Monday, January 25, 2010

Do You Workshop?

An editor of professional books for educators asked me recently why more English teachers don't use the workshop model. A good quesiton to which there are no easy answers. My short list includes mandates, curriculum packages, reading or English programs, testing pressures, the cannon, school culture and teacher flexibility. I left NCTE this past year thinking what am I doing? What am I doing in my classroom? What am I doing in my professional life? What do I believe in as a teacher and are those beliefs reflected in what I do, what I write, what I say and how I teach? It is somehing I have been thinking about for many months.

Have you seen Nancie Atwell's video in response to the NY Times article on the "The Futue of Reading" where Jonesboro teacher, Lorrie McNeill, discusses her use of the workshop model. After hearing Atwell speak at NCTE this past year, I wondered why the reporter or McNeill didn't mention that she'd spent a week observing and immersing herself in the model at Atwell's school. Though Atwell gave English teachers the workshop classroom with her landmark, In the Middle, originally published in 1987, the workshop model is not ubiquitous. You don't see in every middle school in every district or even in every state. You certainly do not see it every high school. Why is that?

A portion of my class time every day is allotted to reading workshop. Students are surrounded by books. I expect them to read 20 titles a year and I read to reach 100.

I read the books my students read.

What I have not done  is connect my content teaching--the stuff of English--to what we read independently. Instead it's as if, over here I'm teaching a whole class piece (novel, play, poem, article) and we're doing "stuff" with that whole class piece. I think to shift my instruction, I could design open ended mini-lessons that push students into their own reading to apply the strategy. I'm almost there.

Likewise, a portion of my class time each week is allotted to writing workshop. Ideally, I would give a mini-lesson on leads or sentence variety and send students into the pieces they are writing to practice the lesson, but that is not quite what's happening in my classroom. Instead we might all work on memoir at the same time. I will demonstrate a technique or a craft element. Students will then take that to their own work. Not quite workshopping. But at the same time we have to write mandated types of assignments for our school writing portfolio. We have to do three on-demand writing prompts handed to us by the district.

 The have-tos get in the way for me.

The workshop model is not as natural to me as breathing underwater is for a fish; it takes deep content and pedagogical knowledge as well as a finesse with planning and thinking on your feet. I understand why teachers might be reluctant to jump in--running a workshop classroom takes skill. Workshop meaning that students have choice--sometimes crafted or limited choice--to apply what I have taught during a mini-lesson to something they are reading or writing. I would like to transition to a full workshop. Really that is where my teaching heart is. Students need choice. They need to start where they are and read and write themselves toward a goal. But that goal might be different for each student.

Does it sound easy? Do you already run a workshop classroom? Why not?

Image: My 3rd period class during reading workshop.