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The Workshop Model Best Practices

Learning is not a passive process. The more you can get students participating, not just listening, the better their retention and ownership over the experience will be.

That’s where the workshop model comes in. The workshop model minimizes the amount of lecturing you do, but still allows you to guide the discussion and flow of learning. Let’s take a dive into what this model can look like in your classroom.

The Benefits of the Workshop Model

According to Edutopia, a successful workshop has three components: a mini-lesson, a workshop, and a debrief. In the mini-lesson, you briefly introduce a new concept or skill through direct instruction or a more open-ended activity. The workshop component involves students working independently or in small groups to explore or practice the new concept. Finally, after the workshop, you bring the class back together to debrief about what they learned and the challenges they faced.

So what are the benefits of structuring your lessons according to this model? According to Streetlight Schools, workshops allow students to:

  • “Learn by doing”: When introducing a new topic—especially a complex one—teachers are often tempted to provide rigorous direct instruction to make sure students are prepared to engage with it. However, in reality, students often learn and retain better when they explore the boundaries of a new topic for themselves, even if that means making mistakes along the way.
  • Receive differentiated and targeted instruction: The workshop component of this model allows you to integrate differentiated activities seamlessly into your lessons. The mini-lesson and debrief might be the same for the whole class, but for the workshop, you can assign different work based on students’ abilities, learning styles, or interests.
  • Develop accountability: The workshop model inherently demands student participation and engagement. Students are responsible for driving the learning and activities forward, whether they’re working individually or in small groups.

Lucy Calkins’ Workshop Model Best Practices

Mini-lesson–workshop–debrief is the basic structure of the workshop model, but in practice, these components can be more nuanced, broken down, or added to. For example, Lucy Calkins, a leading voice in K–8 reading pedagogy, has developed a popular five-part model for conducting a one-hour reading or writing workshop:

  • Mini-lesson: The mini-lesson should aim to do four things: (1) connect your students with you, one another, and the content, (2) teach the main point of the lesson, (3) get students to actively participate in a guided practice of the new concept, and (4) link the guided practice to the work students are about to do. Calkins recommends pairing kids up with a long-term partner and having partners sit together during the mini-lesson.
  • Independent work: After the mini-lesson, students work either independently or in small groups (or a combination of both) to practice the skills you just discussed.
  • Conferring and small groups: While students work, the teacher moves throughout the room observing students’ work and pausing to check in with individuals and small groups. Depending on students’ needs, these small conferences might involve offering praise or encouragement, reinforcing points from the mini-lesson, or asking questions to help students clarify their thinking.
  • Mid-workshop teaching: Once you’ve spent some time checking in and coaching students in small groups, pause and get the whole class’s attention for a couple of minutes of direct instruction. You might expand on what you talked about during the mini-lesson, remind students of key points, or offer advice based on what students have been saying and asking about during your small conferences.
  • Sharing: After the workshop is over, gather the class back together and have them share what they’ve learned. Doing so will reinforce what they’ve learned, extend the lesson as students hear from each other, and inspire students to be ready to share accomplishments next time.

Workshop Model: The Debbie Miller Approach

Debbie Miller uses the workshop model as a vehicle for reading comprehension. Her book Reading with Meaning (2006) maintains that reading text is a conscious process where students can set their intentions to learn something specific. Her model is similar to Lucy Calkins’, and her guiding principles allow for even elementary students to gain deep meaning from stories.

She has built her model around foundational research, a general but adaptable framework that has worked for decades. This model involves:

  • Activating relevant, prior knowledge (schema): The mini-lesson can be a great time to prepare students for what they’re about to read by connecting it to what they’ve learned in the past. This might be anything from reviewing a literary genre or concept (e.g., fables, foreshadowing) to discussing the text’s main topic or theme. Activating prior knowledge is important to do before, during, and after reading.
  • Creating visual and other sensory images from the text: One way to help students retain and gain a deeper understanding of a text is to have them express its meaning through different media. This might include drawing a scene, acting out their favorite part, or writing a song about the main theme. You might assign these types of activities during the workshop component of the lesson.
  • Drawing inferences from the text: Also during the workshop, students should practice actively interacting with the text, not just passively running their eyes across the words. Challenge students to draw conclusions about what they’re reading, evaluate the effectiveness of the author’s rhetorical structure and word choice, and interpret the meaning of what’s on the page.
  • Asking questions: A good reader is an inquisitive one. As students read, they should ask questions of themselves, the author, and the text. For example: Does this text change my beliefs about this topic? Why did the author put these two characters together in this scene? What rhetorical device is the author using here? What might happen next in the story? Why do I think this?
  • Determining the most important ideas and themes: Even with short texts, it can be easy to get lost in the weeds of minor details. That’s why an important part of any reading workshop is to identify the text’s main themes and ideas. This allows students to accurately identify the rhetorical techniques the author employs to build his or her argument or story.
  • Synthesizing the text: This is the equivalent of debriefing or sharing. After you finish the workshop, tie together everything students noticed, learned, and discussed, and make key connections between new and prior knowledge. Doing so will solidify students’ learning going forward and set them up for success in the next workshop.

For more in-depth strategies for implementing the workshop and other interactive models in your classroom, check out these professional development courses from Advancement Courses:

  • Writing Workshop Model in the Classroom: Writing workshops help students take ownership of their writing by giving them the time and direction they need to reflect and grow in their craft. Develop strategies for helping students succeed during every phase of writing, including prewriting, actual writing time, and sharing and feedback.
  • Culturally Sustaining Literature: Learn to critically evaluate and select culturally responsive and representative texts for your classroom library and curriculum.
  • Phonics: Foundations of Literacy: Get strategies for integrating basic, intermediate, and advanced phonics into your reading and writing lessons. Learn how to diagnose and intervene with struggling readers and create effective differentiated instruction for small groups of students.

Advancement Courses offers more than 280 online, self-paced PD courses covering both foundational topics and emerging trends in K–12 education. Courses are available for both graduate and continuing education credit for your salary advancement or recertification needs.

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