Saturday, February 19, 2005

The Workshop Model: Policy Pariah?

I got my union newsletter earlier this week, but just got around to looking through it today. I am a union member and very, very thankful that unions were there to fight for fair wages and salaries for workers in many industries, as well as for teachers. If my union ever calls a strike, you'd better believe that I will be there on the picket lines, because that's the only way that unions are effective, when they have active members.

That said, whenever the newsletter arrives, I am reminded just how atypical my views are among New York City teachers. It makes me a bit nervous when other bloggers use my opinions as representative of NYC teachers, even when they mean well, because I might be completely wrong. Lots and lots of teachers out there disagree with me....

This is in part because my school is not the norm. For example, this would NEVER happen in my school (this is from an editorial in the 2/17/05 edition of New York Teacher):

And the politics of which colors to use on the walls of a bilingual classroom, where a teacher was told to redecorate because she had used red for English and blue for Spanish when it should have been the other way around.


If that really happened*, then there are some truly STUPID administrators working out there in the schools.

And then there's the controversial "workshop model" which the DOE wants all teachers to use. As I understand it, you start each period with a short mini-lesson (roughly ten minutes, although I have always been told the exact length of time is flexible, but it shouldn't be a whole period lecture). Then the students spend about 20-30 minutes on some kind of "guided practice" activity, typically done in groups, while the teacher circulates, providing help and assessing which students have mastered the skill or content. Finally, the last few minutes of the period are spent having the students report back on what they learned, either sharing with the whole class, their group, or a partner. Then you assign homework for additional individual practice.

Seems fairly innocuous to me. It's a good structure for including both "direct instruction" and "guided practice" in your lessons, for remembering to have some sort of closure or summing up at the end of each lesson (I often forget or run out of time for this), and for providing time for students to learn from each other.

And in my school, we have had professional development going over this structure, we have talked about ways to adapt it to different kinds of lessons - for example, giving instructions for an experiment is a perfectly reasonable use of the mini-lesson - and we have aired our complaints and concerns. I talked to my AUSSIE about whether it is okay to stretch out the workshop model over a few days for experiments that take more time than one period. She pointed out that each day could still include a mini-lesson, the first day introducing the experiment, and the following days focusing on things that I observed the students having trouble with. Also, each period I could still have the students share - it could be as simple as sharing one interesting observation they made that day, a new question they had, etc. We also talked about going through the workshop model cycle multiple times in one period, for example, introducing an article on a science topic, having them read part of it, then having them share and take notes about what they read, then introducing the next part of the article and repeating the process. She said that was fine, since it would still include the basic parts of the workshop process.

Now here are some stories about the workshop model from The New York Teacher, Feb. 17, 2005:

A focal point of anger among the teachers is the region's [Region 4] lockstep requirement that they use the workshop model for every lesson. In this model, classes are divided into 7-10 minutes of direct instruction, 20 minutes of group work, and 10 minutes of sharing results.


Joanna Scaltro, a 3rd-grade teacher at PS 153, complained that teachers must follow a script for each lesson with set wording such as "Turn to your partner and share," and "Remember, today I taught you..."


Teachers complained that the minute-by-minute rules governing instruction left no time for anything outside the prescribed curriculum.


"We are not allowed to ask questions because you get in trouble," said Juanita Rolon at PS 106. "If you have any concerns about the program or you don't know how to do it, you have to keep quiet."


[UFT President Randi] Weingarten said teachers were fed up with Teachers College's refusal to conduct teacher training during the 100 minutes of professional development on Mondays that were negotiated for that purpose. Instead, she said, the college schedules training during teachers' lunch breaks, prep periods, and classes.


I, too, would have low morale if I were given a script specifying what to say each minute and putting words in my mouth. I'd hate that! Yet, in my personal experience, the workshop model has never been presented as a lockstep script-bound curriculum, just as a way of organizing a lesson to ensure that students get two things they need: information from the teacher and time to engage with that material by discussing it with classmates, practicing skills, doing projects to show what they've learned.

So, where does the problem lie? Is the union right to decry the workshop model and Chancellor Klein's policies as the source of all these problems? Did the DOE intend the workshop model to be implemented as a script? Or should the UFT perhaps focus instead on getting rid of stupid, short-sighted administrators with poor management skills? There ARE a lot of principals, AP's, and LIS's out there who can't see the forest for the trees. Why should these people terrorize teachers with U-ratings for making their bulletin board displays the wrong color?

And teachers, I think we need to ask ourselves, if we don't like what they're doing now, what would we prefer? What kind of school reform IS acceptable? How can our administrators help us improve our teaching? Is there ANY city-wide curriculum that we would welcome? Or should every teacher be free to make up his or her own curriculum, following whatever lesson-planning methods he or she prefers? How should administrators go about presenting new models of education or new policies, and how should they be enforced? What should happen to teachers who simply aren't doing a good job? Would the teachers who complain about how the workshop model is presented in their school be okay with the way it was presented in my school?

My answer to these questions is that schools need to be smaller, so that teachers can realistically meet together to learn, discuss, and form school policies. PD should be conducted in smaller groups, and schools that are large enough should offer choices among workshops aimed at different levels of experience, grade levels, subject areas, and topics of interest to teachers. The Regions can provide workshops that teachers from any school can attend - my Region does this for science - which will be especially helpful to teachers from small schools who may not have options otherwise.

I want to see smarter people in administrative positions, from the LISs to the APs, so that they can implement citywide policies intelligently. Then they can say to their teachers, here's an overview of what we think will help the kids. And here are some workshops or discussion groups you can join based on what you think would help you most. Science teachers, you can go to the Region's science PD next time we have Monday PD, or you can stay here and discuss incorporating Accountable Talk into your classes. Whenever possible, PD should be led by experienced teachers who will share their successes with the new policies. At the very least, each PD workshop should include time for teachers to share what has worked for them, and it should also allow teachers to ask questions and air concerns, and for other teachers to respond with their ideas.

How do you get smarter administrators? I think the DOE needs to start grooming people for the job - which they are doing, sort of, through programs like the Principal's Institutes, or opportunities for teachers to get administrative degrees for free or reduced tuition at schools like Bank Street. It's important to make sure that the people entering these programs are interested in being administrators, not just the pay raise that comes with the new title. Being a good teacher doesn't make you a good administrator - that takes a whole other set of skills. Finally, I think more opportunities should be created for teachers to take leadership positions that are NOT the usual administrative positions. I'd like to work with new science teachers some day, but I don't have any interest in being a principal or superintendent. It would be great to be able to aspire to a higher paying position involving both teaching and mentoring or curriculum development. That way, when my life changes in such a way that I need to make more money, I won't end up taking an administrative position that I might not like or be good at... instead, I'll take one that is "the right seat on the bus" for my interests and talents.

I'd also like the DOE to give new curricula and policies time before changing them. It takes time for teachers to adapt to new models and policies, and even more time for the new ways of doing things to visibly impact the children. So, big changes to the curriculum should be rare and not driven by shifts in the political winds. I'm pretty open-minded about new policies, but if I have to learn something new every two years, and if I have to see all the money spent on one way of doing things thrown away when the next fad is adopted, well, my mind might start to close.

Whenever you try to do something in a system as large as NYC, you inevitably get uneven results. For example, I don't know whether, overall, the AUSSIEs are more good than bad or vice versa. The AUSSIEs at my school have been immensely helpful, responsive to our concerns, and have posed interesting questions for us to think about during professional development sessions. Not everyone likes their AUSSIE consultants. Mr. Babylon wrote in my comments after another post about AUSSIE's: "AUSSIEs are assholes." I don't know what his experience with these consultants have been, but I do know that I've heard about AUSSIEs in other schools who aren't at all helpful or even very smart about what they are doing.

My wrists are tired from all this typing... that's a sign that I'm ranting. Before I lose ALL my friends, I'll stop writing and post! Here are some links on the Workshop Model for your perusal (form your own opinion... or INFORM your own opinion!):

Teaching Effectively Using the Workshop Model, by Arlyne LeSchack

The Reader's/Writer's Workshop:
Stepping from the Platform and into the Classroom
, by Mariah Dickson

Homepage of the National Writing Project which I believe invented the Workshop Model. As you may have noticed, it is most often used to teach reading and writing, and has only recently been modified to accommodate other subject areas. Another interesting note is that my elementary school teachers used Writer's Workshop to teach writing, and I think I turned out okay! I certainly like to write and have never been afraid of writing.

Teachers want to talk, by Ellen Yan, from New York Newsday - Here's an article airing teacher's concerns about the workshop model

New York Teachers' Chatboard - look here for the opinions of other NYC teachers, in their own words.

The NYC Leadership Academy, a program aiming to develop the next generation of administrators.

*The one thing the union newsletter never provides for anecdotes like this one is context. However, I have heard enough similar anecdotes from the newsletter and directly from other teachers that I tend to believe that at least some of it is completely true, some of it is true but only part of the story, and probably some of it is apocryphal or greatly exaggerated.

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Have a great day.

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