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.

The prospect of building either a distanced or digital workshop is undoubtedly less than appealing for many of us, but like with many challenges, I have begun to realize that it also represents a significant opportunity. Last week I wrote about how important it will be to focus on building community and connection if we are teaching from a distance, and I feel that workshop might be the single most effective tool we have to build and maintain that community and connection. After all, at its core, workshop is about hearing others, being heard, and working together–and I can’t think of a better way to bring a group of people together than giving them regular spaces to collaborate, hear, and be heard.

Like with my post last week, my thoughts on how to create a distanced workshop are still forming, but one of the resources that I’m leaning on to inform my approach is the new book Creating Confident Writers by digital learning (among other topics) experts Troy Hicks and Andy Schoenborn. In it, Hicks and Schoenborn break workshop into three stages– Invitation, Encouragement, Celebration–a distinction that has really helped me to start planning for this year, whatever it may be. With that in mind, using Hicks/Schoenborn’s Invitation/Encouragement/Celebration framework, here are my thoughts as of now on how I plan to run a distanced workshop this year:

Invitation

When I think of what invites students into writing in the classroom, I keep coming back to the intersection of two things: choice and listening. When students get to co-construct their educational experience with others and those others are truly listening to them, it is hard for the students to ignore the invitation.

I will talk more about choice in a moment, but one of the my favorite recent examples of a teacher offering an invitation through listening is Sarah Zerwin’s Point-Less: An English Teacher’s Guide to More Meaningful Grading. Zerwin runs a workshop-style class too, and from the very first day when she gives students a syllabus written as a letter and then asks for them to write a letter back in response, she constantly asks her students to weigh-in on their own educational journeys. Other examples of how she seeks their input include having students set their own goals, both weekly and for the semester; asking students to write a memo to her about the feedback they want before she responds their work; and requiring the students to reflect weekly on their growth.

Readers of the blog or my book likely know that I already have students write me letters, set goals, and reflect regularly, but what Zerwin does so well is that she sets up systems to ensure that student goals and reflection are as consistent and clear as possible. This type of consistency and clarity have been shown to have a strong positive effect on student learning, and it is fair to assume that in the highly unpredictable year on the horizon, consistency and clarity will likely be even more impactful. With that in mind, whether we are in-person or not, I plan to get more consistent and clear by having my students keep digital writers’ notebooks that have specific folders for the various types of writing we will do (letters to me, targeted writing, practice writing, etc.) and running documents for goal-setting and reflections that students will fill out at the beginning and end of each week. Here is what I envision it looking like:

Encouragement

After invitation, Hicks/Schoenborn’s next step is encouragement, and I plan to offer encouragement to students in three ways:

  1. Through micro-community building. Last week I discussed how I plan to get students into digital pods to give them a smaller community to connect to within the classroom. Zerwin does a similar thing in her writer’s workshop, and she builds the camaraderie of her groups by having them engage in silly daily warm-up tasks. She reminds us to “not discount the power of a little silliness to forge group unity,” (63) and I couldn’t agree more. Consequently, I plan to engage in plenty of micro-community building where the pods do silly and/or small things together in the hope that tightly-knit pods can act as a potent source of encouragement for students during workshop as their pod-mates offer them support, guidance, and a thoughtful cheering section.
  2. Through regular micro-conferencing. Last week I shared blended learning expert Catlin Tucker’s quote, “In the absence of face-to-face classes, teachers can communicate that they care about their students’ progress by providing them with feedback on their work.” The more I think about this quote, the more I feel it is one of the keys to encouraging and engaging students. With this in mind, I plan to have rotating stations on drafting days. Some stations will work on specific skills, some will do peer or self response, and one station will be a short micro-conference with me on a specific topic that will vary by the day. My station design will be similar to what is described by writer Marisa Thompson here (which is an idea she adapted from Catlin Tucker), and my hope is to use this structure to have students micro-conference with me at least 1-2 times a week, every week, as a way to remind them that while I can’t actually sit beside them, I am still there with them every step of the way.
  3. Lastly, I plan to use the fact that we are in a digital space to offer students more choice. My method will be to use what Catlin Tucker calls Digital Notebooks. Her full description of them is here, but the idea is to create a Google notebook where students can pick what they need when they need it from various options in each section. For example, in my narrative unit that I normally start with, here is what my Digital Notebook might look like:

It could start with a nice title page:

And then it could have have various sections with links to lessons in the form of screencasts, videos, or worksheets. For example, in the narrative unit, I often hit upon some core “Writer Moves”–moves like using parallel structure or using literary devices. So I could have a section in the notebook for those Writer Moves that looks like this…

…and then a page with links to five Writer Moves lessons that I sometimes teach in this unit (see below). In an effort to give students more autonomy, I could let them choose to do two or three of those five lessons that they feel the need to work on the most. To get to the lesson, all the students would have to do is click on the link and they’d find the screencast/worksheet/video and some task. Further, since all these lessons already exist, the workload on my part would be pretty minimal; it would just be formatting them into the Digital Notebook.

Celebration

I love that Hicks and Schoenborn end with celebration because celebration, in our classes and in our lives, is not something superfluous. When we celebrate our successes, we get to mark how far we’ve come and see the value of what we have been doing, and those two things (value and the understanding that we can do something) are the two keys to building deep, internal motivation.

Hicks and Schoenborn also understand that the best way to celebrate student work is to have them reflect on it, so the students can see for themselves the distance they’ve traveled. While reflection and celebration have long been a key part of my workshop, my hope is to use Hicks/Schoenborn’s designation of celebration as a specific step as an inspiration to engage in it even more this year than ever before.


In a recent article in Education Next, Dr. Pamela Cantor says the following:

One of the challenges we face is what I call “the Covid-19 paradox.” In order to be safe and keep others safe from the virus, we must be physically distant. But that means disrupting the communities and relationships in our lives—classrooms, teachers, teams, coaches, churches, friends, extended families—that are the very connections we need to feel safe, to cope with stress, and to surmount this crisis. 

This Covid-19 challenge Dr. Cantor describes is also one of the main challenges of workshop and teaching more broadly this year. For safety, we must stay distant, and yet we can’t afford to be distant, as our students are going to need those connections more than ever this year. Luckily, though we have tools at our disposal though. We can listen; we can consult; we can offer choice; we can use community-building strategies and thoughtful feedback; and we can invite, encourage, and celebrate–and in the process we can make workshop work from any distance.

Yours in teaching,

Matt

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