Are you doing “Workshop?”

I was asked that question back at the beginning of the year. “Are you doing workshop?” The follow up questions usually revolve around something like ‘how will you fit it in?’ or ‘what will you not do?’ These questions reveal an understanding of ‘Workshop’ which is at odds with what is, or what it should be.

Workshop is not content. It is not skills. It is not the standards (insert local interpretation here). It is not texts, assignments, assessments or any other ‘thing’ that needs to be scheduled around. It displaces nothing. It does not entail changing your goals for your students in any way.

Workshop is a pedagogical stance, which suggests certain methodology in the classroom. This is independent of the standards, content or learning outcomes in any particular course. Any learning outcome can be taught using Workshop.

Mr. B articulated it really well a while ago. He said, “workshop is when we spend our time DOING what we’re learning instead of TALKING about what we’re learning.”  If we’re learning something about writing, we write and experiment with it. If we’re learning something about reading, we read things that contain or demonstrate that thing.

I just finished a book called The Music Lesson by the bassist Victor Wooten (I have an alternative life as a musician). It is a very Carlos Castaneda/Dan Millman (if you know those writers) book, focusing on learning music as a spiritual pursuit. In it, the ‘teacher’ Michael, says repeatedly to the ‘student,’ “I can’t teach anyone anything, but I can show you things, and you can learn them by trying them.” That’s a great statement on workshop. If I talk at my students about writing they won’t really learn much about writing. If they write, they will.

Which brings us to the role of the teacher in workshop. As it happens, there is a role for the teacher. I do know something about writing and reading. And I know some things about how students learn. But if all I do is talk about what I know, there will be limited learning. And, if all that happens is that my students try stuff, without availing themselves of what I know, their learning will also be limited, though I would venture that it will still be better than my talking.

It’s the blending of the two that makes workshop really effective. In That Workshop Book by Samantha Bennett, she describes workshop as a cycle of mini-lesson, worktime and debrief. Her rough guide is that in a 50 minute period (which is about where we live most of the time), there would be 10 minutes of mini-lesson, thirty minutes of worktime, and a ten minute debrief. As a rough ratio I think that works pretty well.

Using Wooten’s idea of ‘showing,’ that gives me about ten minutes to show students something (a writing technique, a reading tactic, a strategy for revision), thirty minutes for them to try it with me looking over shoulders, answering questions, redirecting and all that other teacher stuff I do (which often is the REAL teacher stuff), and ten minutes for us to debrief, share, recap and look ahead. Bennett makes the point that the ‘mini-lesson’ doesn’t necessarily have to be a lesson either. It could be giving directions, stimulating them with a topic, having them do something in preparation. But it’s SHORT. So that they can get busy doing. And note that my job while they are doing doesn’t stop, anymore than a coach would. I am in there with them, often ‘doing’ the same thing as a model, often playing coach and helping them through the doing.

In that cycle, I cannot imagine much I could not teach. Doing a long term project? Scaffold it into parts, make the parts mini-lessons, and string them together. Reading a novel? Map out what reading skills you need to teach, break them into mini-lessons based on selections from the text, focus on specific passages as practice for students. Teaching them writer’s conferences- do a demo with a student or colleague, provide them with directions, let them do it. In each example, repeat the same cycle- mini-lesson, worktime, debrief.

Understood like that, ‘workshop’ is a constructivist pedagogy applicable pretty much anywhere. It displaces nothing. It does require that teachers focus more on what their students are actually learning than what teachers are ‘covering.’ But just because you said something in front of students does not mean that they learned it. Workshop focuses us on what students actually learn. And so what I do in class becomes much less important than what they do.

Many others have pointed out that being truly student focused means disposing of a lot of what we traditionally ‘cover,’ and focusing on key skills and knowledge that students need to do what we expect them to do (Marzano, Hattie and Romano pop immediately to mind), then watching closely (Bennett calls it ‘listening’) to see if students do or do not get there. Workshop leaves lots of time for students to work through challenges at their own pace, time for teachers to support students individually, and in my experience produces more actual learning and enjoyment than my talking- and I’m a good talker!

The takeaway here is the big part in the middle that involves students doing things. If your classroom revolves around students actually trying the things you want them to do- in class, every day, in meaningful ways- then you are probably doing workshop, or something pretty close.

If students only ‘do’ when they go home at night, and most of your class time is filled with your voice, then you aren’t. What you’re trying to teach doesn’t really make a difference.

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One Response to Are you doing “Workshop?”

  1. Pingback: A Workshop Teacher Confronts AP Lit | The Paper Graders

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