Workshop 101

“We do Reading Workshop,” is a phrase you may be hearing more and more these days. Whether it’s called Reading Workshop, Reader’s Workshop, or just Workshop, the workshop model of instruction is cropping up in classrooms across the country. And it may be leaving you wondering: What, exactly, is workshop teaching?

While I wouldn’t call myself an expert on workshop teaching, I am definitely passionate about it, and I have experience researching it, observing it in the classrooms of many expert teachers, and implementing workshops in my own classroom. I’ll be addressing the ins and outs of workshop teaching in a series of posts here on the blog, and today I want to give you a good starting point for understanding a workshop classroom. Workshop 101, you might say.

True story: before I became a teacher, I started my professional life as a fine artist. I went to a fine arts university and received my BFA. When I think about workshop teaching, I immediately think about the drawing classes I took back in art school. A day’s lesson would begin with a demonstration by the professor, modeling for us a technique as we looked on. Then the students would scatter around the room to work on our own drawings, trying out the technique that the professor had demonstrated. During this time, the professor would be circulating around the room, coaching in and working with various students. The feedback wasn’t always on the specific technique we learned that day, but would meet whatever the most obvious and pressing need was for each student–attention to sighting angles, varying line weight, composition–whatever the individual student needed to work on. Occasionally the professor would gather a small group of students with the same need to give an additional demonstration. Often, we were asked to observe another student who was doing something noteworthy and learn from them as well. At the end of the lesson, we would gather back as a whole group and show our work, reflect and give feedback to others.

Workshop teaching in the elementary school classroom goes very much the same way as it did back in the drawing studio. In this case, the teacher acts as a knowledgeable and passionate mentor who models a strategy for the whole class (this is called a “minilesson”). Then the students break off to do independent work while the teacher meets with individual students or small groups to give support. At the end of the class, the students gather back into the whole group to share and reflect on the day’s work.

Although workshop classes vary in length depending on the age of the students, most workshop classes are taught in an hour, divvied up like this:

Workshop teaching is what is referred to as a “framework” for teaching. It’s a way to structure your instructional minutes. Pretty much any subject can be taught as a workshop, though the most common subjects are the big three: reading, writing, and math, but because this blog’s focus is on literacy education, I will be talking solely about Reading Workshop and Writing Workshop.

Since workshop teaching is simply a framework for instruction, there is no specific curriculum you have to use in order to teach a workshop. You could use no purchased curriculum at all, and develop your minilesson based on your grade level standards, the needs of your students, and a multitude of strategies that will help them achieve the standards. It certainly is easier to base your teaching on an established curriculum, though, and the main curriculum used for Reading and Writing Workshop is called The Units of Study, developed by Lucy Calkins and her colleagues at Columbia University Teachers College, and published by Heinemann.

I hope this post gives you a good starting point for understanding the big picture of workshop model teaching! In the coming weeks, I will delve deeper into the nuts and bolts of the Reading and Writing Workshop, share how I make them work in my classroom, and answer some common questions about workshop teaching.

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