The Workshop Model Redesigned

I’ve been thinking about the workshop model in light of today’s learner, specifically the self-directed learner in a personalized learning classroom/community. Gone are the days when students would gather together in front of an easel for a mini-lesson on, let’s say, imagery. We would read a beautiful text such as All Summer in a Day, and then everyone would go back to their seat to use imagery in their writing. For years, I mapped mini-lessons for my class, even for a school, so the scope and sequence would spiral and build so students would grow as writers. Chris Van Allsburg, Ruth Heller, Patricia Polacco. Favorite authors and favorite books would teach students word choice, sentence fluency, organization, idea development. We built a community of readers and writers, year after year after year. Everyone on the same page at the same time.
But as I reflect on that wonderful workshop model, rich in skills, I find it outdated in execution and structure for the modern learner. Yes, skills should always be embedded and never in isolation, but the step by step whole group mini-lessons? It’s changed. Students don’t wait to learn anymore; they can learn all the time, everywhere. I’m sure this makes some teachers, in particular, squirm a bit, as they *need* a lesson to follow from a book and may not be comfortable trying a more customized approach. The workshop model has proven successful in teaching literacy. But the world has changed, and so has the learner.
Several years ago I returned to the classroom (after a few years at home with my family) to teach graphic design, web design, and video storytelling. I had run these classes using the workshop model, so I thought that is where I would start. But within a couple of weeks, I noticed something indicative of the modern learner. No longer was the computer a novelty and no longer did they need me to break down every little skill. And I discovered how the Internet had just become my new best friend in teaching. I began to experiment with less of me teaching and more of my students “figuring it out” by tapping into experts online, using the plethora of authentic exemplars now readily available and the amazing power of Google Apps for Education. In essence, I stepped out of the way and let my students lead. I’ve never looked back.
What I learned was instead of being all obsessive about my mapped skills in their certain order, starting with a big idea such as communication or design was more effective. Maybe the challenge was we needed to communicate a cause that we had been researching. What do we want to communicate? What platforms were out there? What did we need to learn to best communicate our message? We would have maybe one or two lessons on big ideas, project goals and parameters, discussion of expectations and then students would dive into planning and producing. I created check in points throughout the stages of production, and I was available for any help along with way. Students began e-mailing me with questions, they would have working lunches in my room, even after school. I remember one student in particular, who didn’t particularly like school, walk into 7th hour, end of the day, and say “I’ve been thinking about my project all day, and I have an idea to improve it.” I still had my list of mapped skills, so instead of holding my students to my schedule, I made it a goal to give one skill mini-lesson every time I talked with a student. With this approach, I noticed they learned twice as much in a semester as in the past. I gave up being the hard skill expert and instead became the design expert. They needed me to help them process and deepen their thinking, not teach them tool after tool after tool. Instead, I embedded design and communication skills everyday in my own conversations and feedback, and students taught each other as they worked together and shared ideas.
Yesterday, my own son, a 5th grader, worked on his literacy skills through the personalized learning platform Lexia Core 5. A Sunday afternoon, at home, lying on the couch. As I listened, I heard mini-lesson after mini-lesson of reading and writing skills through his level. More than he would have ever learned sitting in front of an easel, one mini-lesson at a time. He asked questions, we discussed, we even processed how we could use some of the vocabulary at home and in our writing. Conversations. Feedback. Deeper Learning. Customized to the student. This is our modern learner today.
Blogging 3rd Grade

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