Can Workshop Work from a Distance?

For weeks I have been trying to figure out how I will run a writer’s workshop style class from the various distances that learning might take place from this year: the social distance of six feet, the oscillating in-and-out-of-class distances of blended learning, and the fully online distance from my kitchen table to my students’ houses.

I haven’t been the only one worrying about that either. In recent weeks I’ve gotten over a dozen queries about this exact topic, and I think what makes this question so tricky is that workshop was largely created to eliminate the various distances that traditionally existed in classroom. It was meant to get the students working together in slightly messy groupings instead of working alone in orderly 19th century rows and meant to get the teacher out and amongst the students instead of standing behind the podium at the front of the class.

And yet now, even in the best case scenarios for this fall, we will likely be stuck in rows again, rows that will be even farther apart this time. We will also likely be wearing masks and maybe have some plexiglass and industry-scale ventilation joining us too.

Further, as COVID cases continue to rise in the United States, a great many districts and schools are also opting to replace in-person rows with online ones, boxes lined up in neat columns on Zoom calls.

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How Can I Connect with Students and Build a Classroom Community From a Distance?

Photo by Luis Quintero on

Many once-in-a-generation challenges await educators this fall. With that in mind, the blog will be a little different this summer. It will still have a writing instruction focus, but it will also focus a great deal on how we might continue to have relationship-based, workshop-style instruction in classrooms that, if COVID cases aren’t significantly lowered, are looking increasingly likely to be somewhat or completely distanced or socially distanced for those of us in the United States.

Much of this thinking will be a lot more conceptual than I normally publish. This is because most of us have so little idea of what our classes will be like beyond the fact that they will undoubtedly be very, very different. Still, even though the horizon is filled with question marks, there exist many established voices and best practices that can potentially be of use in lighting our way down the twisting and uncertain paths ahead.

The organizational structure for the blog this summer is that each week I will pose a question that I and the writing teachers I know are grappling with and then go in search of answers to that question. Also, if you have questions you are struggling with, I encourage you to send them to me here.

This week’s question is based around something I’ve been thinking about since school ended, which is that the pandemic hit near the end of the school year, at a time when most teachers have firmly established relationships with their students. The same will not be true this upcoming year–many of us will have entirely new students–which has me wondering and worrying about the following:

How can I Connect with students and Build a CLassroom community if most or all learning is Distanced or Socially Distanced?

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