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Timely Affirmation

The annual Dublin Literacy Conference is one of my most favorite days of the year. It is marked on my calendar a year in advance and I never compromise on my attendance because I always walk away invigorated by what I learn. Usually I leave the conference with pages of notes and an overstuffed bag of books. This year, I left with something more- a timely affirmation that independent workshops should be non-negotiable classroom routines.

Our district heavily supports the idea of reading and writing workshops, mainly because the model naturally provides room for teachers to differentiate strategies, approaches and materials. Additionally, as a reading and writing teacher, I know that self-selecting text and self-selecting topics on which to write is an age-appropriate skill 7th graders need to develop if I want them to be self-directed readers and writers.

With that room to explore independently chosen texts and writing topics, however, there comes a challenge of showing accountability. There is something about the word “independent” that triggers an adult mindset that kids are not accomplishing anything real. In actuality, the opposite is true. Independent productivity is an indicator success! It is what we hope all students graduate knowing how to do. When students are free to choose what to read and write about, they tend to make more headway in practicing the targeted skills I want them to practice. In a way, the freedom to choose liberates their entire learning process. Instead of interpreting uninteresting text or trying to generate writing within a defined box, students end up spending more time refining skills.

Still, some teachers continue to question the value in providing independent reading workshop time: “How will I know students are really reading?” and “How will I know if my readers are interpreting texts correctly if I haven’t read what they are choosing to read?” And independent writing is practiced in even fewer classrooms: “What if they choose a topic they have written on a million times?” or “What do I do with the student who never writes during independent writing time?”  If teachers do not sort out their answers to these questions, or they don’t acquire the resources to steer their teaching strategies for independent workshop time, it is typically the first teaching routine to be tossed aside.

Last Saturday, both Pam Allyn and Jason Reynolds reinforced my dedication to providing weekly independent reading and writing workshops.  In Pam Allyn’s “Top 10 List” she made the comment that when people walk by a classroom of kids who are independently reading, she has heard passersby say, “Oh, they’re not doing anything. They’re just reading.” The audience of reading teachers nodding emphatically, knowing this frustrating perspective. We also know if we want to foster good readers, then, as adults, we have to teach what good readers do. And of course, good readers read! They read. A Lot! And they read by choice, even when someone isn’t watching them or telling them to.

Jason Reynolds also addressed how important it is to provide room for student choice. He talked about his rocky educational experience K-12. He refused to read the books he was told to read because he didn’t feel any connection to them; the texts he was asked to read were so far from his experience, he was not motivated to read. He didn’t feel seen or understood. It wasn’t until college that he saw himself in a book. And with that, he was hooked. Now, his mission is to write books in which kids can see themselves.

This was a timely takeaway because I feel as though independent workshop time comes under fire too frequently. Especially as we prepare for “testing season”, our schedules will be intense and irregular for the next two months. We will have some important planning conversations. What is the most important instruction to provide during these next two months? No matter what, which routines are non-negotiable?

For me, time for my students to independently read and write is non-negotiable. No matter how wacky the schedule gets, I am not going to compromise this component of my structure. As I have reflected on all of this throughout the week, I have come to the conclusion that there are some safeguards I will put in place to ensure that independent workshops run smoothly and true to my overall instructional design.

I will…Students will…
…align the whole-group learning targets with the targets I propose for practice during independent workshop time. …self-select appropriate goals and be able to articulate what they are working on
..focus on process and not product. …track their progress and be ready to talk about it when it is their conference time
…be ready to redirect students who get off track during work time and realize this is training ground for helping them manage their time.…use their work time well, or work with me to figure out what is getting in the way and develop a plan to move forward
…get to know my students as whole people, not just their academic selves as I talk to them and they share their thinking…reflect on their strengths and weaknesses

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