Why I Fell in Love With Workshop Teaching … and How You Can Too!

Life used to be hard. But then I started using the workshop method for teaching!

Life used to be hard. But then I started using the workshop method for teaching!

Just kidding. Some parts of life are still hard. But the workshop format has made my teaching life so much better—because I know it’s better for my students. I have my classes fill out anonymous evaluations of me in December and May of every year, and every year I hear back that they loved being able to learn in the workshop setting. And in case you’re wondering about the whole learning aspect, my students keep a writing portfolio from the beginning of the year to the end, and the difference from September to June is sometimes shocking. (Also—not that this matters to anyone but the state—but my students blow the standardized test out of the water every year with little or no test prep.)

Intrigued? Read on! (Be aware that while the workshop teaching model I’m talking about in this post is similar to the writer’s workshop, I use it for all instruction, not just writing.)

What is the workshop model?

I first learned about workshop teaching from a master teacher I observed during my fourth year and fell in love. Her kids were just like mine—mostly at-risk or from homes at or below the poverty line—and yet I saw none of the struggles that were common to my classroom. All students were on-task, following directions and demonstrating incredible work as well as work ethic. I noticed that the only thing the teacher had to do besides conferencing and checking in with students was remind certain kids to be on-task, but even this was met with immediate compliance that you could tell came out of mutual respect.

“Teach me your ways!” I begged.

And she did. This teacher came and did a session on workshop teaching at our school, and I soaked up everything I could from her. The concept was simple: keep lessons short (less than 10 minutes), have the bulk of students’ time be independent work for which you stay connected to their progress, and end by recapping and sharing work. Workshop teaching can be done in the format of a single day (mini-lesson, independent work, check in/progress update), could take the span of a week (one to two days of mini-lessons or instruction and then the rest of the week doing independent work), or could last an entire unit. I’ve heard that the single-day workshop is usually best for the wee ones, while week/unit planning works better for secondary kids.

Can you give me an idea of what workshop looks like in the classroom?

I use the weeklong workshop format for my seventh graders. After lots of tweaking, this is the schedule that ended up working best for me:

Monday and Tuesday:

Mini-lessons, guided practice, new content/skills.

Wednesday beginning of class:

Give students all assignments for the week.

Wednesday through Friday:

Students complete workshop assignments at their own pace while I conference with individual students, monitor progress and track who has completed what.

Friday:

All workshop assignments due (unless I specified otherwise).

For an example of what that week might look like with a short poetry unit, you can download my roadmap here!

I don’t teach seventh-grade English. What do I need to know to make workshop work for my subject area and grade level?

Obviously the content, products and time are going to vary based on your subject area and grade level. But these are some things that should stay the same:

  • Students should be responsible for creating a plan to get their work done and executing their independent work. This may take some prompting from you at first, but the goal is for them to develop discipline and time-management skills for themselves.
  • Students have some aspect of choice in as many workshop assignments as possible
  • Have a daily progress conference with each student during independent work time. Ask things like, How are you doing with this material? What have you completed today? What do you need from me? (With sometimes 35 kids in a class, it’s OK if you don’t get to every child every day. But make a note so that you ask the kids you didn’t get to at the beginning of the next class.)

Here is the awesome part: When you give students choices, let them work at their own pace and meet with them individually on a regular basis, behavior problems are dramatically reduced. This is not a weird coincidence. They feel trusted and empowered, and this results in a positive, strong teacher-student relationship.

Hang on—this all sounds fine and dandy, but what do I do for the kids who finish all their work in five seconds?

Don’t worry, this was my first question when I heard about workshop, too 🙂

First, if you plan your lessons in a way that lets your advanced students challenge themselves, you may find that they don’t zip through their work like they do when the same assignment is given to the whole class. You may give them the assignment but have higher standards, or give certain students a different assignment entirely. Also, making a point to talk to students about work ethic can make a difference (“So, I see you definitely met the requirements for this essay. But is this your best work? Here are some points I think you could develop further instead of turning in this draft.”)

However, no matter how carefully you plan, you will still have kids who finish assignments earlier than others with high-quality work. For these students, I have a huge poster in my room of activities that students can be doing when they finish work—things from online word games (Scrabble, Boggle, etc.) to silent reading. But if my students have finished all their assignments with quality work in which they have challenged themselves, I’m OK with them using independent technology, listening to music or working quietly on work for another class. Why? Because my role is not to make sure kids are completing busy work 100 percent of the time in my class—my role is to make sure I’m teaching kids to love reading and writing and be good at it, with the end goal that they will be successful no matter what they do. Teaching them to plan and set goals for themselves, work hard, push themselves and “play” once that work is done—these are lessons in self-discipline, integrity, self-advocacy and time management that they can take far beyond the walls of my classroom.

I’m ready to try workshop! What do I need?

1. Strong classroom-management skills.

Personally I ‘m not sure I could have made workshop work my first year, but if you are new and think you can handle it, go for it!

2. A lot of patience, at least for the first couple of months.

Like anything new, workshop may be hard at first for you and for the kids. They won’t be used to being in charge of (and being held accountable for) their learning, and you won ‘t be used to a completely new style of teaching. It’s normal to feel like scrapping it and going back to your old ways, but trust me : It gets easier and it pays off in every area imaginable.

3. Strong organizational skills.

Each week I print out a spreadsheet for each class with students’ names and spaces for assignments, and I keep this binder with me as I hold conferences and check trays for work that’s been turned in. That way, I can easily scan and see who has turned in everything for that week, who is making appropriate progress, and who hasn’t turned in anything but for some reason is gluing magazine clippings to his face. You’ll also need clearly marked places in our classroom for students to turn in work and to indicate where materials are located. You can check my post on organizational hacks for more info!

4. Student seating in groups.

I let my students pick their seats and whom they work with, but they kn ow that if they aren’t getting their workshop work done, they will be moved.

5. Caffeine.

Or maybe that’s just me.

 

Do you have any other tips on how to make workshop work for me?

  • Check for work that’s been turned in every day, not just on the day everything is due. This will cut back on your angels who have trouble getting work done, and that way you can grade what’s there instead of grading a huge chunk of work over the weekend.
  • Flipped Learning is perfect for workshop. Recording yourself for mini-lessons is awesome not just for students who might be absent on Monday or Tuesday, but also for students who might need a refresher later in the week.
  • Talk to your administration and appraiser about workshop teaching so they’ll know what they’ll be seeing in your classroom. Hopefully they will be onboard, but if they’re skeptical, emphasize that workshop teaching naturally allows for differentiated instruction, student choice and a classroom that is student-centered.

I’m ready to fall in love with workshop! Where can I go to learn more?

Here are some helpful articles that touch on the workshop approach:

 

Is the workshop model the only way to teach? Definitely not! Find what works for you and your students. But just know that after going from the traditional lesson format to workshop, I’ll never go back.

 

Posted by Love Teach

Love, Teach (Kelly Treleaven) teaches middle school English and writes about it at loveteachblog.com. You can pre-order her book, Love, Teach: Real Stories and Honest Advice to Keep Teachers from Crying Under Their Desks, or follow her on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

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