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The Literacy Studio: Workshop Reimagined

The Literacy Studio Workshop Reimagined Bright

Have you ever thought “if only I had more time for my reading and writing workshops”? Enter the Literacy Studio, a new approach to the workshop model that allows for integrated reading and writing instruction without demanding more time or extra planning.

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Today we’re joined by Ellin Keene in conversation with Jaclyn Karabinas from the Heinemann PD team to expand on the ways in which the Literacy Studio model can save time, enhance learning, and help students grow their identities as readers and writers.


Below is a transcript of this episode. 

Ellin: Of all of the books that I've written, this is one that's been in my mind probably the longest. It really had its beginnings in my very, very early teaching career and was born out of just frustration that I had in my own classroom about time. And that was a long time ago, Jacqueline, and this has been in my mind for a long, long time to write this, and turns out it was a little more challenging to write than I thought, but it's...

Jaclyn: It's always hard. We have those questions in our mind and then we start to build the solutions. But when you sit down and you try to put it all in one place so that you can...

Ellin: It's so true. And exactly to recreate the process that I used, which was very heavily dependent on the kids I was working with then. We kind of made this up together. And so that's one of the challenges that I had. How do you make this up without kids? And that's something that I would suggest that people do, is really think through this process that we're about to describe with your students and let them be co-creators with you of this new-

Jaclyn: Right. So you already mentioned time, and I think that to me, your book and the work in the book, it solves a number of ongoing classroom challenges. They're as certain as death and taxes. The problem of time, fitting it all in. And there are all the questions that swirl in your mind when you're laying in bed at night, when you are on your way to this classroom in the morning or after the kids all leave.

Those are the questions that swim through your mind. How do I fit it all in? Are they making the connections? How do I know they're transferring skills? All of those things. So just talk a little bit about your experience and observations with siloed reading and writing instruction. I think it will sound very familiar to anyone listening, because we've all been through it. So just talk a little bit about that.

Ellin: Absolutely, Jaclyn. I think that's just the way we went through our K-12 experience was with separate reading and writing classes. And it's then so sort of a default for us to go in and set up separate reading and separate writing. But I, like honestly almost every teacher I've ever bet was finding that in my own classroom that one of them reading or writing got short shrift every day. If I felt like we had a really healthy reader's workshop, writing either didn't happen or was cursory or there wasn't a chance to get into any depth.

If I tried to do a reading lesson and a writing lesson in the same day, the kids didn't get enough independent reading and writing time. It was just a constant battle to equalize, not just the instruction, but more importantly the opportunity that kids had to read and write every day. And the more I was ... as I was studying it in my own classroom, the more graduate work I did, the more I realized how critically important independent reading and writing is to the development of our young readers and writers.

We can teach forever, but so much of their development comes from practice. It's just doing the practice now. It's fun, it's exciting to be a reader and a writer. It's not drudgery certainly, but they've got to have the time to do it. It takes kids a while to get into that flow of reading and writing and I was just finding, okay, we're just into the flow and we were off to lunch. So that was really frustrating.

Jaclyn: Yeah, that's so frustrating and I'm pretty sure everyone listening right now is nodding their head because you're describing their life, their life in the classroom, their planning life. I definitely recognize all of these things and I think too, it's a lot about knowing all of the things you want to do in a day.

You want kids to be able to practice reading and writing independently. You want kids to be able to work in partners. You want them to be able to work in small groups. You need them to get instruction from you. All of these things that you want to happen every day. And so how do you make it all happen? So I think it's probably good to just jump into an example. So what's a good example or a story you want to tell us about how you've seen this approach save time, both for planning and for the use of classroom instructional time?

Ellin: Just so many spring to mind of classrooms where I've worked the last 10 years to try to develop literacy studio, but I think of one in particular at Buckner Elementary in Fort Osage, Missouri. Kelly McSwain, who is just the most extraordinary teacher, was having the same kinds of challenges, honestly, and was just so frustrated.

And we started working on literacy studio in Kelly's classroom, and it is now ... you walk into the classroom, you have kids reading, you have kids writing, you have kids in conversation with each other simultaneously. And Kelly has time to confer. And honestly, that was another one of my frustrations that you just don't have time to confer when the kids don't have enough time for independent reading, because that's when that happens or for small groups. But you walk into Kelly's classroom and she has flexible seating and just the most comfortable intimate space that you can imagine.

Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of books as you can guess, and choices alive and well, just as it would be in a reader's or a writer's workshop. Ownership for what they're doing is alive and well, just like you would be in a traditional reader's and writers workshop and she's able to confer. And the results, even if you take results in how does the state of Missouri measure Kelly or the more important way, how do we look at the engagement of children in that classroom and their ability to articulate what they're working on as readers and writers, is absolutely phenomenal by either sort of lens of measurement, our observation or traditional assessments.

So when I was writing, I always sort of had my own classroom in my mind, but also Kelly's. And I think of another example in a primary grade in Los Angeles, second grade teacher, Carla Contreras, who has done very much the same thing and some of the early learning foundational skills that we need to have in place and to watch how Carla has put that schedule together, that leaves time for those foundational skills and for the implementation of literacy Studio is just a master work.

It's really a work of art to see how she's done it. Took some years, took a couple years honestly, to figure out what the best working schedule was for her, but the same thing, you walk in and that classroom is a buzz and kids are deeply engaged in their reading and writing. They have a lot of choice. But the one thing that would connect Carlos and Kelly's classrooms, very different rural setting and large urban setting, that would connect those two classrooms really is the level of engagement that you see in kids.

And this is a little awkward to say it this way, but I'm going to, Carla and Kelly are not over teaching and that's a big issue in this country right now in my view. That kids, particularly those who struggle, get instruction in their regular classroom, they get instruction in intervention, they get instruction in special ed, it's teaching, teaching, teaching, teaching with very, very little opportunity to practice and to do the reading and writing work on their own. And that's something that literacy studio songs.

Jaclyn: Yeah. I want to go back to Carla's classroom, because I'm interested in something you said. So most of the students come to ... they come to the class, they're multilingual or they're learning English, and so does Carla teach in both English and Spanish? This seems separate, but it's actually it's related. I'm curious.

Ellin: Yeah, no. It's a very good question and it sort of depends on the year and the particular constituency of that particular school. Now, she can go back and forth, turn on a dime, but a lot of our kiddos are practicing and some practice writing in Spanish first and then there's a translation process. But it's a very ... gosh, so many of our kids by the time they're in second grade really are speaking English. There are new kids coming all the time, but the transiency rate in this particular school is not high, because once you get them into this school, you want them to stay in this school because [inaudible].

Jaclyn: Yeah, no, thank you for talking about that. I ask because I know that multilingual learners in this country, they make up a good portion of classrooms, and so sometimes I feel like people might have some fear to even just doing readers and writing workshop, because of the amount of things you're managing. It almost feels like you're throwing one more thing into manage, where I feel like this integrated opportunity that has everything from independent practice to a structured lesson and then everything in between, seems to be the most flexible for kids who are still acquiring foundational skills, kids who are acquiring English. It just seems very flexible.

Ellin: Well, it is, and you speak about multilingual kids, but I also want to, I guess point out something that is a controversy in the country right now, which is the issue of foundational skills and to what degree are we differentiating for foundational skills. I'm seeing unfortunately a lot of whole group instruction in foundational skills when a third or more of that group, kindergarten, first, second grade are already using the skills that are being taught and yet they're getting more instruction on it, which of course then takes away from their time to read and write and to apply those skills.

Jaclyn: So I'm pretty concerned about the lack of differentiation around foundational skills, but you're right, Jacqueline and Literacy Studio really does make that differentiation possible. I talk about structure we call invitational groups that both Carla and Kelly use just very fluidly, and that is because they're conferring so much. They see patterns of need in students and they pull kids together not based on level, but on patterns of need in their reading and writing.

Ellin: So you might have kids who are reading very advanced pieces for their grade level joining kids who are not, but because they share a similar need and it's a more efficient and effective form of instruction, because it's so targeted. I think a lot of our instruction is sort of like, "Well, here are the foundational skills. Here's comprehension," but we need to be more specific. What are the issues in comprehension? What are the specific issues in that kids have in foundational skills and be more targeted. I think we're using a one size fits all in too many classrooms right now, with respect to both really, to foundational skills and literacy.

Jaclyn: What does this look like in planning? So I'm sitting down to plan for the week. What am I doing? What am I thinking of when I sit down to plan for this integrated approach in a literacy studio?

Ellin: Let's say that many lessons are about 10 minutes each. That's how we usually think about whole group lessons, 10 minutes, then the kids go off and the teacher confers about reading. Then they pull it back together and it's 10 minutes for writing, and the kids go off and read. So instead of planning for two lessons every day and almost always one gets sidelined, it's one lesson.

And I really look at it this way. If you have 10 minutes a day for reading, 10 minutes a day for writing, that feels to me like 50 minutes a week for reading, 50 minutes a week for writing. But we're not going to take nearly a hundred minutes. What we are going to do is consider that 10 minutes, not as a daily structure for planning, but as a weekly one. So let's say we're going to take 60 minutes, not nearly a hundred minutes, so we're going to take 60 minutes for the week.

I can divide that up anyway I want. I could do, if I've got kids who are really excited and really engaged about a book, I can have a 30-minute mini lesson and then the rest of the week, I follow up on that depth. Maybe five minutes reminding him what we were talking about yesterday. So that the equivalent of 10 minutes a day for many lessons, let's call it 60, is scattered throughout the week, but isn't equally divided.

And that was the breakthrough for me, because it's very difficult to get our kids doing what we want, even it's difficult to read a picture book to a group of kids in 10 minutes and then we are breaking it up. So I've learned to be very, very flexible. So in my planning, I think for a week and now with older kids, I've gotten to a two-week structure.

I think, what are the things that I want my kids to experiment with in their reading and writing this week? And there's a tool in the book that I use to really make this easy. What are the things that I want my kids to experience this week? Not what am I going to teach? Then if those experiences are laid out for this week, the whole week, then I go back and plan what kind of instruction I'm going to use.

So I am ... all right, this means that this is going to be a little bit longer day on Tuesday. We're going to really read a new book. We're going to go in depth, I'm going to start thinking aloud. And most importantly, those lessons, whole group lessons are integrated. So most typically, I'm sitting reading a book like we could all imagine doing in reader's workshop, but right next to me, on a surface is the document camera. And I am pivoting, literally turning my body so that I can also write during that lesson.

So I might think aloud about how readers decide what's most important in their text, but that I'm working on a text on the document camera literally right next to me and I'm pivoting to show what I'm trying to do. Even if it's taking some notes for writing I'm going to do and modeling that in the same lesson. So when that integration is happening, the lessons do tend to take a little bit longer time.

Obviously, we're not going to teach through kids becoming disengaged. If your kids are disengaged, call it, time out, it's over and we'll try again tomorrow in a different way. But more often than not, kids are so deeply engaged, particularly when you're using terrific texts and your own writing. They get so excited about helping us with our writing and making suggestions that it is possible to have a dual focus. Same larger intention, the same larger teaching target, learning target. There's the word I'm looking for, but in what does this look like for writers? What does this look like for readers? And in the book, I give dozens of examples of that instruction, but it helped me a lot to start to think of time more flexibly and then to be able to literally think of where I'm going to sit for reading instruction, and can the document caner be right next to me so that it makes for an easy pivot to go back and forth.

Jaclyn: Yeah, I can totally envision this and I try to imagine myself sitting down to plan, and I think one of the things I remember trying to do was I would plan out my reading separately and I would plan out my writing separately, even if I knew that there was crossover. So I got to the point where I remember saying, "Okay, I can mention in my meeting my reading mini lesson, what we're doing in writing later, what we did yesterday. I can refer to one or the other," and it was getting closer, but it wasn't intentional as in I'm teaching this one lesson instead of two that addresses both of these things.

Ellin: Exactly. That's so common for so many teachers, Jaclyn. Exactly that experience.

Jaclyn: Teachers can all use some time to save, time to save in planning, and then instructional time to really be working with kids more and observe what kids are doing more and watching them try to ... seeing if they're transferring skills and seeing what it is they can actually do, because when you observe that they aren't able to do something, that tells you a lot for your next steps of instruction.

Ellin: Exactly. And then you pull a group to deal with that immediately and right away if it's a pattern or you have time to confer. So yeah, and it's interesting because the way most state standards are set up there is where the common core was set up, there is a lot of overlap actually between reading and writing and they're sort of structured that way. Think about one standard being about determining importance. Well, that's true for readers and writers. How do readers figure out the driving ideas in a text, not main idea, but driving ideas in a text? And then how does a writer make his or her driving ideas clear in their writing? So it's there's many connections now when I'm asked to do a demonstration lesson on reading or writing, I really have to struggle, because I can't separate them anymore.

Jaclyn: Right. When kids experience that over time, then they aren't going to naturally separate reading and writing either.

Ellin: It just makes so much more sense to kids. This story is very illustrative of why I decided to write this book. There was a little first grader that I was observing in a colleague's classroom once, and he just put it all out there. He said, she was teaching inference and she was talking about predicting, and he said, "Why do you talk about predicting in reading?" I think he had no teeth. He was sort of, "Why do you think about predicting and reading and estimating in math and hypothesizing in science?"

Jaclyn: That's a really interesting connection.

Ellin: It was like, oh my gosh, come on, man, first grader and teacher and I looked at each other. We're just like, who knows why we do that? It's ridiculous. Why do we use this for young children, of course there are differences for older kids, but why do we use this sort of exclusive terminology in these silos of subject areas? Doesn't make sense. That was a real trigger for me to say, "Okay, I need to write this book."

Jaclyn: I think this is going to help a lot of teachers out there. And I think that thinking about this approach, I don't think that it matters necessarily if you have specific curriculum you need to follow. You can find the connections in your curriculum, in your materials, in your standards, and especially if you're in conversation with colleagues about the things you want to accomplish.

Ellin: Absolutely. And in both of the classroom examples that I gave earlier, Kelly's district has moved to an integrated reading and writing curriculum, which is fantastic. And Carla's school has moved to an integrated reading and writing curriculum and they write that curriculum on their own. And so it's pretty compelling when you can actually work off documents that are already showing the connections.

It really is just ... I think we have to know the standards for our district very well, our schools and districts. If we're sort of feeling around and we're not sure what's coming next, in terms of what we're teaching for the year, that's a problem. We have to know, because it may be that in the district's curriculum, a certain objective in writing doesn't come up until later, but it is very well paired with an earlier objective in reading. So I think we have to ... there's some flexibility, but I haven't yet run into a district where with a reasoned argument that we can't say, "Hey, we're going to teach this one a little out of your order." And very few people will object to that, particularly when the outcome is that kids do better. And that's hard to argue with that.

Jaclyn: Well, thank you so much. I'm just imagining taking that first step myself and I think, okay, it's wintertime. I have X amount of months left in my school year, depending on where you live. If this was me, I would probably sit down and look at the next unit I was teaching and just give it a try. Just sit down and talk through it and just give it a try.

Ellin: Exactly. And there are tons of examples in the book and that should really help, lots of planning tools and record keeping for kids. One element that we haven't talked about of Literacy Studio is that in most literacy studios on most days, let me say it this way, kids choose whether to read or write on that day, and they can make a change in the middle if they want to, but in order to get that momentum going that we were talking about earlier, Jacqueline, kids are saying, "Okay, we're talking about deciding what's most important. I'm going to try this as a writer. I'm going to try this as a reader."

And that again, engages them so much more, because they have that additional choice. So there are lots of examples of that too in the book and how kids can make those decisions on their own. Why do we have to control when they're going to read and when they're going to write? In Carla's classroom, oh my gosh, it's so cool. You walk in there and kids are going back and forth between reading and writing-

Jaclyn: So naturally.

Ellin: We normally do in the world. It's so natural, it's authentic. And there are online resources in the book too that are actually lessons that I've done with colleagues. So I know that they are pretty solid and they're going to be on objectives that everybody in the country has.

Jaclyn: It's great to hear about Literacy Studio. It's great to know your book is out in the world and that teachers are going to be bringing Literacy Studio to life in their own classrooms.

Ellin: My pleasure. Thank you. I hope so.

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Download a Sample Chapter of  The Literacy Studio


Image of Ellin Oliver  KeeneEllin Oliver Keene has been a classroom teacher, staff developer, non-profit director and adjunct professor of reading and writing.  For sixteen years she directed staff development initiatives at the Denver-based Public Education & Business Coalition.  She served as Deputy Director and Director of Literacy and Staff Development for the Cornerstone Project at the University of Pennsylvania for 4 years. Ellin works with schools and districts throughout the country and abroad.  Her emphasis is long-term, school-based professional development and strategic planning for literacy learning.

Ellin recently published The Literacy Studio: Redesigning the Workshop for Readers and Writers which is focused on an up-to-date conceptualization of Readers/Writers’ workshop. 

Topics: Ellin Keene, Podcast, Reading, Workshop Model, Writing, Heinemann Podcast, Teaching Writing, Ellin Oliver Keene, The Literacy Studio

Date Published: 01/27/23

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