Sunday, 9 December 2012

The Workshop 2.0

Angry Birds, Doodle Jump, Shazam, Ocarina, Fruit Ninja.  Let’s face it, when we first heard these terms let alone the word "app," we didn’t quite know what to make of them.  Once we figured them out and how they work though, there was no stopping us.  Since then there have been well over 600,000 apps created and 10 billion downloads (see related video by Appiction).  

Those of you who download and use apps know that it's important to update your apps when possible.  After all, software developers work hard to get the kinks out and add nuanced features that increase the app's overall productivity.

Well, it's the same for teaching.  Our app is the classroom where we are the software developers who continually refine and tweak our craft all in the name of improving student learning.  While we've made tremendous progress in articulating and implementing a clear and coherent RLA curriculum through the Reading and Writing Workshop, it's time for an update.

Over the past few years, through our collective Professional Development and classroom experiences, we have come to define the workshop as the time where we explicitly teach a literacy skill through a range of strategies by modeling the thinking of a real reader or writer in real time and providing opportunities for students to try it out.  We have worked hard to structure our focused mini-lessons with meaningful connections, clear teaching points, time for student engagement, and closing links.  

With this framework firmly under our proverbial teaching belts, we can raise the level of our instruction with three additional key factors in mind:  transference, engagement, and the level of instruction.


Turning and talking to reflect on prior learning
Sometimes I forget that our students have been doing this for a while.  In fact, if they have been at SAS, they know all about the workshop before they even step into my classroom.  With the nature of new units and new mini-lessons though, I often forget to capitalize on their prior learning.

That's why when I begin my mini-lessons now with the connection and teaching point, I often ask my students, "What have you learned last week, during the last unit, or even last year that might help you with this next step?"  By listening in to their talk, I can quickly key into the connections they are making and consider any adjustments to my teaching points.

During the mini-lesson we can explicitly point out some transferable skills to our students as well.  When teaching the importance of word choice in poetry for example, we can recall a mini-lesson on word choice that we taught in our Personal Narrative unit.  

At the same time, we can craft an entire mini-lesson based on transference.  For example, if we just finish a unit on Personal Essay or Persuasive Writing, why not project a sample Literary Essay and ask, "What moves does a literary essay writer make that we just made in our previous work?"  In no time at all, students will generate the characteristics of this "new" genre.  
With this example and transference in mind, we may even reconsider our scope and sequences of units across the year.

Becky G. allowing time for reflection and partner share
before handing in a final assignment

We all know that engagement is a key factor in learning.  And while there is a specific time in a mini-lesson dedicated for students to try out some new moves, engagement should happen throughout the entire mini-lesson.

As in the example above, students are more engaged when they turn and talk to their partner about what they already know about a topic.  Here are some other ideas to keep students focused and engaged throughout the mini-lesson:

  • Students give thumbs up or thumbs down.
  • Students vote with five fingers.
  • Students write down three tips on a sticky note.
  • Teacher gives direct and pointed instruction/feedback:  
    • "Do it now!" 
    • "Eyes on me."
    • "I see _____ has written four lines already."
  • Teacher/Students point to poster.
  • Students repeat a gesture.
  • Students repeat a phrase/chant like "Snap, crackle, pop!"
Another way to raise the level of engagement is to tap into the social and intellectual power of partnerships.  When students talk with their partners, there is 100% participation every time. An added bonus is that we can use that time to listen in and hear what is actually sinking in.

A final consideration in terms of engagement has to do with pacing.  As a recovering maxi-lesson teacher, I often keep the timer on my phone running so I can see how long my lessons are going.  I try to keep track of how long my teaching takes and remind myself that I want them to spend their time doing the work not just listening to someone else talking about it or doing it himself.

Level of Instruction

The whole point of a mini-lesson is to move readers and writers forward.  Simply put, students need to become better because of it.  The challenge is that we teach to a range of abilities in any given class. 
To ensure that every student is challenged, we can think of the skills and strategies we teach on a continuum (good tools for this are the Common Core Standards and Teacher's College Continuums for Narrative Writing and Opinion/Argument Writing).  When planning, we need to determine what each skill looks like at the lower and higher levels.  We need to draw from mentor texts that show this in action, and we can pull them out and teach to them directly either in small groups or one-on-one.

As teachers of writing, we should also write through the different levels of a genre.  Recently, I rewrote my personal essay at the four different levels (Below, Approaching, Meets and Exemplary) to determine exactly what each level might look like.  An added benefit was that I was able to pull out a certain level and have students articulate what they need to reach the next level.

The interesting thing about transference, engagement, and level of instruction is that they go hand-in-hand.  In other words, students are more engaged when they are appropriately challenged, and when they are, they are more likely to transfer new skills over time.  

It's the same for us teachers as well.  Through our PLC work, we stay engaged by transferring teaching strategies that work, and in turn, we continually improve the level of instruction.  In fact, when I think about the way I used to teach, I'm sure glad that I've had continual updates along the way.  I know it won't be the last one, but for now, I feel reassured that I'm doing my best to get the kinks out and teach more productively.

  • "Writing Curriculum and the Common Core," Mary Ehrenworth.  Oct. 2012.  New York.


  1. This is my favorite line of yours this week, "...we stay engaged by transferring teaching strategies that work, and in turn, we continually improve the level of instruction." It reflects a core value of being a lifelong learner that all teachers should strive to develop. Additionally, by using "I" statements, I don't feel like the finger is being pointed at me. In the end, I know that my ability to be a lifelong learner will be the key to my effectiveness with students.

  2. Thanks, Matt. I couldn't agree more. When reflecting on my teaching, I'm always amazed at how many connections there are between me learning my craft and students learning theirs. Great point about the "I" statements and having lifelong learning at the core of it all.