why workshop?

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.

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when met with struggle, focus on strategies

we’re sure that many of you are like us and have hung on carol dweck’s research on the benefits of a growth mindset for your students  – benefits for them as people, as learners, but also benefits for your classroom community – and looked for ways to help foster this kind of growth mindset in your kids.

in a recent article we read, dweck addressed some of the misunderstandings of her research around mindsets. one area that stood out to us was the dangers of praising the effort when a student is struggling or failing. dweck said, “teachers were just praising effort that was not effective, saying “wow, you tried really hard!” but students know that if they didn’t make progress and you’re praising them, it’s a consolation prize. they also know you think they can’t do any better. so this kind of growth-mindset idea was misappropriated to try to make kids feel good when they were not achieving.”

it’s well-intended, and feels good, to offer a student who’s struggling, and even failing, some praise, often in the name of boosting her confidence. dweck got us thinking, though, that we certainly don’t want to be encouraging our students to continue doing things that won’t lead them to growth or success. our goal is to have students accept challenge and failure as a chance to grow and do better, to see challenge and failure as a chance to change and improve.

what, specifically, can we do to support students who are struggling? what feedback or prompting is beneficial for us to give?

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they’ve got this – encouraging independence.

we are big believers in independence in our classroom. independence is important for practical reasons (we become more effective in our jobs if we have twenty kids who are pretty independent), but even more important for our kids as people long-term. we take our role in creating independent thinkers and doers seriously.

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building a classroom culture

at the start of the school year, one of our very first community building exercises goes like this:

we grab a box of band-aids and ask students to pretend they have an injury somewhere on their body. then we ask individual students to come up to the front of the classroom and no matter where or what their injury is, we react exactly the same way. “oh you broke your leg? here’s a band-aid for your arm. next…ooohhh… an upset stomach? band-aid for your arm. anyone else…?”

we go on like this for a couple more students and get the anticipated giggles as students catch on quickly to the routine and the response. usually (and hopefully), one student will say that the band-aid on his arm wasn’t what he needed for his injury or, if everyone is happily receiving band-aids on their arms for their injuries, we’ll eventually ask, “where do you think you would need a band-aid for that injury?” before putting it on his arm so it’s the same as everyone else’s rather than the place that he named he needed it.

this little activity helps us to launch into what is a major precept in our classroom and sets the stage for the rest of the year (and we hope the rest of their lives). it defines our core beliefs about differentiation and, more broadly, the work that will be going on in our classroom. in our class, fair isn’t everyone getting everything the same. fair is everyone getting what they need. and, since we’re all different, we need – and should expect – different things.

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the language we choose to use matters.

we’re going to say something a little bit controversial. we’re over charts that have titles like, “good readers solve tricky words.”

yes, it’s true. good readers do that. but what of the kids in your class who don’t do it yet? what of the kids in your class who are struggling with doing it, who know that this makes reading hard for them? what message does a chart with that title send to those kids, that this is something good readers do?

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thoughts on classroom libraries. or: the case for an un-leveled library.

one of the most challenging parts of teaching reading workshop is keeping a pulse on what kids are reading, and if they’re in books that are just right. in our classroom, we use the term “just right” to mean books they can read with at least 97% accuracy and comprehend. we use fountas and pinnell’s guided reading levels to level books and determine our students’ just right (i.e. independent) reading levels.

we know it would be easier for us to know that our kids are in just right books if we had a leveled library, and they were only picking from their just right bin, which is labeled with their just right level. our experience, though, is that that practice doesn’t build confident students who know themselves as readers. and so, you won’t find leveled bins in our classroom library.

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on fostering grit.

just as important to us as the academic subjects we teach is the climate in our classroom. it’s important to us that the kids in our room see the value in working hard over getting it right, and that they treat others with kindness. after reading carol dweck and peter johnston, we’ve made a conscious effort to model, teach and encourage, and celebrate grit.

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