Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Fallacy of Workshop

I have been thinking about content knowledge, its importance, and the difference between tacit knowledge and theory and how these get played out in classrooms.  I want to suggest that teacher knowledge based on theory needs to be privileged. 

Story 1:
In this fifth grade classroom,  20 students are present and are seated four to a table. Students have just regrouped so they are now seated with  their literature group members, all have the text they are reading in front of them, and many of these texts have one or more post-its adhered. On the board is an outline of activities students will be doing during workshop. Literature circles is slated for 40 minutes.  While students meet to discuss their books, the teacher observes the students at work and eventually joins one group.

Posted on the walls are a series of anchor charts designed to help student know how to talk about books.  Each group has a talking stick in order to ensure that students take turns talking, a packet of post-its, jar of sharpened pencils, and a self-evaluation form to complete at the end of the session. When I join one group's conversation I find that the students each are taking a turn, reading in a round robin fashion, from their post it notes. They have written  in response to the prompt, "What do you think will happen next in the story? Make a prediction." The students' predictions are all similar guesses and after they dutifully read aloud their predictions, they next find words they did not know.  After everyone offers at least one word they did not know and they guess what each might mean, one student reads aloud from a dictionary a definition.  The definition offered does not always match the intention of the writer, but nonetheless all of the students record the word and the definition in their reader's notebook in the section titled: My Personal Dictionary.  Next, they take time to determine how many pages they will be reading for the next class.  They have a calendar that tells them when they will need to have the whole book read, but are permitted to determine how many pages they will be reading for each class session.  This group determines they will read 10 pages  which will place them in the middle of the next chapter.

At the end of the the 35-minute group session each student completes a Literature Workshop Self-evaluation form and then places it in a basket, labeled "Assessment" for the teacher to review at a later time.

Name _____________________________ 
Week of _______________________
Book Title _____________________________________________________________

Grading Criteria: Ex = Excellent    S = Satisfactory    N = Needs Improvement  U = Unsatisfactory  

________ 1. Completed assigned reading
________ 2. Prepared with book and/or assignment
________ 3. Participated actively in Literature Circle

Story 2:
Down the hallway, another "workshop" is happening in a fourth grade classroom.  Here students are paired and are writing a praising statement in response to a peer's finished text.  Students read their partner's typed text and on another sheet of paper write a response.  Everyone in the class is busy, including the teacher who moves from pair to pair overseeing the work students are doing.  When I read the text one student has written it becomes noticeable that the student's finished work has such serious syntax concerns that it is difficult for her partner to actually read.  In response the student writes, "I like the lead." This task (exchange papers, read, offer a complement, and return the text to your partner) has taken 30 minutes to complete.

Story 3:
In a third classroom, students have dropped everything and are reading.   Every morning in this second grade classroom, students spend 30-minutes engaged in sustained silent reading of self-selected texts. Students are seated at desks and are reading and the teacher is also reading, modeling what good readers do. Every student has one or more books.  As I sit next to one child and ask her to softly read aloud to me it becomes obvious that she cannot read the text with any integrity. It is simply too hard.  She has selected a Dora the Explorer book because she likes the cartoon. I ask her if she has any other books to read and she indicates she does.  None of the books though are ones she can practice reading with as all are too difficult for her to manage on her own.  At the end of the reading, students write a reaction in their response journal.  The girl writes the date on the top of the paper, makes a heart and writes I love Dora.  

Story 4:
In a seventh grade classrooms, students are engaged in a genre study and specifically they are writing "Wow" endings to their personal narratives.  The teacher has provided a model WOW ending to the narrative she has written.  Students study the last paragraph and make comments about word choice and varied sentences, including the use of a one word sentence.  The teacher explains that the one word sentence is meant to summarize her overall feelings. Many students indicate they like that technique and plan to try it with their own writing. The teacher reminds them that they do not need to follow her model, but instead should make the closing wow their readers and to refer to the list of craft techniques they have been studying all year.

Students take out their own writing and begin to work on their endings.  Alongside, they also have a list of craft techniques they might use.

"I'm going to end with a rhetorical questions," says one student.
"I like the one word ending," another offers.
Other students determine they will write a summary statement, repeat the opening line, or write about the setting.

As I listen, I wonder about textual cohesion and try mightily to recall that lovely line by Toni Morrison about endings ("I always know the ending; that's where I start.").  I ask the one student who is writing a rhetorical question how that question connects to the narrative.  He indicates that he doesn't understand.  He then explains that the task is to use one of the craft techniques as they are target skills.  He is very certain about this and shows me how he will indicate the target skill at the top of his narrative.

Story 5:
In another middle school classroom, a group of 3 teachers are visiting a colleague's classroom and they have been charged by the consultant to observe how she confers with a student in order for them to try it.  Also present is the principal. The teachers have been told by the writing consultant that the students are "moving from their seed ideas to their initial draft."  The consultant first models how to confer with a student highlighting 4 steps: engage the writer in a conversation, find a teaching point, give the writer a skill to work with, and then exit the conference. After modeling each step, she then directs the teachers to  find a student in the class and confer.

Needles to say, everyone is feeling a bit awkward. The teachers do not know the students, have not read any of their former work, and most of the students do not actually know what they wanted to write as their list of seed ideas was simply that, a list.  They also aren't quite use to the writing workshop terminology, such as seed ideas. What is a bit ironic is that two of the three visiting teachers are published writers. One has a young adult novel and a children's story published and the other teacher has published articles in juried professional journals, as well as served as an editor for an NCTE journal.  The consultant, unpublished, taught for five years in NYC and is now an affiliate with a college reading and writing project. 

The teachers each engaged a student and went through the steps as directed.  After the classroom experience, the teachers and consultant and principal debriefed their site-based professional learning experience. Each teacher needed to explain how they had used the four-step conferring process.

In each of these stories I wonder about the amount of time that is dedicated to pursuits where the learning may lead to gross misconceptions about reading, writing, learning, and teaching.  In each scenario, the absence of knowledge about how we learn and develop as readers, writers, and teachers is problematic.  Instead of developing and/or deepening understanding about these matters, a set of procedures have been substituted along with an alarming sense of certainty.

I think it might be better to stop compartmentalizing teaching and learning and privilege time to study one's teaching and learning, to steep one's self in juried research, to tangle with theory, to avoid reading only practitioner-based texts, and avoid think tanks at all costs.

Curious as to what you think.


  1. These stories are depressingly familiar--practicing a process for its own sake rather than using the process to explore valuable ideas. I don't object to routines--series of tools and strategies that students can apply independently help things move along smoothly. That isn't the same as agreeing in advance on essential questions and developing original answers to them. Kids are very used to learning an algorithm--unfortunately, teachers are very used to teaching them as well.

  2. Yes, I agree Nancy. It isn't about the structure of workshop, but rather the implementation of something without any actual or meaningful content.


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