When groups of children enter the classroom each morning, year after year, my ultimate goal is to make sure their days are filled with happiness, laughter, and lots of learning together with their school family. School routines need to make sense and connect to the work and learning students will do for the rest of their lives.
Unfortunately, with overloaded curriculum binders, state and federal mandates, standardized testing, and teacher accountability, we sometimes lose sight of what’s most important. We get overwhelmed and move into “panic and just cover” mode because there are only so many hours in a day, and there are so many things we think we have to teach.
When I’m planning or speaking with teachers, it never fails.
ME: “What are your questions?”
TEACHER at every school or conference or planning session or speaking engagement: “How do you fit it all in?”
HOW do you teach
number sense and
problem solving and
parts of speech and
place value and
correct handwriting and
algebraic thinking and
mental math and
telling time and
tying shoes and no bullying no fighting no yelling no throwing dice and snap cubes and food in the lunchroom and keeping materials in the right place and hands to yourself and sharing and still have time for read-aloud and technology integration and teaching conversation and collaboration and social studies and science?!
The tension between children’s needs and mandated requirements are just a glimpse of the reality of what’s expected of us, and because this list makes my blood pressure rise and my armpits start to sweat, I have had to first rethink what it means to “fit it all in” each day. Most importantly, what does it mean to be a teacher in today’s world? Instead of fitting it all in, I do what matters most each day and trust that most everything on the list will be taken care of over time if my priorities are right.
I always tell the children in my class that the work we do and the ways we work in our classroom will benefit them for the rest of their lives—not just so we can “do school.” Most people do their best work when they feel safe and comfortable, and have long blocks of time to think, tinker, create, practice, and problem solve. Sometimes we need a quiet space for thinking and reflection, and other times we need interaction with others for suggestions, questions, and feedback. It’s difficult to accomplish anything without the time and space to do the work. Our days in the classroom are modeled after the physical and intellectual concept of the workshop: a room or area where manual work is done while also emphasizing interaction and the exchange of ideas and information among a group of people.
There are three parts to each workshop that takes place during the day:
- Focus Lesson
- Independent or Group Work
- Teaching and Share Time
The focus lesson is the “getting ready to write, read, or problem solve” time. The whole class gathers on the rug for the focus lesson, and it’s this 5- to 15-minute focus lesson that launches the workshop. The focus lesson is designed to show or model specific habits, strategies, or techniques that readers, writers, mathematicians, or researchers in the room might try during their independent or small-group work time. As I end the focus lesson, learners will all try out or talk about the strategy or technique I shared for a few minutes, in their notebooks, folders, on sticky notes, or with a partner. I can then see their thinking and understanding of the focus lesson. However, I rarely ask every child to go off into workshop to do exactly what I just taught, because what I modeled or taught may not be what an individual child needed at that particular moment. My goal is to build their repertoires and background knowledge, as well as model habits and strategies they may use when it makes sense to them. I am able to further scaffold and give feedback to the children during one-on-one conferring or in small-group guided reading, writing, or math lessons.
I think about what makes sense for a writer, reader, mathematician, or researcher at that moment in time in our work. For example, at the beginning of a writing unit of study, I might model for the children how writers get ideas and begin to make a selection for drafting from their lists and notebook entries. During the middle of a writing unit of study, this might be where I want to devote several days of focus lessons on word choice and vocabulary with the children, to help them craft and lift the quality of the writing with clear and precise language. At the end of a writing study, this is where I might teach a series of lessons on spelling and punctuation to help writers get their pieces ready for an audience to read, understand, and enjoy. Notice the lessons match what a real writer might do at certain points in his or her process. I don’t teach vocabulary because it’s Tuesday and the curriculum calendar says to get that done by the end of October. I teach the idea, concept, skill, or strategy when it makes sense for real readers, writers, mathematicians, or researchers.
To do this kind of teaching, I listen to my students, talking, conferring, and building relationships with them. The independent and group time of the workshop is the perfect time to do this work. This is the largest block of time in the workshop, simply because deliberate practice in creating, thinking, talking, listening, and problem solving takes time. Do not rush the process. Trust that with daily and ongoing experiences and support over time, your students will grow into the readers, writers, mathematicians, researchers, and people they were born to be.
The third part of the workshop is a time for the learners in the workshop to become teachers for their peers. This idea was born when I taught at the Manhattan New School in New York City and had 32 children in one class. I was desperate to figure out a way to confer and share teaching points and ideas with the children more often. Because of class size, this seemed almost impossible, until I realized that the children could be teachers for their peers. During a workshop period, I can typically confer with three to four children (three on typical days, and four on a day with coffee and chocolate).
The children I confer with each day in each workshop are the teachers to the rest of the class in the share time. It’s during share time that a child summarizes what he or she worked on during the workshop period and then teaches the class what he or she learned in the conference with me. This is also the perfect opportunity to practice active listening, having partner and group conversation, and responding to the teacher sitting in the rocking chair at the front of the room.
Self-Reflection or Group Discussion Tool Focusing on Daily Routines
The guiding questions below may be used to facilitate a discussion with your colleagues, faculty, or district during staff development or simply used as a self-reflection tool when creating a classroom environment that supports engagement and success with your learners.
- Is the day’s routine predictable yet flexible? Can the learners anticipate and plan for a regular routine or structure in each workshop throughout the day?
- Does the day feel fluid and seamless, where students have time to work independently but also have multiple opportunities for feedback and collaboration?
- Do the learners have multiple opportunities to develop self-regulation?
- Do the learners have choice in their materials and supports for the work they will pursue in a workshop period?
- Do the learners have daily, ongoing opportunities for investigation, creation, questioning, publication, reading, writing, problem solving, and deliberate practice required to become eager and proficient readers, writers, mathematicians, and inquirers?
- Do students have the daily opportunity to set academic and behavioral goals and then have the time to reflect on whether goals are accomplished?
- Do the learners have multiple opportunities for deliberate practice across the day in all workshops, projects, and activities?
- Are the learners able to connect their work, learning, and teaching in the classroom to the work, learning, and teaching they can and may pursue for the rest of their lives?
- Are the learners able to engage in work, projects, and true learning so they develop the skills necessary to live and prosper in the 21st century?