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Irritations With the Reading and Writing Workshop Model

Hello Everyone: This is my first post, and I’m obviously, a new teacher. I teach in an honors academy at a middle school (If I were to say exactly WHERE the school is, then various people who read this blog would know who I am. And, at the moment, I want to keep my identity a secret). I teach 6th graders, and it has been a very difficult, challenging, upsetting and ultimately life changing experience for me as a NYC Literacy Teacher. I’ve made a hell of a lot of mistakes, but I keep coming back everyday. My kids, very bright, lovely and full of potential, have definitely made my first few months "in the trenches" rewarding. But, I do have some issues. No, I have one issue: WHY is the Board of Ed STILL using the reading and writing workshop model?

I don’t get it: I understand that this "model" has been mandated for schools that are or were failing in reading and writing. I get that…but, did anyone bother to SEE if this model actually works? And, if they did bother to see that the model doesn’t work, why is it still being used?

The breakdown: it’s a 90 minute block, broken into Reading Workshop (45 minutes) and Writing Workshop (45 minutes). Each section of the 90 minutes has the following: a 5 minute read aloud (where the teacher reads a selected text to the students) a 10-15 minute mini-lesson (where the teacher explicitly models a strategy he or she wants the students to know for the day. In reading, it’s usually one of the seven reading strategies. In writing, it’s some aspect of grammar or writing) a 5 minute "Try It Out" period (where students actually spend a few minutes attempting to use the strategy the teacher just modeled in class during the mini lesson) a 20 minute Independent Practice/Link section (Where students are using the strategy on their own during independent reading or writing) a 5 minute Share Out (where students discuss whether or not the strategy worked for them and why).

So, according to this schedule, I should be able to effectively model a strategy I want students to know, they attempt it for a few minutes, then I let them go and do it during independent reading or writing (of course, I walk around to make sure they understand and are doing the strategy/mini lesson I taught them). And Boom! My students can move on to more challenging concepts, etc. NOT…I have had such difficulty with using the reading and writing workshop model. I feel as if it strips away any chance I have to attempt to be creative with my students. I am literally stuck with following a set structure everyday. It’s problematic because those who thought up this wonderful workshop model didnt take into account that kids DO NOT LEARN in the same way.

In my classroom, it takes me on average between 20-25 minutes to do my mini lesson, sometimes more. Why? My kids don’t all process information the same way. For some of them, spending more time "trying it out" helps them to really understand what I taught them during the mini lesson. For others, I have to be there at their table, showing them how to do it step by step. Still others don’t process it at all and I have to show them how to do it during reading or writing workshop. Also, the reading and writing workshop model was originally for elementary school kids (grades K-5). Honestly, middle school children are extremely sophisticated. I feel as if the workshop model isn’t very effective for middle school kids. Especially, if they are an honors student. I have kids who understand and can critically evaluate articles from the BBC World News website (i.e. in the unit I just finished for Persuasive Writing, one of my students was turning in daily responses about French Muslims who were, along with the various immigrants living in Paris and the surrounding suburbs, being harassed by the police. I admit that I wasn’t keep up with the news like I should have, so it was very refreshing and suprising to have one of my kids give me a well written account of the editorials the BBC World News were putting out. I also have children who are second language learners and are slowly l earning English. In short, I have students who are are various learning levels.

The reading and writing workshop hasn’t been effective in addressing all of my students’ needs. I have been doing the best I can with scaffolding my teaching to make sure that EVERYONE is learning in my class. It’s a daily process that has its ups and downs. But, I am doing the best that I can. But, I am being honest in admitting that the Reading and Writing Workshop model does not work in its current state. I don’t know of an alternative but, I would like to add a few ideas to ways of making it work if this is the mandated curriculum the board will continue to use for the next few years: a) Keep the 90 minute block.

But, make ALL subjects 90 minutes. I think that students get the short end of the stick in only having classes for 45 minutes a day. Extending subjects to longer periods (whether for 60 minute, 70 minutes, 80 minutes, or 90 minutes blocks) allows students to spend more time learning concepts. Also, a block period allows teachers to really focus on what they feel their students need to learn. b) 10-15 minute mini lessons: PLEASE. People need to realize that learning a concept won’t happen in 10-15 minutes. It make take 20-25 minutes to learn a particular concept in a classroom. It may even take a day or two to learn one single strategy. In my few months on the job, it has taken me about 20 minutes on average to cover one strategy in a mini lesson.

But, I’ve had to spend an additional day or two covering the same topic because my students either didn’t understand it or I didn’t believe that my students had mastered it enough. So, I will spend a day or days on a concept UNTIL all of my students have mastered it. That probably isnt what I’m supposed to do following the reading and writing workshop model, but it works for me. At the end of the day, my kids are my first priority. Their learning comes before any mandates given by the Region OR the Board of Education. c) Give teachers support for their instruction, NOT whether or not their bulletin boards meet Reading and Writing Workshop Standards. Are you evaluating me for my teaching, or are you evaluating me to see if my bulletin boards are neatly presented, my writing folders are clearly seen in the classroom, and I have the literacy "flow of the day" (i.e. a daily agenda of what will happen in class) neatly written on the board? I understand that these things are important to have up or visible in the classroom. But, do bulletin boards matter when I’m struggling to effectively teach students who are scared to speak during classroom discussions because their first language isn’t English? Do they matter when I have to figure out a way to reach those few students who don’t want to do their work and refuse to behave in my classroom? I am sure that bulletin boards matter in the whole scheme of things.

But, as a first year teacher, they just take a backseat to the everyday learning in my classroom. I do have most of these things up in my room (with the rest going up soon–don’t want to have my head served up on a silver platter because I don’t have student work up on the bulletin boards or my "flow of the day" isn’t neat and readable). It’s just that sometimes, things like bulletin boards and the like aren’t as important as making sure that all of my students are learning in my classroom. But, I’m new. And, I’m just learning about the realities of a NYC Literacy Teacher. It’s hard and will be even more difficult as the year progresses, but I do love my job. I just don’t agree with the structures I have to follow in order TO DO MY JOB.



  • 1 northbrooklyn
    · Nov 21, 2005 at 6:37 pm

    Actually the model does work.
    First, try thinking of the minilesson as a long commercial [you may need to break down what you want to teach students into smaller bits]. Remember, the point of the reading/writing w.shop is to get them to do the work, not you. If you need to make some changes in the process-fine. Just be willing to back-up and change direction if and when it doesn’t work.

  • 2 redhog
    · Nov 21, 2005 at 7:22 pm

    I respectfully disagree with northbrooklyn, though he/she sounds like a thoughtful teacher who is probably highly successful.
    I think that the workshop model is an abomination. You will need to find some accommodation between the dictates of your conscience and experience, and the primacy of the Lucy Calkins/Ramp Up/America’s Choice cults.

  • 3 Chaz
    · Nov 21, 2005 at 7:28 pm

    Welcome to the world of DOE, where the “ONE SIZE FITS ALL” approach rules.

    As for teacher input? Forget it, according to the DOE educrats, you are the enemy and who listens to the enemy?

    Just wait for the goodies DOE has for you in February. Coming soon is the stealth sixth period, more mindless statistics they want you to do on your own time, and best of all Letters-to-your-File which cannot be grieved.

    You haven’t seen nothing yet!

  • 4 CityTeacher
    · Nov 21, 2005 at 7:50 pm

    The workshop model is a travesty. All it does is make you very, very replaceable, so be careful. We are nothing but cogs in a wheel. it would be so lovely to be treated like the trained professionals we are instead of criminals or imcompetents that have to be closely watched and micro-managed because we can’t be trusted.

  • 5 Schoolgal
    · Nov 21, 2005 at 8:03 pm

    It really depends on the amount of training one has. No new teacher should be forced to implement any new program without proper guidance. Does your school have a literacy coach who comes in and demonstrates? I not only attended Columbia during the summer, but also had the opportunity to watch other teachers do it.

    I happen to like the writing workshop better than the reading. It would be nice if there were actual lessons already developed that you could follow. When I need help with ideas, I go to people who have had more training in the program. Like anything else, this program takes years to develop.

    This is the first year I am using a new math program, and my school does not offer any staff development on the topic, nor do we have a math coach. When in doubt, I turn to methods I know will also be successful.

  • 6 Persam1197
    · Nov 22, 2005 at 5:32 am

    The workshop model should be just another tool in the teacher’s “toolbox,” not a one-size-fits-all panacea for educating our kids. This system will also pass on through. Perhaps someday, the powers that be will allow teachers to teach instead of looking for the right system.

    Literacy coaches are not always helpful. If the coach is a real teacher and understands that there are many ways to impart knowledge and skills, then that’s great. If you get one that wants to shove this system down your throat, well then.

    The coach in my region wants me to adopt the workshop model for my Advanced Placement English course. This individual wants me to “chunk” literary theory and other high order concepts into mini-lessons. My response was that that was highly inefficient and that there are other student-centered paradigms available. I use Socratic Seminars and it is by far the very best way for me to get the job done. Even she noted that you can’t argue about a system that’s been successfully used for thousands of years. Hang in there, BXMS teacher. Fads don’t last forever, not bellbottoms, not 8-tracks, not wars, and certainly not the workshop model.

  • 7 JennyD
    · Nov 22, 2005 at 8:01 am

    What if the model were longer, say 60 minutes each for reading and writing? Would that help?

    Also, how does it compare to, say, Success for All which is possibly more scripted?

  • 8 therealnani
    · Nov 22, 2005 at 2:18 pm

    I’ve learned over time that the mini-lesson is not a one-shot deal. They are meant to be repeated until the students are comfortable with the concept and can move on. I think part of the anxiety of being a new teacher is that you feel like you have to do everything by the book. After a few years, you’ll have a better sense of what you can and can’t do, without attracting too much attention, such as spending more time on the mini-lesson or doing the mini-lesson over again. I teach Ramp-Up, which is similar to the structure you are using and in my first year using it, I was fairly stringent about the pacing, etc but now I’ve become a little looser with it, to fit the needs of my kids. Don’t be afraid to be flexible. It’s not about the DOE, it’s about your kids.

  • 9 institutional memory
    · Nov 22, 2005 at 3:39 pm

    The problems you describe with the workshop model are illustrative of what happens when “one size fits all” takes precedence over thoughtful instruction.

    Any pedagogic model is just an arrow in your quiver. You can experience success with both workshop and “chalk-and-talk” styles. It depends on the circumstances.

    It’s depressing that you’re just in your first year, and already sound intolerant enough for a lifetime. We already have too many people floating around who think they know all there is to know; resist the urge to become one of them.

    Keep your mind open. It’s the only way to hone your craft.

  • 10 mvplab
    · Nov 22, 2005 at 6:04 pm

    I think institutional memory is being a little harsh in his/her position.

    I remember as a new teacher, that I started developing opinions early on about what worked and what didn’t work. However, over time I did start to see that there was wisdom to the developmental lesson and that lecture did have its place as did group work.

    I think BXMS is just trying to feel around the subject.

    Later in my career, one of the most influential bits of learning theory that I encountered was that on average you retain about 5 to 10 percent of what you hear as in a lecture, but you retain about 90 percent of what you have an opportunity to teach!!!

    What does that say about instruction?!?!?! That certainly got me thinking and it caused me to expand my classroom repetoire as I experimented with various strategies to make that happen.

    After all I I expected you to get a 90 on an exam wasn’t I obligated to teach you in a way that made that more possible?

    Any way doctors get to practice medicine, but teachers rarely ever get a chance to practice teaching.

    Keep at it BXMS!

  • 11 Lucy2024
    · Nov 22, 2005 at 6:24 pm

    I believe that the Workshop Model is a good learning method and applicable to some lessons and content. Sometimes it does not fit the lesson. The problem many teachers have is that they are forced to use it all the time, for every lesson.

    I don’t think it was ever meant to be the horror that is being forced down our throat. I think it was simply meant as: Teacher teaches, students practice, then the entire class reviews the work.

    Not to complicated or scripted. Once the power hungry educrats get involved, then education is turned upside down.

  • 12 NYC Educator
    · Nov 22, 2005 at 7:02 pm

    I think you ought to run to the library and get Frank McCourt’s great new book Teacher Man.

    He talks about how the muckety-mucks come in demanding this and that, and how they insist it can’t be done any other way. The thing is–they’re wrong. There are many ways to teach.

    In the book you see an individual teacher who finds his own voice, which had little to do with the administrators saying it must be like this or like that.

    You have to do what you have to do while they watch you, and you have to give them their narrow little cookie-cutter lessons when they observe you.

    But if you want to be a great teacher, you’ll have to find your own voice, your own way–through trial, error, and accident you’ll find what works for you. All those administrators who claim to have the only way to teach are always talking about reaching the individual student, giving no consideration whatsoever to the fact that teachers are individuals as well.

    And next year, they’ll tell you everything they taught you this year is trash (it probably is), and they’ll have a brand new revolutionary way to teach that supplants everything that preceded it.

    And now, thanks to the spineless overpaid indifferent paper-pushers who run our union, you’ll come in two days in August to hear Klein’s parasitic sycophantic educrats pontificate about information that will earn them six-figure salaries, while offering you and me no practical assistance whatsoever.

  • 13 northbrooklyn
    · Nov 22, 2005 at 8:28 pm

    I think an important point we need to remember is we tend to teach as we were taught. If we were comforable with a certain approach we tend to continue in that vein.
    I worked for a couple of decades in the free world [and my educational experience sucked] so I was coming from a v. different place than most. At work, I didn’t have a lot time for talk so it caused me to really distill the most important points in a short period of time to my crew. 5-7 minutes is about all any of us can handle when learning a concept even if the concept is somewhat familiar. The Socratic method is v. useful, but again you find that the teacher generally only speaks for a short period of time and then gets out of the way/guides the discussion. It’s rare that I can stand much more than that when I am a student-Maxine Greene can talk for 2 hrs. and I’m a happy gal-but there is only one Maxine Greene.
    Under it’s present formation the t.c. method may seem to be new or a fad; but it is one of the oldest forms of pedagogy around…at least as old as the Socratic Method. It has been used around this country, in many different classroom sitations [from elementary thro high school, regular ed to special ed and adult ed].
    As for SFA, I fled a school rather than be forced to implement that intellectually bankrupt horror. It’s so bad that the guy who originally developed it for his resource room students protested loudly its implementation in the whole classroom, until he realized that nobody in NYC was listening.
    Much of the nasty administrative methods we are now dealing with come out of the experience of schools forced to adopt the SFA method…the genesis of the bulletin board ripping, ‘you gotta spend 10 minutes on vocabulary and 5 minutes on genre dicussion etc. etc.’ letters to the file for nothing; these techniques come from the administrator freaks who grew up under this method. Our union management embraced SFA-but they aren’t teachers anymore than Tweed.
    If I have any complaint of the t.c. method it is the enormous paperwork load classroom teachers have to shoulder. If you do everything t.c. wants you would go bannas. Worse, nobody including you, ever reads any of that crap.
    Best part, it gets teachers like me to shut up and get out of the way of the learning.

  • 14 institutional memory
    · Nov 22, 2005 at 10:13 pm

    I apologize for my harshness. That wasn’t my intent.

    My hope is that our new crop of teachers, exposed as they are to an unprecedented degree of bitterness from we old hands, can keep their minds open to learning all sorts of methodologies.

    A love of learning on the part of the adults is the only way to foster a love of learning among the youngsters we teach.

    Hang in there, BXMSTeacher! It gets better.

  • 15 R. Skibins
    · Nov 22, 2005 at 11:20 pm


    I’ve been saying the same thing about the workshop model for years! It p*ssed off my LIS when I told her so, but she couldn’t refute the facts.

    If the stuff about Lam’s husband is true, why can’t the media investigate it? Oh, I forgot: Bloomberg controls the media. Maybe the UFT could lead the investigation? Nah, Unity is busy thinking of concessions to make in 2007.

  • 16 Chaz
    · Nov 23, 2005 at 4:45 pm

    Maybe the UFT Unity drones should be applying Frank McCourt’s ideas in their “Let Teacher Teach” approach. I can’t believe that the UFT thinks that a slight loosening of classroom apperance is a win when the DOE educrats impose the latest teaching fad on teachers.

    If I were to submit to the DOE nonsense I would see a reduction in my students passing the Regents. It is time the UFT organizes the teachers and just say no to the micromanaging instead of doing nothing.

    By the way, I noticed nobody from the UFT Unity educrats responded to my question on whether the administrators can impose on teachers a statistical item analysis of midterms, finals, and Regents that takes hours to do?

  • 17 R. Skibins
    · Nov 24, 2005 at 9:15 am

    Well, they already allow the DOE to force the elementary teachers to administer ECLAS (minimum 1 hour per student) and compile statistics which takes hours to do without extra time to do so. I gather that they wouldn’t stop the DOE from imposing on teachers a statistical item analysis of midterms, finals, and Regents that takes hours to do as well.

    And don’t forget thaose two days in March where we are forced to grade standardized tests, which I thought was a violation. Oh, that’s right. The UnityFT is worried that the public will think that we don’t care about the kids if we don’t cave in and do these things!

    One last thing: DON’T apply to mark the tests during February break. In 2001, our leaders said “Since so many teachers come in before the start of the school day to prepare the day’s lessons, we may as well get paid for the time.” So they sold out and extended the school day. For this contract, it was noted that many teachers come in a day or two before Labor Day to set up their rooms, so they said “Let’s extend the school year.” If any of us do apply for test marking during the February break, then in 2007 Unity will say “Since so many teachers signed up to mark tests during February break…” Don’t be fooled for a third time!

  • 18 NYC Educator
    · Nov 24, 2005 at 9:16 pm

    Maybe we’ve all just chosen the wrong career path.

    Everything Old Is New Again

  • 19 Persam1197
    · Nov 25, 2005 at 2:19 pm



  • 20 R. Skibins
    · Nov 26, 2005 at 12:21 am

    It’s not that we’ve chosen the wrong career path, it’s that we’ve chosen the wrong leaders.

  • 21 redhog
    · Nov 26, 2005 at 6:23 pm

    If a staff is organized and fiercely loyal to each other, it can gang up and destroy any abusive school administration and should proceed to do just that.

  • 22 Schoolgal
    · Nov 27, 2005 at 12:38 pm

    I believe a staff is organized when they have a strong CC. Unfortunately, my CC is on the side of 2 people–herself and the administration who is still hounding us with bulletin board and micromanagement issues.

    As for Columbia–I have been using the Writing Process well before I ever heard of Lucy Caulkins. I am a strong believer of children editing and revising their own work. I have stopped correcting pieces the way I did in the past. (All they really did was recopy the corrected work.) I do not know if this process works well in JHS or HS. The element I like best in Reading Workshop is when students write down what is confusing about their reading. Many times we take for granted that what we assign is easy to comprehend (until we give them an assessment).

  • 23 northbrooklyn
    · Nov 28, 2005 at 9:07 pm

    Redhog-I love what you have to say, but, we don’t live in that kind of world any more. We live in the 1890’s in terms of workers understanding what is really going on. We have too many people in the union who think this is a ticket to ride. Most of us [the rank and file] do not have the info we need. I am lucky because I have a couple of ‘rabbis’ who keep me informed and when they send info to me, I pass it along to my rep; he is very thankful and responsive.

  • 24 phyllis c. murray
    · Nov 29, 2005 at 12:31 am

    Writing to be Read: Kids on the Move
    By Phyllis C. Murray

    In 1986 I was introduced to the Writing Workshop at Teachers College Columbia. I have continued to attend the workshops because they are absolutely brilliant. I am indebted to Lucy Caulkins because each year new authors emerge from the classroom. The kids are on the move because they are making Reading/Writing connections, daily. They are also immersed in the best literature possible (which Lucy Caulkins advocates).

    The voices of our students need to be heard. Therefore, in an effort to provide an audience for our writers, beyond the perimeters of the classroom, the writers compete in contests throughout the nation..and win. They also submit their pieces of literature to periodicals. And finally, webpages are created to celebrate their efforts and accomplishments.

    Our students are ready for any challenge. They are perfecting their craft in the classroom each day. Then, like artists using words as a tool, they have created moods, captured fleeting images, and provided the rhythm only they know,in a variety of genres, to make their picture complete.

    Each year we look forward to the awakening of new writers who will be published at a very young age. Their work has been validated again and again. They are writing to be read as they place their words and life on the line. And in the process they have reinvented themselves. And we can only say, “Write on!” The process works!

  • 25 redhog
    · Nov 29, 2005 at 7:26 pm

    Lucy Calkins is an educational war criminal.

  • 26 no_slappz
    · Dec 1, 2005 at 4:36 pm

    R Skibbins, you wrote:

    “It’s not that we’ve chosen the wrong career path, it’s that we’ve chosen the wrong leaders.”

    In other words, another criticism of the school monopoly.

    If vouchers and charter schools were part of the mix, you’d have many different leaders to work for. Everyone would find the setting that suits them best. Teachers teaching where they believe they can do their best work will prove itself through the success of students.

    Meanwhile, the NYC school-system monolith lives on.

  • 27 Letters from Lisa » Blog Archive » frustrations with the reading and writing workshop model
    · Dec 2, 2005 at 5:32 am

    […] Why one size fits all doesn’t work […]