Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Why Workshop?

Yesterday, I was engaged in a curriculum conversation and a colleague (read: boss) challenged, “Why workshop?”  The question made me pause.  My stomach twisted.  How could I explain the heart and soul of what I believe and what I value, in a just few brief sentences?  The eyes in the room turned to me.  Was my purpose to inform, inspire, or persuade?  I’m still not exactly sure.  Maybe he just wanted to make sure that I was fighting for something in which I truly believed.  I answered the question on the spot, but I haven’t stopped mulling it over.  In short, he asked a great question.  

Debra Pickering, from the Marzano Research Laboratory, speaks about the importance of establishing academic, social, and emotional belief statements in a school environment.   This got me thinking.  What do we believe?  Do our actions match our beliefs?  Then, this past summer, Carl Anderson challenged our group of inspired teachers at TCRWP, “What do you value most in student writing?”  Carl reminds us to focus our lenses at which we view reading and writing to align with our values.  More pondering, reflecting, thinking.  It's not that I haven't thought of these things before; I have.  My vision, however, is becoming clearer and clearer each time I pick up my binoculars and focus my lenses.   Why workshop?

  •  Workshop Cultivates Thinking and Independence.  I value student independence.  I believe that students have the ability and power to be self-directed learners and thinkers to achieve their goals. I believe that given the thinking strategies, students can, and do, take ownership in their learning.   I believe that students are independent, honest and caring learners in an environment that allows risk taking, expects integrity and effort, and nurtures innovation.  
  •  Workshop Allows for Inquiry Based Learning.  I value student choice.  I believe that students will rise to the occasion to read, write, speak, listen and think in collaborative and exciting ways when given the opportunity to innovate, explore, and dream.  I believe that students should read texts that interest and excite them, at their level.  I believe that students can and should write interesting, authentic experiences with purpose for targeted, authentic audiences.  I believe that students strive to express themselves through writing to find their true voices. 
  •  Workshop Nurtures Relationships.  I value teacher-student and student-student relationships.  I believe that through mini-lessons, conferring, and performance/project based learning, students can work collaboratively with teachers and peers to learn and grow from each other.  I believe that through the layers of technology available in the world, students and teachers are still human beings that need to communicate, collaborate, share, compromise, and take risks in safe environments by speaking and listening to each other with respect.  
  • Workshop Improves Student and Teacher LearningI value the joy of reading and writing.  I value life-long learning.  I believe that students should learn the habits of mind to help them apply reading and writing strategies and skills throughout their lifetime.  I believe that students will succeed as learners when taught how to learn.  I believe that books enlighten young minds and help students see the world from a different perspectives; I believe that kids should have many reading experiences throughout a balanced literacy program including read alouds, shared reading, explicit instruction, and independent reading.  I believe that authors and writers should mentor students to motivate our students with focus, meaning, structure and craft.  
  • Workshop Is Research Based, Classroom Tested, and Aligns to the Common Core State StandardsI value rigor.  I value teacher collaboration and learning.  I believe that students travel through learning progressions. I believe that students should demonstrate their learning and their growth in authentic, performance-based experiences.  I believe that teachers should have a strong curriculum available to them, and I believe that teachers should have choice and freedom over engaging learning activities that are differentiated for student strengths and needs. I believe that teachers are creative, hard-working learners that will bring their students to the next level when provided professional development, collaboration, and time to reflect.  
  •  Workshop Is Relevant.  I value authenticity.  I believe that students should participate in reading and writing experiences that are relevant to the world around them. I believe students should use the technology in the world to connect across the globe.  I believe educators need to embrace the shrinking world and teach students how to actively participate in the digital landscape around them.  I believe students should have opportunities to set goals, work toward the goals in an authentic, caring environment, reflect on the success and/or failure of the goal, and grow from the experiences.  I believe life is about making things happen.

I know I'm leaving out the nitty gritty details of what makes Workshop a dynamic learning environment.  But this post isn't about writer's notebooks, mini-lessons, or conferring.  Tonight, it's just about why we all need a little bit of workshop in our schools.  :)  

Reading and Writing workshop is a skeleton.  The teachers, the students, and the learning experiences breathe life into the structure to make it come alive. I value students. I value teachers.  I value relationships.  I value learning.  I believe the structure behind Reading and Writing Workshop fosters the joy of literacy and supports teachers and students through our life-long journeys.   


  1. Your deeply held beliefs and passion for your students, their work, and your role as a teacher shine through in this post. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I just came home from our Open House night; a long day, indeed. Your message literally made my day. Thanks so much!

  3. I absolutely love your post about the workshop model and I cannot wait to share it with my staff! We are on year four of a school-wide shift to the workshop models in both reading and writing and I can honestly say, this is the first year we can really feel it permeating the building from day one and a lot of it is because of what you describe here in your blog! I am also extremely passionate about the workshop model and believe that it can work well with Common Core, APPR & all that other stuff. Thank you for capturing the power of the workshop so beautifully in words!!

  4. I love this post. Thank you so much. You beautifully sum up much of what I believe, but I always struggle to put my beliefs into words. Thanks for doing that for me. And just so you know, I think this informs, inspires, AND persuades! I will share this with my colleagues to do all 3. Thanks again.

  5. I'm so very glad. Thanks, everyone. Your comments continue to inspire me!

  6. The key problem with Calkin’s approach is that it has no theoretical understanding of the role language plays in learning. I have just sat through a session with Carl Anderson – an acolyte of Calkins and he listed the five lenses through which he assesses writing. Meaning was number 1 and conventions number five. Grammar was slotted in under conventions. Could someone from the Calkins camp please explain how we can have meaning without reflecting upon the choices we make from the linguistic system. Number 2 was voice. Once again, without a sense of how our language choices fashion our texts we might as well read tea leaves. Any theory of language development that is based around ‘naturalness’ privileges those with access to social capital. The marginalised are ultimately blamed for their marginalisation.
    The other issue is that this approach actually de-skills teachers. Scripts, mantras, sacred texts, the isolation of dissenters…it has all the hallmarks of a cult. Until the workshop approach opens itself to independent research and states clearly it’s linguistic theory, it will remain for me, snake-oil.

    1. Dear Anonymous,

      The picture you paint of the Calkins approach shows very little understanding of it. Why don't you read one of her books? It's easy to attach a boogey man . . . but harder when you actually turn on the light and have a good look around.

      Regarding your view of grammar: We all learned how to speak English without formal grammar training. Thus, even a five year old is a grammar genius.

      Do kids have trouble with grammar when they are speaking? No. Why? Because they KNOW grammar, not because but in spite of being taught it.