George Lucas Educational Foundation
Online Learning

Using the Workshop Model to Foster Independence

The popular lesson framework can help keep remote teaching manageable while encouraging students to develop self-reliance.

November 11, 2020
Elementary-aged girl writing in a notebook while working on her tablet during distance learning
sorrapong / iStock

Teachers across the country are saying that planning for distance learning is taking longer than it does to plan for in-person learning. But it doesn’t have to. Simple changes in pedagogy, grounded in the adoption of the workshop model, can reduce unnecessary work and hopefully make your planning for distance learning more sustainable.

The workshop model is an instructional practice that consists of three parts: a mini-lesson, a workshop, and a debrief. This model is commonly used in Lucy Calkins’s Reading and Writing Workshop, and the goal of the model is to support learners in reading and writing independently.

How the Workshop Model Works

In the mini-lesson, teachers model a skill, strategy, or step of a project. The key to an effective mini-lesson is brevity, but that doesn’t have to mean direct instruction. While some lessons may necessitate direct instruction, I suggest erring on the side of open-ended mini-lessons that introduce flexible strategies or thinking routines that students can use on their own during independent work or small-group time.

In the workshop portion, students work on their own or in small groups. During distance learning, we must make space for small-group learning—offering students much-needed socialization—but we also know that small-group learning offers opportunities for individualized feedback and the facilitation of learning conversations between students. The challenges of distance learning also mean that we must increase our students’ independent time—if we don’t, they’ll end up staring at their screens, listening to whole-group lectures for hours on end. Independent work cuts down on this passive screen time while building students’ self-reliance.

In the final portion of the workshop model, students come back together as a whole group for a reflection or debrief. They may share samples of their work from small groups or independent work, or share successes and challenges. In some cases, I’ve had students fill out a Google form to tell me what worked and what didn’t work from the day’s lesson. It was important for my students to know that I was learning how to teach from a distance, too, and that their feedback would help me learn how to do this even better.

Using the Workshop Model to Build Independence

In Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, Zaretta Hammond encourages teachers to teach for independence. She argues that too many pedagogies intended to help marginalized students, specifically students of color, engender dependent learning habits, which operate in opposition to equity and student liberation. By leveraging the workshop model, we can teach with student independence as an input to educational equity and student liberation.

This necessitates more than a change in pedagogy—it requires teachers to reposition themselves in their classrooms as guides for students, as opposed to lecturers. In a writing workshop, this may look like modeling a strategy for revising, such as Aimee Buckner’s “lift-a-line” strategy from Notebook Know-How: Strategies for the Writer’s Notebook, in which students identify lines in their writing where they could describe things with greater detail. During the mini-lesson, I model for my students how to do this by generating lists of words for easy recall and demonstrating aloud how I might incorporate these into my writing.

For example, one day I shared the line, “The three pandas pranced through the forest,” and asked students to brainstorm details about the pandas and the forest, reminding them to think about all of their senses. This took the first 15 minutes of an hourlong block. For the next 40 minutes, I conferenced with small groups using Google Hangouts, and then we concluded with a five-minute reflection on how the writing workshop block went.

In order to keep students accountable, I requested that they upload pictures of their work to Seesaw each day, simply to ensure that they accomplished something. This also helped me gauge the effectiveness of my mini-lesson and which students I needed to prioritize working with in the following day’s small groups.

Teaching From a Distance

I began to wonder in April and May if one of the reasons why distance teaching was challenging and unsustainable for so many educators was outdated pedagogies. Worksheet-driven pedagogies and rote memorization were hard to facilitate in person, and they are proving even harder to facilitate through distance learning. I can’t help but think it’s because these pedagogies weren’t working in the first place. They engender paternalism in teachers, subtly encouraging us to hover over our students and micromanage their every decision, in an effort to guarantee success every second.

But we all know that this isn’t what good teaching is. Good teaching entails helping our students learn how to learn, building their stamina for their own independence, and otherwise humanizing the experience of learning—putting their humanity front and center. Ironically, in some ways it seems that we should always be teaching from a reasonable distance: Whether in person or through digital means, we should be far enough away to build independence in our students but within arm’s reach when they need a helping hand. The workshop model, in my opinion, is one way to teach from a healthy distance while building students’ independence. It can help make teaching more sustainable by eliminating the materials and energy required to micromanage classrooms of 20 or more students.

If we use this moment of distance learning as an opportunity to innovate, we may end up radically changing our pedagogy for the better. Learn more about using the workshop model during distance learning in my new book, Humanizing Distance Learning.

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  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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