Friday, August 26, 2011

Workshop is Vapid When Standardization is Enforced

The finest teachers of writing and reading I know are ones who actually write, read, and are curious.  Simple, right?

In the perceived absence of actual reading, writing and curiosity, teachers are often sent to workshops with the hope that they will then return to school sites and 'run workshops'.  At best, when the workshop host is actually someone who reads and writes and doesn't have a lot of formulas or 'best practices' and instead engages all in the actual practice of reading and writing--rich rewards can often accompany.  When the participant continues to read and write and is suitably curious, the ideas learned and questioned via their own practice may make for interesting, if not provocative, work inside their own classroom.

There is an organicism in such practice.

In contrast, when the presenter is someone who has also learned 'workshop techniques' at a distance from actual practice and passes along a laundry list of dos and dont's (think chart after chart) that truly make little actual sense, the outcome is rather dubious. Even worse than this however is the 'turnkey' presenter sent to the latter workshop who then returns to tell everyone else how to "do" workshop.  The workshops enacted after such learning are often vapid and usually rely on standardized practices for all.

Some 'workshop' practices I would question:

1.Why must teachers level all of the books in the classroom library?
Why are reading materials in classrooms being organized exclusively by 'levels'?  I keep hearing more and more about this. Given the importance of prior knowledge and interest, it seems that leveling schema fail as readers age and the confluence of knowledge, interest, and motivation take on greater emphasis.  Why would anyone organize a library based on leveling schema that is imposed? Does it even make remote sense that we could ever actually say that a reader is a level T? I have been in classrooms when a teacher will lean in and say in a stage-whisper, "He's a level N." Could we not imagine easily how such a declaration would be faulty?

Underneath the leveling library is the more important question about how one selects a book to read and what prompts the desire to read.  The leveled system in some ways usurps the actual thinking that needs to be done when selecting a text and coming to name the desire to read.

2. Why must teachers refer to their students as readers and/or writers?
It seems a bit insipid to make teachers refer to their students as 'readers' and 'writers'--as if calling them by a name, somehow makes it "more" true.  It bothers me that naming isn't a privileged exchange between teacher and learner.  A former graduate student told me she was 'written up' by a supervisor for failing to address her 5-year-old students as writers. It's not the names that bother me, but rather that someone else determines address in a classroom apart from the teacher and the learners.  It feels like colonization. 

3. What's with all the sticky notes?
I read a lot. I write a fair amount too.  I do both well with nary a sticky in sight. I have been in classrooms where teachers explain that their students (or should I say readers) must used 3 to 5 sticky notes per chapter when reading a novel. When I ask why, I usually get two responses:
a. The reading workshop presenter said so.
b. We were told we must do this by an administrator (who probably attended the reading workshop).
A friend of mine tells the story of her son arriving home from fifth grade one day and declaring he was done with reading. When she inquired as to why he said he hated sticky notes and he wanted to just go back to reading a good story. "Why do they have to ruin it?" he asked his mom.

Underneath the sticky note practice, is the more important question about the needs of a reader and the reasons for reading.  Not all texts require analysis. Not all texts require writing alongside.  It seems important for students to figure out how to tell the difference and to determine some ways they actually wants to read. Forced sticky notes stops that thinking.

4. Why must all students record the title, author, etc. of every book they read?
There are times I like to keep lists of what I am reading or planning to read.  There are times I like to look at other people's lists as well. For example I often enjoy reading the Five Book Interviews. Recently Carol Gilligan offered five books she would recommend about gender and human nature. The offerings fascinated me.  But occasionally choosing to keep a list is quite different than being made to record every thing read for a school year. Why is knowing the total number of books important? Who benefits by having a child keep a list for a year of what s/he read?  When my son was 7 he had to record the title and author in a notebook of texts he read.  He loved to read and did so with great passion. That passion dimmed a bit when he realized how much writing his rather tired little hand would need to do.  Quite quickly he seized on the idea of limiting his book selection to brief titles.  

5. Why do students have to read a book that is classified as a different genre each month?
Let's just say it's hell that last month after students have been through nine genres (BTW I never actually got all the genre distinctions either) and the last one left is often something they never ever wanted to read. What exactly are students learning in such scenarios?  This practice obfuscates the more important work of developing and changing reading preferences and making decisions about what to read and when.  I also think it seems predictable that children will have great affinity for certain types of books and will desire to read these books in great number. Why do we want to disrupt that? Do we fear that a child hooked into Captain Underpants at 8 will find himself at 40 only reading Dav Pilkey's underpants adventures?

6. A phrase I hope never to hear again: "I have a self-to-text connection to make."
In the name of comprehension bad things have been done to reading and those who read. As a substitution for ambiguity, conjecture, humor, and not knowing (to name but a few)--the connection gambit (often marked with a post it, see image) is being played. Is there any other kind of connection one might have with a text?  If not connected to the reader, then to whom? Is there a reason such things even need to be anounced?  And what does it suggest when after such proclamation the connection is something like this: "I have a text to self connection. My dog drools." I did hear a child utter this after his teacher read a section from a Henry and Mudge story. He was congratulated for making a connection. A friend reminds me that rendering reading into such small bits of nothing, readies children for a career of testable 'reading' items.  I also wonder about such coding and what is missed as the mind is occupied by searching for already determined categories which in fact might not be well understood.

7. Why are students made to keep a writer's notebook and/or reader's notebook?
While visiting a middle school class, a friend of mine tells the story that at the midpoint in the class all of the students put away their writing notebooks and took out their reading notebooks.  She describes this shift from writing workshop to reading workshop as a strange changing of the guards.  I wondered then as I do now why this would be done.  How is it that a notebook, let alone separate notebooks, are needed? Why is it that everyone needed to attend to their writing and reading in the same manner? Imposing an order may constrain learning and in fact that may be interesting. Imposing an order that all must follow takes what might be thoughtful practices (choosing to keep a notebook) and reduces it to mindlessness.

8. Why is there a reliance on 'seed ideas' as the source of writing topics?
I was once told that students couldn't write if they didn't generate five seed ideas first  (one for each day of the school week) and specifically do so inside their writing notebooks which had all been organized as per their teacher's directions including the unique cover each student had to create.  The seed ideas were prompted: a time when you were happy, a time when you were hurt, a bad haircut, and so on.
To See Takes Time (2009)
Whereas I do understand that beginning ideas that are developed into more sustained work, might well be seeds of a sort, the mechanism of recording daily bits of this and that and then selecting one of these entries to develop into a longer work (especially in  a five day period) seems contrived.  It's hard to write at times.  It's a bit offsetting to not know what I want to say and equally it is rather exhilarating when I realize that I am on to something satisfying.  Learning ways to observe seems more important for many writers than responding to prompts and selecting one to write more about.

Invention is the work of teaching and learning. Remove invention and all that is left is a corpse.


  1. Thanks, MaryAnn, for challenging many sacredly held "positions of practice".

    Why is it we force learners into boxes to "perform" for us? When will we fully embrace the power of discovery, "emergent knowing" fuelled by conversations central to the heart of teaching and learning? Natural conversations that emerge as an individual wonders about something, struggles with an idea, or has visceral connections to the learning at hand-- connections that may not yet be fully expressed outwardly to anyone else because emotions or feelings from the experience are still being processed.

    I have been reading a lot lately about studio thinking. These resources brings a connection for me to your post and reinforce to me power in the process of learning in the arts, the Creative Process, which I believe is key to teaching and learning:

    As you said, "Invention is the work of teaching and learning..." How can we re-invent our classrooms as places of real possibility?

  2. Thanks for the links Karen. I am familiar with the concepts as Winner, et als. published a book, Studio Thinking: The Real Benefits of Visual arts Education ( that I have read. I have adpted Winner's ideas for literacy based studio courses when I was a professor. The introductory course for grad students as arts based literacy which was a theory and studio course. I loved designing it and teaching it.

    The work in the course was developed through work I had done with school districts for about 5 years. Instead of "remedating" I worked wth schools to create arts based responses to literacy learning that were culturally relevant. The book that Jane, Rob and I wrote, Deepening Literacy Learning; Art and Literature Engagements in K-8 Classrooms, chronicles this work. You can read sections of it on google scholar for free:)

  3. It's a beautiful theory. "Emergent Knowing." "Invention." "Organicism." But from the point of view of a teacher, putting this kind of stuff into practice carries with it certain practicalities that you can't avoid. Both you, Mary Ann, and Karen, above, talk about a creative process that is mostly, if not completely, internal, and students are expected to be intrinsically motivated by learning. And I love this idea. I wish all students would behave as if they cared about what they could do if they learned more and more every day. But they don't.

    And how is a teacher to grade such intrinsic learning? How do I grade the girl who produces something one week, but the next week becomes "offset" because she doesn't know what she wants to say?

    I have students write down what they are reading because then I know what they are reading. I could ask them, and they could tell me, but I will forget. I have them write down responses to their reading because it shows me that they paid at least a little bit of attention to the language in front of them. I hope they learn to love reading. I hope they go home and read everything they can get their hands on. And they never have to analyze it or talk meaningfully or write down anything about it ever. But in class, I need to know what goes on in their heads so that I can help them become better readers and writers and thinkers and communicators.

    I am by no means calling these "best practices" perfect. Many of these practices I wouldn't even call "best." But if my job is to help them, they have to show me something first before I can do that.

    If your point is that these reading and writing practices are artificial, I agree. But in a classroom, how do you avoid artificiality? Back to the theory of all this, it strives to make learning and reading and writing natural for students, but in school there are contrived necessities that I can't avoid.

  4. This post so completely captures many of my own thoughts. I have always been vehemently opposed to so many of the obligatory elements of our reading and writing workshops. Two objections of mine you touch upon are the requirement to assign everything a trendy term (i.e. txt to txt connection) and the overuse of post-its (esp in primary grades). Least favorite reading wkshop term: "accountable talk stems". Everything is so prescribed,formulaic, timed, scripted, and regimented.

    Leveling books can be beneficial in primary grades for purposes of guided reading, but it is taken too far...I once got reprimanded by a "reading specialist" for allowing a child to have a book in her baggie that was "above" her independent level. I explained that she just loved the book and the illustrations...didn't see any harm in letting her have it. I always allow kids to have choice books. I also know a teacher who physically took an entire basket of books away from a first grader, who was desperate to read them (it was a popular series), and put them on a high shelf. Said to the kid, "These are too hard for you. When you can read them, I'll put them back. For now, you have to read THESE" (gave the kid a basket of level D books) I wondered why the kid couldn't just look at the books, or have an adult at home read them to her. I have always been an avid, voracious reader, but sometimes I feel like if I had to put up with many of the things students put up with these days for reading, I'd probably begin to loathe it. -Sam

  5. I remember, from my time working in NYC, my friend Joe talking about the Workshop model and how much he hated it.

  6. Mary Ann, I am so happy to read your thoughts regarding the workshop practices. I am a school librarian, and when my district began using the workshop model I had a lot of issues with many of its elements. At first I attempted to voice my opinion, but I was quickly silenced by administration. I'll admit that I was angry that most of my library budget was diverted into developing "classroom libraries," and I'm sure that my administrator thought that I was just against the workshop model because it had stolen my budget. In reality, it goes against everything I've learned as a librarian regarding how to help children develop a love of reading. I'm not even going to go into the things that I've heard and seen in classrooms. The comments from children when they come to see me in the library tell me everything I need to know. When my students visit me to pick out reading books, they are so excited when they aren't forced to read "their level." Sometimes they read things that are way too easy for do I. Sometimes they pick something out that I know is beyond their reading capability. When that happens, I usually ask, "Do you have someone at home who can help you with that?" Do I think that they always do? Of course not. My students know that if they don't like a book, they can always come back the next day to try another one. We are still using the workshop model in our district. I truly feel sorry for the teachers, because many (if not most) of them know it isn't the only way or even the best way to teach. I hope that if your district is using it, you reach out to your teachers who are struggling with it. If it's anything like where I am, the teachers are forced to teach the model "or else." The more experienced teachers sneak in alternative ways of teaching, but then it looks like the model is working. I could go on and on, but I hope that administrators soon learn that forcing students to analyze every single piece of text is going to create a generation of kids who hate to read.

  7. @anonymous (librarian) Oragnic workshop or studio work in classrooms can be wonderful learning experiences. It is appaling and faulty to assign levels to readers and think that levle represents what the child can read. So too is it appaling to place these levels on report cards. The whole idea of levels is rather faulty.

    Agency matters in teaching and learning.

    I am speechless.

  8. @Brent
    There's lots of ways to know what someone is reading, including writing a summary, etc. My point isn't about the artifical quality of these practices--more that the practices have little to actually do with promoting reading and writing. They aren't well informed, usually make kids not want to read or write, and should be avoided.

  9. @David: I actually enjoy teachind and learning within a workshop methodology. I just dislike the misinformed crap that gets done in the name of workshop.

  10. @Anoynmous/Sam
    Yep we are in agreement.
    Kids ought to be able to selet books, just as teachers need to guide those sleections at time and ask how will the child be successful with this text? We forget that there is reading to, reading with, and reading alone. All viable.

    It is also ok for kids to select books and realize they need help or invent ways of reading the text. My son as a young child of 5 had a science book about the human body. He studied the illustrations as the words were well beyond what he could read. He loved that book.