Tag Archives: workshop model

If It Ain’t Broke: The Workshop Model

by GABRIELLE LENSCH PLASTRIK

If It Ain’t Broke. . .

don’t fix it, right?  But what if “fixing it” might make it better?  I have spent the last few weeks trying to make some important decisions about how I will teach next year.  I’m considering some major changes, but am also hesitant because my curriculum certainly isn’t broken.  My students learn a lot about writing and thinking.  They become much more active readers over the course of the school year.  Right now, my curriculum pushes them to excel and gives them the freedom to work on self-directed writing projects that inspire them.  For the most part, they work really hard, participate actively in discussion, and grow tremendously.  So why change anything?

The Master of Science in Education program at Northwestern University, the program I attended, requires two methods courses for new English teachers: reading methods and writing methods.  A foundational text for both methods courses is Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle.  Reading this book is paradigm-shifting.  Atwell argues that the English classroom needs to become a reading and writing workshop, not a teacher directed study of literature, even if being teacher directed does not mean being teacher centered.  Student motivation and achievement at her school in rural Maine dramatically increased when she made this shift herself twenty or more years ago.  It allows her to work individually with each of her students, to help them grow in the ways they need to grow.  In the second edition of the book, she also argues for some whole-class activities and reading.  Not everything can be on one’s own, but for the most part, Atwell says that we have to provide an environment for our students to become their own readers and writers.

I have long been tempted to run a classroom that fits the description of Nancie Atwell’s classroom.  The idea of giving students control over the direction of their own learning—but not the organization of it—appeals to me as a former student who remembers being bored in classrooms because I could and wanted to do and learn more and as a teacher who has worked with student who just don’t understand a concept and are forced to press on because the rest of the class is ready to do so.  The workshop model is the ultimate in differentiation.  It is the democratizing of the classroom.

What worries me, though, is that my students are already motivated and achieving.  Most of them do well with a push from their teachers.  Many people assume that high-achieving students will work harder on their own. In my experience, academic giftedness frequently comes along with a touch of academic laziness: what can I get away with not doing?  Clearly if a student is really excited about a lesson or project, this isn’t true, and there are some students of whom this will never be true, but for many it is just the way their brains work.  Part of their giftedness is finding short-cuts.  So, giving them so much freedom is, in some ways, a ticket out of hard work.

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The Workshop Model: Finding My Way to Their Independence

by GABRIELLE LENSCH PLASTRIK

In her groundbreaking work, In the Middle, Nancy Atwell proposes a workshop model of running the English Language Arts classroom.  She suggests that giving students control over the reading and writing that they are doing allows them to do more real and meaningful work.

Ever since first reading her book, I have agreed with the philosophy behind it.  Nevertheless, I have never been able to fully convert my classroom.  Almost weekly I ask myself why.  My methods teacher at Northwestern University’s MSEd program, Dr. Dagny Bloland, would say that teachers feel compelled to do the things in the classroom that were done to them, and that it is frequently easier to put oneself inside of a cage and swallow the key than it is to try something new and maybe uncomfortable.  For many people, these things are probably true.  A lot of teachers cling to the “sage on the stage” model of teaching, but anybody who has ever been in my classroom would tell you that that is not how it is.

For me, it has more to do with feeling pulled in hundreds of directions.  My students read independently for 35 minutes in class each week.  They work on independent writing projects for a 40 minutes a week.  We have a spelling and vocabulary quiz every other week.  I teach grammar lessons every week.  I plan drama activities every two or three weeks.  On top of all of this, I teach United States’ and European literature (2 different classes).  I feel compelled to switch to a workshop model, at least for reading, but I would lose the content that comes with teaching a planned curriculum.  By content, I do not mean skills, but the type of content that comes from following literature through time in a particular geographical region.

My students study US and European history in a course that parallels mine.  If I switched gears, would enough be gained to merit losing the parallel?  Is there a hybrid system that would work better than the one I have?  This is what I spend a good amount of my reflective time thinking about.  How can I possibly get everything done to everyone’s satisfaction when the students have so much freedom? Continue reading

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