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Stacey Kadrmas

© 2001

Action Research

Establishing a Readers' and Writers' Workshop

Establishing a readers' and writers' workshop in a classroom requires a personal commitment from a teacher who is dedicated to finding out as much as possible about the reading and writing processes. As this information is gathered, digested, and understood, this teacher must then figure out ways to implement new teaching strategies and support different learning needs, all the while continuing to reflect and improve upon the classroom environment, learning opportunities, and instructional techniques already in place. Such a commitment involves time and energy spent beyond the regular expectations of the school day. It is possible to establish a readers' and writers' workshop in a classroom without staff development support, but such an endeavor would take years for an extraordinarily focused and resilient person to accomplish. However, with outside help from a staff development support system, it should be possible to establish a functional workshop environment in a classroom within two or three years.

The reading process involves decoding written language and comprehending the meaning of the words. Both of these functions need to occur simultaneously (or nearly so) in order for an individual to read fluently. Fluency generally precedes a person's readiness to move to a more difficult level or genre of text. Therefore, allowing students to spend time everyday reading independently at their comfort level is an important way to help them become more fluent readers while also establishing mindsets that reinforce their own sense of being capable readers. This practice is necessary at all grade levels in order to strengthen students' reading abilities and attitudes. Fluency is also influenced by an understanding of the phonetic system of English, causing the need for phonics to be taught well beyond the primary grades for those students who didn't Ôget it' the first time. Throughout the years of becoming more fluent readers, students must also understand the material they are reading. This involves a continual acquisition of new vocabulary and concepts, allowing the reader to activate their own prior knowledge about a topic or passage before, during, and after reading. When we connect something we read to information we already have, our comprehension improves. Comprehension of increasingly more difficult texts also requires a high level of metacognition in order to identify when understanding has broken down and the words no longer make sense. There are specific cognitive strategies that proficient readers use to help them comprehend text. These are: activating prior knowledge; finding the most important ideas in the text; asking questions before, during, and after reading; creating sensory images from the text; drawing inferences and conclusions; retelling or synthesizing what they have read; and applying Ôfix-up strategies' when comprehension breaks down (Keene and Zimmerman, 22-23). A knowledgeable reading teacher figures out which kinds of decoding and comprehension skills need to be taught and modeled for which students, and then designs a workshop environment that allows for the kinds of learning opportunities students need.

The writing process is also a metacognitive process in that it involves an awareness of one's own thinking during the stages of composition. These stages need to be modeled using a variety of formats and methods to show beginning writers how complex yet attainable writing is. The prewriting or percolating stage covers a range of cognitive and physical activities designed to engage a writer's awareness of the ideas and possibilities for beginning, articulating, and perhaps organizing a piece of writing. During the drafting stage, a writer loops through other stages as s/he continues to percolate thoughts, revise ideas, edit diction, and consider publishing all the while getting the words down on paper. All of these parts of the process require teacher support, objective goals, and clear expectations so that student writers take ownership of their own voices.

Readers' and writers' workshops require four essential elements: time, ownership, response, and community. In order to establish such workshops in a classroom, students need daily, extended opportunities to read and write, to choose their own books and writing projects, and to respond to what they are reading and writing through reflection and discussion (Keene and Zimmerman, 15). They need to observe their teachers reading, writing, and thinking out loud about both. They need individual attention as well as small group, guided lessons and larger group, everybody-needs-to-hear-this lessons. They must have deliberately planned, thoughtful experiences with the many aspects of reading and writing so that they can ultimately become independent readers and writers. Such a list of requirements is daunting for the most experienced and energetic teacher. It is completely overwhelming for most of us. However, when a team of teachers meets regularly in and outside of the classroom to share ideas, support each other, teach together and learn together, the task of establishing a readers' and writers' workshops can become not only manageable, but energizing and fun.

I will be starting a new job as a literacy coordinator for a K-8 school in St. Paul, MN. My responsibilities will include helping to establish readers' and writers' workshops in grades 4-8 in this school. The school has purchased a system of academic standards called America's Choice that has created K-12 standards along with exemplars of student work and standardized tests to measure progress. My official job responsibility will be to help raise test scores, but my real job will be to help teachers teach kids how to become proficient readers and writers. By establishing readers' and writers' workshops in the classrooms of this school, I intend to accomplish both. I will begin by identifying and working with one teacher in his or her classroom to establish a readers' and writers' workshop that will become a model classroom for others to observe and learn from. Once the model classroom has been established, I will continue to help other teachers establish workshop in their rooms.

I want to find out exactly how to go about helping another teacher "organize and reorganize [his or her] room and self to support writing, reading, learning, and teaching" (Atwell, 90). I need to learn how to balance offers of new information with my physical presence in another's teaching space. I want to arrive at a deeper understanding of how to teach and facilitate learning in a workshop environment. In essence I want to become a teacher with a capital T as Nancie Atwell so eloquently describes in the second edition of her book In the Middle:

"Just as there are times when kids need a mirror, someone to reflect back their writing to them, there are times when they need an adult who will tell them what to do next or how to do it. Bottom line, what they need id a Teacher. Today, I'm striving for the fluid, subtle, exhilarating balance that allows me to function in my classroom as a listener and a teller, an observer and an actor, a collaborator and a critic and a cheerleader" (21).

Plan of Action
September-October, 2001
Identify a teacher in grades 4-8 to work with for establishing a readers' and writers' workshop.
Initial discussions with this teacher and the primary level teacher and literacy coordinator.

November-December, 2001
Read Mosaic of Thought (at last fir st 3 chapters) and In the Middle (at least first 5 chapters) and hold weekly book discussions and planning sessions for workshop classrooms.
Determine an assessment tools for gathering baseline and ongoing evaluation data.
Administer baseline assessment for students in workshop classrooms.

January-April, 2002
Begin to establish workshop classrooms.
Continue to meet regularly with primary level team to iron out glitches, help each other, and address concerns.
Establish routines, reading and writing spaces, and teaching/learning strategies for workshops.

May, 2002
Administer assessments and compare results to baseline data.
Plan for continued improvements for next school year.

Annotated Bibliography
Allen, Janet. Words, Words, Words: Teaching Vocabulary in Grades 4-12. Stenhouse Publishers: York, Maine, 1999. ISBN 1-57110-085-7
Words, Words, Words describes the research showing the best ways to teach vocabulary. It offers practical ideas for helping students learn new words and use them in their own speaking and writing. Strategy lessons are offered in the following areas: * Activating and building background knowledge * Making learning meaningful and lasting * Building knowledge of new concepts * Using word and structural analysis to create meaning * Using context clues * Making reading the center of vocabulary instruction.

Atwell, Nancie. In the Middle: New Understandings About Writing, Reading, and Learning. Boynton/Cook Publishers: Portsmouth, NH, 1998. ISBN 0-86709-374-9
This second edition of In the Middle brings the reader up-to-date with Atwell's changing and maturing voice as a writer and a teacher. She clarifies old methods and demonstrates new approaches. Atwell talks about becoming a Teacher with a capital T by taking a more active role in offering guidance and help when applicable in order to allow students to move more quickly to indpendence. There are six new chapters on genres, evaluation, and the teacher as writer. There are also minilessons, rules for reading and writing workshops, new ideas and systems, and forms to help with the teaching of reading and writing.

Cunningham, Patricia M and Richard L. Allington. Classrooms That Work: They Can All Read and Write. Addison Wesley Longman, Inc.: New York. 1999. ISBN 0-321-01339-5
This book describes the Ôbalanced reading' approach to reading instruction, explaining and illustrating guided reading, problems and solutions to reading, decoding and spelling fluency, and writing about Ôreal things'. Intended for elementary teachers, it offers concrete examples for helping struggling readers. Supported with research, Classrooms That Work offers the best of what we currently understand about learning how to read and write.

Cunningham, Patricia M. and Dorothy P. Hall. Month-by-Month Phonics for Upper Grades: A Second Chance for Struggling Readers and Students Learning English. Carson-Dellosa Publishing Co.: Greensboro, NC, 1998. ISBN 0-88724-473-4
Month-By-Month Phonics offers teachers and students a simple, realistic program for fitting the teaching and learning of phonics into a few minutes a day. With five goals established and repeated each month of the school year, students get the opportunity to work with words in engaging and easy-to-follow activities. Each activity is designed to be of interest to older students so that they remain involved in learning the essentials of decoding English.

Keene, Ellin Oliver and Susan Zimmermann. Mosaic of Thought: Teaching Comprehension in a Reader's Workshop. Heinemann: Portsmouth, NH, 1997.
Keene and Zimmermann offer teachers an insightful description of the latest research into reading comprehension by showing how a proficient reader handles complex texts. They illustrate their own comprehension struggles and strategies, and in doing so, help us see how we read and how we can help our students become better readers.


Creative Writing

Outside Rooms

I became a reluctant gardener the moment my mother dragged me away from playing to help weed the vegetable patch at our lake cabin. I still remember getting yelled at for unknowingly pulling out sprouting vegetables that looked exactly like the weeds I was supposed to kill. I did get to help plant in the spring, digging furrows in the dirt for seeds and shallow basins for seedlings; yet my most persistent memories and experiences continued to be the back-aching labor of digging, hoeing, and yanking weeds. My interest in gardening rose half a lukewarm degree when I became a homeowner and felt some pressure to pay attention to the outward appearance of the property. At first, I haphazardly scattered flowers in beds already begun by lumber piles, bare walls, and unsightly views. Resisting my mother's suggestions, I created a series of run-on gardens overcrowded with the same few perennials that hid misplaced yet promising beauties amid the tangle. Whenever I was given a plant for my gardens, I would deposit it in an empty spot and intone my Survival of the Fittest philosophy. "Good luck," I'd mutter as I walked away to tend to children, animals, spouse, and career. It overwhelmed me, trying to figure out which plants needed pruning, which should be moved (to where?), and which should be discarded entirely. I lacked a vision for my gardens Ð a view of the whole yard as a cohesive landscape organized and flowing from one point to the next. I wanted the gardens to punctuate and control the scenery. Instead, they became an inarticulate jumble of partially realized ideas. In those early stages of learning, I gardened alone, in fits and starts, relying heavily on annuals and those few, recognizable perennials I no longer mistook for weeds each spring.

I have come to realize that gardening is as much a process of creating Ð an art Ð as is writing, teaching, or raising a child. Maybe the human mind can only grapple with the creative process in one or two areas at a time. Perhaps it is because my children are older that I now have the energy to focus my attention on gardening. Perhaps it is because I am focusing my attention on writing that I have become aware of the other process occurring in my yard. As I begin to think more consciously about gardening, an interesting transformation takes place. I find myself studying other gardens, slowing down in my car when I spot pleasing color combinations, noting how shape, space, and size play an important role in every garden. I have begun to talk to others about their gardens, and, for the first time, I avidly peruse the gardening magazines and books I've received as gifts. My mother is thrilled and secretly crediting herself for my newfound interest in cultivating all things that thrive in zone five. Local greenhouses have become favorite haunts as I wander aisles reading plant names and descriptions, hesitantly asking questions of the staff, unabashedly eavesdropping on conversations to pick up important tidbits of green thumb advice. I've begun to realize how important a gardening community is for support and help as new ideas are tried and developed.

Planning now happens spontaneously and continuously. As an idea opens into a broader vision, I continue the planning stage by laying out hoses to help graphically organize my ideas - frequently stepping back to contemplate the landscape from different views and angles. Once a pleasing shape emerges, I begin to dig. During this stage of drafting a new garden, the space begins to take on a life of its own as one vision evolves into another. The digging changes the look of the garden in subtle, yet important ways. Lately, I've been creating large gardens with river rock and woodchips, shrubs and hardy perennials Ð areas that take the place of grass and offer attractive, colorful coordination for a spacious country lot. As the gardens move from my mind to my yard, a keen sense of satisfaction accompanies the development of each neatly coordinated stretch of rocks and woodchips. My gardens are drafted Ð gratifying and nearly complete. All that is missing are the plants. I find myself stalled at this point in the process, paralyzed by uncertainty. I'm afraid to make a mistake (wrong size, color, or shape in the wrong place), so I haven't been able to make myself purchase any new plants or divide the ones I have. I'm stuck editing myself. This insecurity stymies all creative energy, and I stay stuck until I turn again to the community I've come to rely on. We study books and plants, sharing stories and encouragement, offering suggestions and cuttings.

"Just do it!" they order. "Get started." So I begin. Purple Echinacea moves to a sunny spot, Harvest Sedum join Black-eyed Susans to make an interesting statement. Native grasses and healthy Hydrangea are sought out. Daylilies transferred to a wild part of the yard spread their roots and leaves in joy.

Mistakes can be remedied as time and maturity change the land. Only after I plant am I able to find out what works and what doesn't. Beginning a garden with shovel and hoe, wheelbarrow heavy with earth; visions of perennials, shrubs, and bright annuals is not as difficult as allowing the landscape to meld and form itself into the space it is meant to be (an outside room, they say in the gardening books) that eventually becomes an original idea (using my back, my arms, my sweat) independent yet integrated. The careful work of gardening requires a balanced mix of disciplined effort and deliberate surrender, acknowledging the mysterious yet malleable creative process while cultivating new plants, new ideas, new directions. The results will never be entirely Ôfinal' since they will continue to evolve; yet I find satisfaction and peace in these spaces. As I resolve to bring my gardens to some kind of conclusion, I'm comforted to know that I can continue to revise as necessary.