Workshop teaching can be tough, but it’s ultimately necessary for a student-driven classroom. While all workshops incorporate points of convergence and divergence–meaning children come together (converge) and work in small groups or independently (diverge), not all workshops are created equal and one type of workshop may not serve all of your purposes.
I like to draw upon different workshop styles when planning my lessons. I’ve shared the most common first, used most commonly in reading and writing workshop, as well as some others than might help you vary your lessons, meanwhile preserve the student-driven nature of an effective classroom.
An invitational workshop is what many of us know. It’s what Lucy Calkins has made famous through Reading and Writing Workshop. In the invitational workshop, the instructor usually hosts a minilesson. This minilesson is intended to meet the needs of the majority of children in the classroom. Afterwards, the children are “invited” to employ the skills or strategy for the minilesson during workshop time, where students work independently or in small groups.
During the workshop session, children are able to practice on their own and may choose to employ the new skill or strategy shared in the minilesson. The tasks are pretty clear, though. In literacy workshops, children are generally expected to read, write, or participate in centers. During this time, educators are able to pull small groups or engage in one-on-one conferring to offer personalized feedback.
As many of us know, this typical workshop style doesn’t always meet our needs. In fact, sometimes the minilesson can be too didactic and unsuitable for all subjects. While “I do, you do, we do” is a very popular way of thinking when scaffolding new skills and gradually releasing them to children, it has the potential to work against a constructivist style of teaching and learning.
According to John Hattie (2015), direct instruction has a relatively high effect size (.6). Other factors do, as well, from classroom discussion (.82) to self-questioning (.64) and problem-solving teaching (.63). While classroom discussion can still achieved with a more didactic approach, the latter two need a different style of teaching.
In a constructivist workshop, children are given a provocation or problem to solve. While the educator may scaffold the experience by modeling skills for interpretation or close reading of the provocation (I’m using the term read very loosely here. Pictures can be “read”, too.), he or she leaves the interpretation and action up to the students.
I use this workshop most commonly in math workshop. We teach math entirely through problem-solving, meaning that we rely on children to employ already learned skills in the context of a novel situation. The nature of constructivism allows children to personalize the workshop through their own agency and autonomy. Children choose a method or strategy they see as best, and then solve the problem accordingly.
This does not, however, mean that the learning ends there. Even in a student-driven workshop where agency and autonomy peak, it is still important to find opportunities for convergence. Why? Because by comparing student methods, children can be gradually guided towards more efficient methods for problem-solving, all the while strengthening cognitive flexibility through exposure to different ways of thinking. I usually find time for comparing methods towards the end of the instructional block, as opposed to the beginning of the block (like in an Invitational Workshop). As a result, the minilesson tends to come towards the middle or end of a Constructivist workshop.
Reflection is critical to student learning. Self-reported grades, feedback, and formative evaluation also have strong effects on student learning (Hattie, 2015), and as a result, these should be massaged into our workshops. Especially in the younger grades, reflection is a very structured process. Heavy scaffolding is generally needed at younger ages, as children are still developing the metacognitive skills necessary to make meaningful changes to their work. They need help interpreting feedback and deciding where to go next with it.
For this reason, I find it helpful to have a workshop structure entirely devoted to reflection, partially because it’s a different type of teaching, but also to emphasize the importance of setting entire lessons aside for structured reflection. It has elements of the both the Invitational Workshop and Constructivist Workshop. It’s didactic in the sense that the teacher thinks aloud and models how to interpret feedback, yet it’s problem-influenced in the sense that children can use their own work as a provocation for problem-solving and goal-setting.
It follows a similar structure to the Invitational Workshop in the sense that it begins with a minilesson and some tips for language to use, all of which is up to the student. Children and the educator converge around the minilesson and then break off to work on their own. At the end of the time, the entire class comes back together for a discussion about their individual reflections, helping them learn to be transparent and vulnerable with personal goals, all the while highlighting potential class-wide goals based on the feedback. I find the best scaffold for a reflection workshop to be a reflection page similar to the one pictured above. It invites the child to agree or disagree with the feedback and also reflect on old work, so they may communicate the ways in which they’ve grown.
Sometimes you just need a little extra time to check in with kids. We’ve all been there. We’re conditioned to believe that teaching requires telling and that we’re not doing our jobs if we haven’t told our students anything within any given instructional block.
Sometimes, the most meaningful learning comes when teachers take the time to listen. After all, so much of our jobs are collecting information in order to meet the needs of individual students. This cannot happen if we do not take the time to confer. In a conferencing workshop, I like to provide a relatively narrow number of choices. It’s usually work that has spilled over from previous days, either from a project or a longer-form assignment like an essay, book club, or extended math task.
While children are working through a checklist of work, I have time to sit and talk with kids that I need to meet with. It could be for an extra writing conference, reading conference, or even to check in on a personal goal. Regardless, building time in for conferencing workshops not only gives you the extra one-on-one time you need to meet with kids and hear their needs; it also gives your kids the extra time they need to finish up assignments and projects meaningfully, honoring that every child works at their own pace and may finish things at different times.
If you’ve spent a substantial amount of time in kindergarten classrooms, you are likely very familiar with this type of workshop. When I taught kindergarten, I referred to it as “choice time.”
While it may seem like purely unstructured play time, it doesn’t have to be reduced to babysitting. Choice time is a time for student-driven, play-based learning. It’s a time for kids to let their interests and passions guide their interactions with peers and materials; likewise, it can be a time for educators to take a step back, observe, and practice listening skills.
As educators, we’re not only there to scaffold experiences and help our children build new competencies; we’re also there to be researchers. In order to meet our students’ needs, we must take the time to get to know them and observe them. A choice workshop is great for that: we can see where they gravitate, observe social interactions with peers, and even get a sense of the degree to which they can attend to a task and persist through challenges, providing us with invaluable data when it comes time to meet them where they are.
Have any other ideas for workshops?
While these are five common ways I think of workshops in my classroom, I’m sure you can think of more. How do you modify the workshop model to meet your needs, while still creating a student-driven learning environment?
Feel free to share your ideas in the comments.