One of the hallmarks of workshop instruction is the way its built-in structures foster student independence, right from day one. From making their own decisions about writing topics, to setting their own goals as readers, as well as countless choices in between, workshop students take charge of their own work. Interestingly, it is not because of a lack of structure that workshop teaching fosters independence, in may ways, it is because of the carefully organized, predictable structure. Because workshop has a predicable routine, and predictable tools, and predicable expectations, students are freed up from having to guess what is expected of them day after day. They are not stymied by waiting for instructions. Instead, they know how workshop will go, and they know what is expected of them so that they can carry on with their own work, from one day to the next.
Here are a few specific ways to foster independence, right from the first day of school:
- Keep the parts of each workshop the same each day, and share these parts with your students so they know what to expect. For younger students, you might simply explain that each day, they'll gather on the carpet and you’ll teach them a quick thing to help their reading and writing. Their job during that part is to listen and try the thing you are teaching. Then, you’ll send them off to work spots and will give them plenty of time to work on their reading or writing, while you come around and offer help. Finally, you’ll end the workshop with a time to share and celebrate the work of the day. For older to students, you might take this a step further and even explain the parts and purposes of a mini lesson, and help them understand the expectations for them in each part.
- Build in some kind of choice, even if you keep the choices controlled. A simple way to build in choice for writing is for students to choose what to write about. They may all be writing in the same genre, say, small moments, or realistic fiction, but the choice over what they’ll write about is theirs. In reading, they’ll be able to make some choices about what they read.
- Offer tools they can use at will during independent work time, and give them some guidelines on how to use these. Have a writing center set up where students can go if they need more paper, a new pen, a stapler, correction tape. You might also have a reading center with tools such as Post-its and bookmarks. These centers can grow as students grow as readers and writers.
- Teach them steps they can take if they get stuck. Students are not independent when they believe their only course of action for help is to go to a teacher. Teach students what they can do before coming to a teacher if they need help: consult a chart, look for a tool such as a checklist of skills, or go to a partner. You might set up a space in the classroom so partners can have quick conversations during work time without interrupting others’ work.
At this week’s TCRWP Twitter Chat, staff developers Jess Mazzone and Alexis Czeterko will lead a discussion on ways to foster independence right from the start of the school year. Join them and other chatters to learn and share steps you can take to get students working with greater autonomy as quickly as possible.
Each Wednesday night at 7:30pm eastern, The Teacher's College Reading and Writing Project hosts a Twitter chat using the hashtag #TCRWP. @JessMazzone & @AlexisCzeterko to chat about fostering student independence Wednesday - 9/5 at 7:30 pm eastern.
Not on Twitter? Take Heinemann’s free Twitter for Educators course here.
Anna Cockerille, Heinemann Editor and Coauthor of Bringing History to Life (Grade 4) in the Units of Study for Teaching Writing Series, was a teacher and a literacy coach in New York City and in Sydney, Australia, and later became a Staff Developer and Writer at TCRWP. She also served as an adjunct instructor in the Literacy Specialist Program at Teachers College. Anna has been a researcher for Lucy Calkins, contributing especially to Pathways to the Common Core: Accelerating Achievement (Heinemann 2012), and the Units of Study for Teaching Reading, Grades 3–5 series (Heinemann 2010). Anna is currently serving as an editor on the forthcoming Phonics Units of Study series for grades K-2, and previously served as an editor for the Units of Study for Teaching Reading, K–5 series.
Follow her on Twitter @annagcockerille