A Little Advice for New Workshop Teachers: Slice of Life #sol18 18/31

Your own literate life is essential. Workshop teachers need to read and write, in and out of our comfort zones, and we need to read and write a lot. Our literate lives are the backbone of our teaching. What I’m reading and writing today will likely find its way into my classroom tomorrow—as a mentor text, as a book to recommend, as a writing strategy to model. My own literate life also keeps me honest as a workshop teacher. People who are not experts in our field are constantly telling us what to teach and how to teach it, and our own literate lives provide a quick litmus test for the latest trend.  Do I do this as a reader and writer? Can I find other readers and writers in the wild who do this? If a practice can’t be located in the lives of readers and writers in the wild, I need to think carefully about why I’d want to inflict it on my students.

Read and write with your students. It may be tempting to use that quiet time in your classroom for other things, but you will be a far more effective teacher if you sit down and join them. There is power in modeling. There is power in showing students through our actions what we truly value. As a bonus, you will also finish far more books this way. Ten minutes of reading every period adds up! Don’t feel like you should read and write for the whole time. When my students have a longer block of workshop time, I might read or write with them for the first five minutes or so and then use the rest of the time for conferences.

Try to get better at one thing every year. For the brand-new teacher, I’d suggest focusing on your writer’s notebook and your classroom library. At a bare minimum, you need some writing to teach from and some books to share. You’ll continue to put a lot of energy into your notebook and your library shelves, but after you’ve got some writing and reading to teach from, you can start developing your skills at book talking, conferring, teaching reading strategies, writing in new genres, craft analysis, etc. Don’t try to tackle all of it all at once. Workshop teaching is complex. It’s the kind of teaching you excel at over a lifetime, not in a couple of years.

Find the professional books that sustain you and keep reading them. For me, that’s In the Middle, Book Love and Write Beside Them, Reading in the Wild, Time for Meaning, Breathing In Breathing Out, but your list may be quite different.

Find people to learn with and learn from. Some of us are lucky enough to teach in a school or district that’s done its research and knows that workshop teaching is the best practice for growing skilled and thoughtful readers and writers. But many of us teach in workshop deserts where we may be the only person in our school or even our district with a workshop classroom. Don’t let that deter you from doing what is right for kids. If you can’t find like-minded supporters in your community, take to the Internet. Read blogs written by workshop teachers (Three Teachers Talk, Moving Writers, Blogging through the Fourth Dimension, and Read Write Reflect are four of my favorites). Follow workshop teachers on Twitter. Attend conferences and prioritize the workshop sessions. Find the teachers who do this work, who do it very publicly and vocally, and connect with them.

Experiment. The foundation of workshop may be reading, writing, and talking about reading and writing, but there are so many exciting ways we can challenge ourselves and our students. Once you’re solidly grounded in the foundation of workshop, don’t be afraid to try new things. Service learning projects, book clubs, sketching or drawing, podcasting, even the judicious use of whole-class novel study can be productive and meaningful learning in your classroom.

Find time and space for reflection. Good workshop teaching isn’t only about what we do and how we do it. It’s also about noticing what works or doesn’t work and coming up with theories about why. Your writer’s notebook can be a good place to collect your observations and thinking about what’s working and what’s not working in your classroom, and many teacher blogs also provide that space for reflection.

Don’t be afraid to have “that classroom.” Every principal I ever had told me my classroom was too loud. But as long as my neighboring teachers aren’t too disturbed by our activity, I consider some noise and movement as necessary conditions for learning. Learning should be stimulating. It should be comfortable (which means kids might need to stretch out on the floor or curl up under a desk). It should need talk and movement. Reading and writing are maybe the best things in the world, and we shouldn’t have to tamp down our own or our students’ enthusiasm and energy about literacy.

Teach with your door open. When I first transitioned my classroom to a workshop, my department chair told me he didn’t really care what I did in my own classroom but please close the door and do that experimental stuff privately. But I think we need to teach with our doors open. I mean that literally but also metaphorically. There should be no shame or fear in doing what is right for kids—what research tells us is right for kids, what our own experience as readers and writers tells us is right for kids, what our eyeballs that observe our students tell us is right for kids, what all the most effective teachers in our field confirm is right for kids. We should be proud of the reading, writing, and talk that happens in our classrooms. Authentic, meaningful reading and writing experiences are not something we should have to hide. Our students’ incredible growth and learning will be the very best rationales we can ever provide to skeptical colleagues or administrators.

I might be a little biased, but I truly think that this is the most enriching, sustaining, and stimulating work it’s possible to do, and I’m excited to learn with you!




27 responses to “A Little Advice for New Workshop Teachers: Slice of Life #sol18 18/31”

  1. Great advice. I also think it is important for us to write with our students. Doing something else while they are writing devalues writing and could make students think we are giving them busy work just so we can do something else.

  2. I agree with all of these points. I’ve recently started writing and modeling my writing with my students as they also share their thoughts. They love it.. it’s very powerful as you suggest.

  3. Great advice for teachers entering the world of Workshop. It is tough to learn, it is sloppy, it goes against they way we taught reading and writing for years. That being said it is hands down the most effective model for turning students into readers and writers. Thank you for your post!

    • It *is* tough to learn–very hard to go into a classroom and teach in ways that you were never taught and even in ways that you’ve never observed firsthand. And when you do observe a good workshop teacher, it looks so effortless and easy. It’s only when you start doing it that you realize just how complex a style of teaching it is!

  4. I couldn’t love your post more. There are so many things I want to say, it may have to be its own post. So I’ll try to keep my comment here brief. Somehow, I haven’t read Time for Meaning. I think because it has “Middle & High School” in the subtitle. It’s on its way now.

    The beautiful thing about workshop, and your post? There is no endpoint to any of it. After many years of earnest effort in each of these areas, I’m already thinking about how I can do it better next year. I love that.

    • Yes, please write your own post on workshop! I’m always looking for more blogs to introduce my preservice teachers too. I really love Time for Meaning–it’s especially good when it comes to getting the writing out of the notebook and into a published draft (one of my weak points as a teacher–I’d be happy to mess around in notebooks forever!). And yes, yes to your final point. This is why I also love being a workshop teacher: I’ve been doing it for 14 yrs now and always thinking about how I can do it better.

  5. Thank you for putting all of these important beliefs in one thoughtful post! I am a new workshop teacher and have really shaken things up in our fourth grade this year. My colleague has been open to trying new things and seems happy with the changes. We have the support of our district and principal, but starting something new means a lot of prep up front and trying and failing over and over. My students are talking more, but in meaningful ways. This should be shared on Twitter! Dr. Mary Howard would be loving all of your tidbits!

  6. Thanks for an inspiring post. I’m in such a funny place right now – high school, now working with the “lower stream” kids, curriculum to follow… and I desperately need to shake things up for them. I’ve got all sorts of teaching tricks up my sleeve, but I’m beginning to veer towards professional books geared for elementary and middle school teachers because something is very broken in the literate lives of the students I have now. This post gives me so many good guideposts and ideas. I’m bookmarking it for sure – and adding more books to the hold list at the library. (Amy Krause Rosenthal just came in!)

    • I am now a teacher educator and college professor, but I was a high school teacher before, and I relied very heavily on the work of elementary and middle school workshop teachers. In fact, I would say that I still learn more and use more ideas from elementary teachers than from anyone else. Those elementary teachers are where it’s at! So incredibly innovative. Little do my college freshmen realize that they’re writing to the same prompt that some third-graders are writing to today! Do you have a classroom library? My “lower stream” students have always embraced the writer’s notebook (for the most part), the individualized book stack (which usually means I spend a lot of my own money on books so I can have just the right thing for that kid who refuses to read but loves MMA or the kid who refuses to read but loves tractors), and lots of book talks and read-alouds.

      • Hmm… I feel like I need to adopt you as my mentor. I *do* have a classroom library, but I’m also a department head and, in my zeal to get other teachers to have classroom libraries I’m afraid I’ve plundered my own. I need to get on that. I’ve been moved around quite a bit in the last few years – 12th grade University track – Special Education – now they’re threatening to move me to a French class midsemester… I chose my darling grade 10s, but it is a real shift in mindset from the grade 12s. I think I’ve been resting on my laurels for a few years (largely to wrap my head around the beast that is Special Education -gah). Now I need to get back to my roots and workshop is clearly where it’s at. I sense a summer of reading ahead of me. Thanks for your encouragement!

    • I still try to do too many things too! Especially after I attend NCTE. I come home with 10 new amazing ideas for major classroom changes–and changes that would require me to get up to speed on something entirely new. But I’m a pantser as a writer and a pantser as a teacher too, so I do get energy from doing new things. Still, one at a time is probably the best path for success!

  7. These are excellent suggestions. Even after years of teaching it’s tempting to try too much at once. This year I’m trying to create more of a workshop experience in my general speech classes; I’m hoping this approach will help those students unsure about getting up in front of the class. This past trimester I abandoned the district curriculum because it’s a mess and had students do the kinds of reading and writing I know they need and that will make them successful. One thing that does bother me is the constant attempt to rename the wheel. You name a couple of seminal texts, and that’s a reminder to hold on to the tried and true and not always latch on to the shiny and new. I thank Tom Newkirk for that reminder.

  8. You offer great advice. I especially like the line ” If a practice can’t be located in the lives of readers and writers in the wild, I need to think carefully about why I’d want to inflict it on my students.” I also like your advice to get better at one thing each year. I am not a brand new teacher, but that is something I struggle with, as I want to be doing it all perfectly right this minute. Thank you for sharing this thoughtful advice!

  9. Great advice! I always keep my door open and sometimes fall subject to emails about the district rules about closed and locked doors. I Hate what this says about the world we live in and the Closed Door atmosphere it creates in the schools.

  10. These are such great suggestions! The professional books that you listed are some of my favorite as well. I loved how you emphasized that they need to be reread!

  11. Your post is so full of wisdom and resources, as well. Thank you for that. I especially love the reminders to new teachers to work on one thing at once. Taking it all on doesn’t lead to greatness! Thank you for sharing your knowledge with such clarity and organization.

  12. I taught reading workshop for struggling readers for several years before becoming an online teacher, and your advice is spot on. I always enjoyed reading with my students in the beginning of the class, and the students were very aware that I did so! I finish a book every couple of weeks (faster if I have a LOT of workshop classes), and for some of my students, just the modeling that people did, in fact, finish books, and then choose other ones, was so important. For some, they had never seen someone read an entire book before.

  13. This! All of this! I love this post so much! I’m so glad I read it today. As I prepare to lead a workshop model PD to my staff who are new to and skeptical of the workshop model, these are great reminders of why I love it! I hope you don’t mind me sharing it with my staff!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: