set up as a workshop that includes gradual release of responsibility. If you as a teacher could find a way to personalize it to let your own voice show, the structure itself was outstanding.
My journey into the world of workshop instruction has included a long, winding road that has had some hazards along the way. I was not a teacher of the scripted program but was moved into a curriculum facilitator and instructional coaching role when it was adopted. After a few years of use, the district experienced a severe budget crunch that led to major re-organization within the school system, and I opted to leave instructional coaching and return to full-time teaching. I did so as a 6th grade ELA teacher with 4 hours of writing-focused instruction and two dedicated to reading. My grade-level collaborative partner and I were both new to the position and had many incredibly productive and reflective conversations that were among the best PD experiences of my career. It really helped to have someone with whom I could take risks, brainstorm, and troubleshoot.
Theoretically, I knew all the elements that went into making a successful workshop experience, but as I got into the implementation of the process, I discovered that I needed to eat the elephant one bite at a time. In essence, I felt like I had a good handle on pacing, setting goals, and presenting a relevant mini-lesson that lasted an appropriately brief amount of time. Sometimes the debrief went well, but I knew work time was not where I wanted it to be. It was consistently used for reading or writing- whichever was appropriate- but I could not manage to differentiate like I wanted to, conferring was a major challenge, and small group or individual instruction simply did not happen. I was well-intentioned. I knew its importance. There were just too many management issues to make these work no matter how much I really wanted them to happen.
Getting good at one or two things at a time was humbling, but it was definitely an authentic learning opportunity for me! Looking back at that experience, I can also now recognize a few other important revelations I had about teaching and learning.
Not every class is the same. A technique or strategy that works beautifully in one hour may prove to be an epic fail in the next class period. For me, this has been especially true about what now goes on in my room during work time.
The effectiveness of my role during work time has definitely developed slowly! The second and third years I truly used workshop environment, I was able to build in more student-driven choice, particularly during in reading. This helped elevate the level of engagement, but my reluctant and at-risk students still needed constant and ongoing management-type attention. I progressed to fly-by conferring and finally discovered a documentation system that worked for me– at least most of the time. I wanted in-depth, meaningful conversations, but sitting down (or even standing too long in one place) was an invitation for chaos. I had to be content that I was making incremental progress even though I really wanted to make leaps and bounds.
This year (in a new position in a different district), I finally feel like I am approaching a high-enough level of proficiency that I’d like to push the boundary a bit and layer in even more choice and student-directed learning.
What’s it look like now? I have a great group of kids! No they’re not all angelic, nor are they all always on task, but we’ve managed to reach some common ground about what should and should not happen during work time. Because I am not playing whack-a-mole or practically running laps so I can have proximity everywhere at once, I’ve had actual conversations that have translated into improved comprehension and text analysis or better writing. I have maintained the same documentation system that I used for my fly-by brief conversations, but the notes have become much more meaningful in shaping my instruction and in following up with students.
Side note: I tried many, many systems before I finally adopted a system of having a sheet of 1X4 mailing labels per class and recording information there. Each student has a label. Blank labels show they are due for a conference. Sometimes I can fit a second set of notes on the page, so I use color coding to determine who needs a turn. This system helps me notice trends and patterns. When I transfer the labels to their storage notebook where each student has a page, I can look for individual progress or concerns.
Because I feel confident I can be helpful in ways that students need when we’re not all doing similar tasks, I’ve been able to move far beyond simply having students read titles of their own choosing in addition to a smattering of common anchor texts. I’ve also been able to offer much more choice in areas including summative assessment and topics and genres for major papers. It’s brought new life into what I do!
If my teaching life can be this way again next year, I have a goal of edging even further into the workshop philosophy of student-directed learning and choice. I want to explore “genius hour” and see just how far we can go!