Reader’s Workshop: The Early Years

I’ve been in love with reader’s workshop for a long time now. Like many relationships, in the beginning I romanticized aspects of it, and took other parts for granted. In the beginning, we shared airy spring days, fragrant with hope and pinky white bloom. Smatterings of pastel kites were silhouetted against our blue skies and red and white gingham blankets dotted hillsides of sweet, dewy grass. Every child selected just right books and began to harbor an intensely growing love of reading. It was exactly what I wanted, and so it seemed perfect.

But then there would come pale, grey days – pelting, cold rain and a sideways wind that rattled the panes and shook my resolve, leaving behind a washed out echo of our once postcard perfect day. Readers would struggle to stay engaged in their books, mini lessons would unravel and read alouds wouldn’t transfer. It’s hasn’t always been perfect, reader’s workshop and I. But as we’ve weathered storms, I’ve matured as a teacher and learned to appreciate what we so often undervalue in literacy.

While it was the philosophy of student-centered learning that first drew me to reader’s workshop, my focus in those beginning years was often more self-centered. My favorite pieces were the interactive read aloud and the mini lesson. These forms of direct, explicit instruction were my chance to shine, basking in the limelight – all eyes on me. Believing that teaching is undoubtedly my passion and calling, it was in these components of workshop where I felt myself most alive, thriving in my role as the bestower of knowledge.

Through the years, reader’s workshop and I have become more comfortable with each other. I know the ins and outs of it, what makes it tick. Like the way my husband takes his coffee in the early morning hours, I’ve familiarized myself with its structures and essentials, and I could probably go through the steps from read aloud to share with my eyes closed. But, not unlike my husband, I’ve come to an even deeper appreciation and understanding of reader’s workshop. The parts that I glossed over in the beginning, the moments I overlooked as opportunities for real connection  – these are the parts that have stood the test of time, sweetened with age.

I still love demonstrating an engaging interactive read aloud (implicit teaching included) and effective, responsive mini lessons that set students up for transfer are still my area of expertise. But as my relationship with reader’s workshop has matured, I feel like my teaching is finally catching up with my beliefs.

The way I teach has become so much less about me.

I, like so many, believe it’s really all about the kids. I believe that the most powerful, important work begins when the cover of the read aloud book closes and the final words of the mini lesson have been uttered. There’s a brief pause, and as the silence hangs in the air – it’s a moment of hushed expectancy and mounting excitement.

The students themselves are buzzing with anticipation. The star of the show is them, the show itself is independent reading.

The Soul of Reader’s Workshop

Sadly, often times it seems that independent reading is the first component of reader’s workshop to be pushed aside or be given less forethought than other pieces. We tediously plan our small group instruction, buy into the value of conferring one-on-one, and uphold collaboration and agency through our book clubs and shares. But when the schedule has to change, how often do we shorten independent reading and extend the mini lesson? Do we sometimes implicitly send the message that independent reading is a “filler activity” to hold space between more important teaching and learning? How much planning and consideration do we put into the way independent reading functions in our classrooms? How often do we neglect to see the beauty and potential that independently reading affords us? Do we sometimes fear what might happen to our picnic worthy, sun-soaked days if we were to relinquish a little control, make things less about us and more about them?

Independent reading is the soul of reader’s workshop. While it’s certainly not the most flashy, it is the most sacred part. Every painstaking moment of prepping and planning, every ounce of instruction given, each think aloud uttered, and each single word read leads to this piece. The entirety of reader’s workshop exists to lift up independent reading – to transfer to readers the skills, strategies, and thinking that will make them not only successful, but avid readers.

Personally, I thought I had independent reading locked down. I knew and valued the importance of promoting student choice of high-interest texts and was proud of how hard I worked to create readers in my classroom. Then, when a storm would blow through, stirring the pages of our reader’s notebooks and ripping books from my students’ hands, I found myself baffled and a bit scorned. Why was something so simple, so deeply a part of our classroom culture failing?

I’ve shared with teachers before, “You can have the most perfect mini lesson in all of history. You can engage, thrill, dazzle, and inspire… and if you never offer your students the opportunity to transfer this teaching into their own reading, it was all a waste of your collective, precious time.” THIS is why independent reading is so vital, and we have to consider not just the what of it, but the why behind it.

We value and protect independent reading because it is every student’s chance to engage with texts they can read fluently and comprehend. We uphold its sacredness because every student has the right to apply, to try out the tools that you have placed in their toolboxes while they are still relevant and necessary. In my own teaching, I didn’t consider how imperative transfer between my teaching and my students’ reading was. As I grew and learned, I began to consider the need for my students to independently read within the genre we were working in as a means of supporting this transfer. The powerful teaching of how archetypes function in fantasy texts? Only applicable if students are then channeled do this same work in fantasy texts of their own! And this transfer only takes place when there is volume in the classroom – readers who devour books with insatiable appetites; teachers who are always pushing and offering new items on the menu. And so, readers need and deserve the time to indulge in what reader’s workshop has to offer.

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Samples of transfer into independent reading from a small group I taught in a 5th grade classroom earlier this week. (Included with permission.)

When our students are most fully engaged in their reading and writing and active in their learning, this is when the magic really happens. The spotlight is on them, and we slide into the darkness of the background. It’s hidden from view, enveloped by the curtain that we begin the behind the scenes work that will set them up to be the stars they truly are, illuminated by the spotlight they so deserve.

And so, when workshop time begins, I find myself anticipating the times when my role is more subtle, less “look at me!” The conferring, the small group instruction, the book clubs, and the independent reading – these are the pieces of workshop that I love and appreciate most now. The moments that seem less about me and more about my students – those are the essential pieces of workshop that mean the most.

I still delight in those early spring days, but now I appreciate the grey days as well. They are opportunities for me to self reflect, to consider my students before myself and to challenge the teacher I am to mature into the teacher I can become. Venturing outside of comfort zone and making others a priority has given me a new perspective on those mundane moments I was unintentionally taking for granted. They are not flashy, but they are sacred. Like the comforting, silent cup of coffee my husband and I share in the early hours of the morning, when the rest of the world seems still mid-dream, they are my favorite moments.

WVCTE is wondering… How do you show your appreciation for independent reading in your classroom? Why do you think students deserve to read every day? Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!

 

Jessica Michael Bowman is a literacy coach for Berkeley County Schools, unabashed bibliophile, and advocate of lifelong literacy. When she’s not coaching teachers, teaching students, or blogging for WVCTE, she’s probably crying over a book. Aside from literacy, her other loves of life are traveling with her family and adding to her music collection. You can connect with her on Twitter @JMichaelBowman5.

Categories: BlogLiteracy

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