What is a workshop?
A workshop is a space where things are made. A woodworking workshop is where woodworkers carve and craft wooden artifacts and a writing workshop supports writers as they create written work. A classroom workshop operates in the same fashion to support learners/makers as they write or create artifacts (either formative or summative in purpose).
A classroom workshop can be structured in a variety of ways, but this is my adaption of a popular model. My simple system is represented by just four parts: Open, Shape, Work, and Air. Almost every time my classes meet we follow this same structure although the parts may be spread over more than one class session depending on the schedule we have to work with. I always open class with a writing prompt. This low-stakes writing assignment is intended to help my students gather their thoughts about the topic or idea we will focus on for that class. Often, this writing will inform class discussion as well as assignments.
I then embark on a mini-lesson explaining something I know students will need to complete the current assignment. Then students are given time to try out the new strategy and work on their current project. This work is usually supported by partners or small groups so I am free to work with those most in need as the others have access to feedback and support from their peers.
Finally, we always close every class with a session to air out our ideas and share our work. Depending on the size of the class (and the weight of our shares) we either take turns sharing or I call on select students (rotating from class to class so everyone gets a chance) to share their ideas and/or work. These conversations often create a marvelous synergy that energizes our thinking on a number of levels. They also offer many opportunities to slip in further instruction that I deliver or solicit from a student who has experience solving a particular problem. As our projects near completion these sessions will often dominate the class time so we can offer feedback on the projects.
And now for the three reasons you should transform your classroom into a workshop no matter what content area you teach.
Workshop For You
Being the sage on the stage is exhausting. There is the preparation: reviewing old notes and content resources plus preparing a lecture guide, handouts, activities, or other supporting materials. And, of course, preparation is further complicated as you strive to find new and fresh ways to engage your students. Then there is the performance itself which can be more tiring than running a marathon in cement shoes. Finally, after all that sweat and tears, you look out into the rows of desks to see students day dreaming, scanning their phones, or doodling aimlessly on the cover of their closed notebooks. Did you reach any of them? Did anyone learn anything today? Will they remember it next week or next semester? Both research and my own experience have taught me it is not likely that students will transfer this information to future purposes. The lecture is not an effective teaching tool.
Preparation for a workshop lesson is much easier and more focused, because it is not the main purpose of the class session, but it is a key ingredient. Each class is focused on creation of an artifact and your mini-lesson is designed to support that work. Students quickly learn to pay attention because this information will be needed right away and they will remember it because they used it right away.
Class discussion is much more active and engaged in a workshop than following a lecture or reading assignment, because students have something to talk about whether it comes from their writing or their project. Students can talk about their ideas or questions during the airing session because it seems a natural extension of the small-group conversations that took place during work time. In addition, students take more responsibility for their preparation for class, whether it is research or reading, because their classmates will hold them accountable during work time.
Best of all, this kind of teaching is so much more fun and meaningful for you as a teacher. I never know exactly what we will talk about in class and I learn things every semester from every student even when we are covering material and readings I have taught before. Try doing that with a lecture.
Workshop For Them
Humans learn better by doing and they learn best when are interested in and care about what they are doing. For too many humans, however potent a lecture may be, there is little reason to remember its content later. Everyone is lucky if they remember the material long enough to prepare for the test and much research has shown that very little of this information transfers to future classes let alone life and work outside school.
But when we are given the opportunity to pursue our own questions and discover our own answers, even if within certain parameters dictated by the class context, we will learn, grow, and remember, because we are engaged and involved in the processing of the information and we are more than simple recipients of it. This work is even more meaningful if we are creating products for a real audience and a real purpose, but student choice remains an important part of engagement and learning even if the information never leaves your classroom. Every semester my students tell me that they wish every class they took was a workshop because they found the experience so meaningful.
Workshop For Your Community
The very best classes are always more than an assembly of bodies. They are a community a learners. Ideally, in these communities the teacher is learning beside the students and students are given the opportunity to lead discussions and learning. This can only happen in a workshop or studio where the focus is on making. A traditional classroom can offer a watered down version by granting students temporary leadership, but the power will always remain with the teacher who stands at the front of the classroom for the majority of the class time. This imbalance of power and agency is drilled into us from a very young age and it takes a concerted effort to overcome it.
The results are worth the effort, because in a workshop everyone is granted agency and power, and the impact this has on their confidence can never be overestimated. A workshop approach can deliver on engagement, transfer, and agency more effectively than any traditional classroom model. I love teaching in a workshop classroom and I hope my ideas will inspire you to transform your classroom into a workshop, too.
Deanna Mascle directs the Morehead Writing Project and teaches writing and the teaching of writing at Morehead State University. You can read more of her thoughts about workshop and the teaching of writing on her Metawriting blog.