we aren’t just teachers of reading and writing workshop. we’re believers in reading and writing workshop. we also believe anyone who has the chance to visit a classroom using the workshop model would be believers, too.
the reality, though – and we know this from experience – is that doing workshop well is hard. it takes time and a lot of learning to feel confident. it’s easier and maybe, therefore, tempting at times to assign everyone the same book or hand out a worksheet to practice a writing skill. like all (almost all?) hard things, though, workshop is worth it.
it’s worth the years (for real) it will take to feel confident you’ll find teaching points when you confer with readers who are all reading different books. it’s worth the constant reflection and adjusting of your teaching and responses to students so that you move from feeling like the independent work time part of workshop is chaotic to feeling like it’s productive for students. it’s worth the loss of control you experience when you hand the decisions over to your students so that they become empowered.
one of our favorite blogs features beautiful essays on motherhood. (the kinds of essays that would serve as mentor texts for our own essay writing.) in a recent essay, can’t force it, the author, ashlee gadd, draws parallels between her yoga practice and being a mom. (hopefully you’ll pause here to go read it, because our summary below won’t do justice to ashlee’s writing.)
ashlee opens the essay by describing her experience in an exercise class (our guess is pilates, though ashlee never reveals what the class is, and, as readers, we’re assuming that was intentional) where the instructor made decisions for her: when to drink water, how hard she should be pushing herself, even her motivation for coming to the class in the first place.
she then moves to the experience in her yoga class – “a different class. a better class.” the yoga instructor uses language that allows for the students to make their own choices. she offers suggestions and prompts, but gives the power to the students and affirms their choices, trusting that they’re doing the right thing for themselves as individuals. the teacher trusts that everyone is there to do the best they can that day, though it might look different from the person next to them or even what they did the day before.
not surprisingly, ashlee shut down in the first exercise class, deliberately not pushing herself very hard in an act of defiance. she leaves angry and with no plans to return.
in the yoga class, all of the yogis push themselves as hard as they can. ashlee writes, “we showed up today. we worked hard today. not because anyone forced us to — but because there was enough freedom and grace in that room for each of us to listen to our own bodies.”
the essay gave us a lot to think about as people and as moms, but also as teachers. and what felt so, so good to realize was that workshop makes it possible to do for our students what ashlee’s yoga instructor does for her. that is, workshop is intended to provide freedom and grace for the readers and writers participating in it, and an environment like that makes huge growth possible for all students.
if we were asked a few weeks ago why we love workshop so much, our quick, though incomplete, list might have been:
- as the teacher, you get to know – really know – your students: their stories, struggles, likes and dislikes. workshop is grounded in shared stories and conversations, and those are pathways to knowing one another.
- along the same lines, teaching and learning in workshop creates community. the peer talk and collaboration and constant sharing of stories pretty much guarantees a community will be built.
- it makes real readers and writers out of our students. they’re in charge, deciding (for the most part) what to read and what to write. they get to pursue what they’re most interested in, which of course grows them into people who are readers and writers. that is the end goal after all, right? to carry the work beyond the four walls of our classroom, hopefully at their own choosing.
but after reading ashlee’s essay, we realized that the reason we love workshop the very most is that it allows us to teach our students and provide them opportunities to engage in hard work while at the same time honoring their choices as people and empowering them to try their own, individual very best.
teaching through the workshop model allows us to meet all students where they are and build a culture that celebrates differences. because there aren’t single texts being assigned to all, for example, all students have the chance to feel successful and have an entry point into the work starting where they are. workshop is grounded in a growth mindset, so students are able to find themselves along a trajectory of work, and see that wherever they are is an ok place to start because there’s always the possibility for growth. teaching through workshop creates an invitation for students to try, and trusts that everyone is there to do the best they can that day. though it might look different from the person next to them or even what they did the day before, their effort will be enough to propel them toward growth.
workshop makes it possible for students to say as they leave our class: we showed up today. we worked hard today. not because anyone forced us to — but because there was enough freedom and grace in that room for each of us to grow because we tried.