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Workshops Work for the Common Core

by Jennifer Neff
 | Jun 03, 2015

A few years ago, staff at Edward White Elementary learned we would begin a partnership in comprehensive literacy (PCL) with the University of Northern Iowa while beginning full implementation of the Common Core. Designed to enhance the learning of all students, the PCL program involved the use of language, reading, writing, and content workshops, which necessitated a restructuring of our traditional daily schedule.

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) also called for increased rigor, complexity, and variety in types of texts, requiring the devotion of additional instructional time to new and more challenging materials. Our staff was left pondering where to begin and how to create sufficient time in the day to address all learning goals. Once PCL implementation began, we realized the workshop model worked for the Common Core, too. As a result, our depth of instruction as well as student learning has increased.

Implementing the workshop framework

Regardless of content area, there are five components of the workshop framework. Based on the work of Linda Dorn and Carla Soffos in Teaching for Deep Comprehension: A Reading Workshop Approach (Stenhouse, 2005), workshop models allow student participation in a whole-group minilesson, followed by guided instruction, independent practice, individual conferences, and a whole-group sharing time. The minilesson allows for strategy instruction followed by an opportunity to practice these strategies with varying levels of support in a variety of contexts. Sharing at the end of the workshop is essential, as it facilitates social learning and metacognitive reflection about the day’s learning. Therefore, to be effective, all components of the workshop must be included.

Given the components involved, the implementation of workshops requires a significant amount of instructional time and clear instructional objectives. Because implementation of the CCSS further requires vast amounts of time and understanding of what is being required of students, it was necessary to determine the best means of integrating the standards into the various workshops. We found language workshop allowed for teaching the vocabulary and concepts students needed to understand the requirements of the standards, with particular emphasis being given to the language standards. The reading strands facilitated the alignment of reading and content workshops. Students practiced the reading standards during reading workshop and applied this learning in content area work to build an understanding of science and social studies concepts. Although written responses to share thinking occur in all workshops, writing workshop allowed for focused writing instruction to enhance students’ understanding of the craft. Through all workshops, collaboration and application of learned skills integrate the speaking/listening and foundational skills standards. Recognizing the connection between the various workshops and the CCSS supporting these areas created a framework to structure all educational experience throughout the day, maximizing our instructional time.

Learning and mastering the standards

The rigor of the CCSS places high expectations on student performance. Therefore, within each workshop, instruction needs to be carefully tailored to the needs of students, continually moving their learning forward to promote mastery. A Gradual Release of Responsibility model, as explained by Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey in Better Learning Through Structured Teaching: A Framework for the Gradual Release of Responsibility (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2014), fits the workshop framework and allows students to take additional responsibility for learning as they gain proficiency with the standards. Through the workshop, there are opportunities for focused instruction (minilessons), guided and collaborative practice (small group and partner work), and independent practice. As mentioned, standards align throughout the various workshops. Therefore, as Dorn and Soffos highlight, not only are students able to gradually accept more responsibility for learning, they also can apply this learning in a variety of contexts promoting the transfer of understanding.

The CCSS increase expectations for student progress. As teachers, we must ensure our students demonstrate proficiency with grade-level standards. In the PCL, to maintain growth and monitor progress, formative assessments become key in documenting student understanding. The Dorn and Soffos workshop model incorporates a variety of instructional settings, including whole group, small group, partner work, and individual practice allowing data to be gathered in various contexts. Formative checklists and anecdotal notes are easy to collect and allow instruction to be tailored to students’ needs. With daily workshops, these assessments become a systematic and common practice. Although our initial reaction to implementing both new standards and the workshop model was one of trepidation, once implemented it became clear we would be able to not only integrate standards throughout the day but have multiple opportunities to monitor students’ progress on a given standard.

Why the workshop model works

Although our staff experienced initial hesitation when being asked to restructure our instructional time and teach new standards, time has shown the workshop model is an effective way to deepen students’ learning across all grade levels. The workshop model allowed us to integrate standards-based instruction throughout the school day; such integration creates experiences in which students become immersed in concepts. As students are exposed to the standards in a variety of situations, with responsibility for learning gradually released to them, they have an increased depth of understanding. Our building data have shown an increase in students performing at grade level as a result of our instructional practices. Thus, the workshop has proven to be a powerful instructional technique to fully implement the Common Core and ensure the learning of all students in our school.

Jennifer Neff teaches first grade at Edward White Elementary School in Eldridge, IA, and is the ESL coordinator for the North Scott School District. She earned her bachelor's degree in elementary education and Spanish from Augustana College in Illinois, and a master’s degrees in bilingual/ESL education and reading from Western Illinois.


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