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!