Workshop as a Vehicle for Agency

By Sathya Wandzek, Director of Field Staff Collaboration

When I was a teacher in the classroom, my number one goal was for students to see the why behind the math. Before teaching middle school, I literally didn’t understand the expression π rand always mixed it up with the other one, you know: 2πr. Once I taught circular geometry and truly had to make sense of it, I loved exploring the power of and the ratios circles contained. I will never forget now that the area of a circle is equal to π r2 and that the circumference of a circle is 2πr. I will remember these relationships forever now because of the models my students and I created so many years ago, that created concrete understanding for me. As I tell my story of coming to understanding, you will see how models and representations are my go-to strategy and ultimately help me make sense of the world around me. This is where my story begins…

I have been associated with PEBC for 16 years now; first, as a Boettcher Fellow entering the teaching profession, and now as a staff developer working with teachers. Throughout this time, I have been immersed in the beliefs and power around the workshop model, thinking strategies, and discourse. These three concepts are at the core of my beliefs as a teacher. Not only do I preach about these three, but I practice them as I travel the nation visiting amazing teachers who make them come alive. I get to see first hand the synergy that comes when teachers use workshop, plan for thinking and facilitate thoughtful discourse.  Because of my beliefs and my constant need to make sense of the why, I needed a model that would connect these concepts for me and  teachers. 

It was Ellin Keene that helped me with my first model of understanding. She came to speak at PEBC’s Summer Literacy Institute three years ago and I eagerly listened to her every word.  She spoke of four levels of engagement: compliance, participation, motivation, and engagement. Those four words really resonated with me. As she spoke, I frantically tried to get it all down in my notebook. While I paraphrased, I started to wonder…how does this fit with what I already know? How does workshop support engagement? What part do the thinking strategies play? I needed my model. I started to sketch my ideas, this was my initial thinking…

We all know how important routines are, so of course they are a big piece of what we have to do to set up our classrooms for thinking. Routines can be thought of very differently, depending on who you talk to. I believe in Stevi Quate and John McDermott’s definition in Clock Watchers: 

“When we’re talking about routines and rituals, we’re talking about managing a classroom through a very different stance. We’re talking about design principles that provide the structure for students to do smart work and that begins with a passionate belief in students as intellectuals.” 

This foundation is far deeper than compliance: when we believe our students are intellectuals, they rise to the occasion and easily move up the pyramid. Workshop is a level of routine. When I plan through the workshop model, I get more participation. When I pick and choose from my tool box of best practices, I get even more motivation. As I create an environment where thinking is the goal, I see true engagement. Done! 

That was my first synthesis.

I thought I had it, but then there I was listening to my colleagues in a meeting and hearing some important education concepts:  Empower, ownership, and agency. “Hmm, I wondered. What do those mean when it comes to my work? Is top quality teaching really about engagement, or is it about agency? How does it connect to workshop and the thinking strategies that I know so well?” So, I changed out some words and landed on this revised mental model.                     

I made my chart neat and infused those key terms without really knowing if that’s where they went.  Now I had a mission, and I was ready to accept the challenge. Which ones where the most important? Does one come before the other? What do they all look and sound like in classrooms? It was this last question where I started my research; the mathematician in me knew I needed data. Time to get into the classroom and record what I saw and heard. 

Over the last year, I’ve used a four square note catcher to record evidence of these four key ideas – engagement, empowerment, ownership, and agency – as I visited classrooms across the country. I Listened and looked for these elements at play and recorded how they related to understanding, workshop, and thinking. I have the privilege to work with teachers and students in California, North Dakota, Colorado, and Kentucky just to name a few, and as I spoke about these experiences with a principal the other day he said “ you get to be an anthropologist of teaching” and it’s true! No matter where I go, I hear the same needs and the same questions: How do I make the workshop model work for “my” kids? How do I find the time to plan this? How much time should I spend on each part? How do I get students talking? How do I keep my kids engaged? All valid questions, but maybe we should be asking “why” first.  

In my search for this “why,” I had an epiphany in my kitchen, grabbed the closest piece of scratch paper and brain dumped the purpose of workshop as a vehicle to agency. 

What if when planning our workshops we asked ourselves these four thought questions, instead of starting with the “operational” questions often asked?

  1. How will I engage my learners today in authentic thinking?
  2. In what ways will my mini-lesson empower or de-power their learning?
  3. How will I scaffold their work time so that they have ownership of their learning?
  4. In what ways will I connect their learning today to their worlds, so that they have agency in what we’ve done?

The purpose of a workshop planning template is not to check off that we’ve completed each of the four parts, but to provide our students with opportunities to experience agency and to feel empowered to learn.  It is this that we have to remember: no matter your time frame for learning, there is always time to support and elevate understanding. You may have a twenty minute workshop, or a workshop that lasts over days. It’s not the time that matters, but the intentionality behind our instructional designs. When teachers are intentional and know where we want our students to grow, authentic workshops start to develop.

 Here are 10 steps that can support you in developing agency in your students.

  1. Start with the end in mind. Know your learning targets and share them with your students. What do you expect students to know by the end of your time together? What do you want to see and hear? 
  2. Focus on the process (thinking strategies) and use them as a way to scaffold the content.
  3. Know your why. Learners ask, so make it relevant. This is how we “hook” them. If we want engagement, then we need to give students work that matters and is authentic.
  4. When planning, start with the task that will help students achieve expected outcomes. Too often, we start planning with what we, the teachers, are going to say. How much of that workshop is dedicated to us “teaching”? Less than a quarter of the pie! What part is the largest? Work time! Start your planning there. What will my kids interact with, and how will I break up the task into bite size pieces that will allow them to have ownership of their learning?
  5. Trust your kids to do amazing work. Too often, I hear teachers say, “My kids can’t.” If we say they can’t, then you won’t, and they won’t even get the chance to try. Please give students the chance to try, they will surprise you. 
  6. Provide choice. All of us need opportunities of choice to feel ownership and  agency. Choice of problems, choice of partners, choice of product. So many opportunities for choice. 
  7. Make time for reflection. Reflection provides learners with an opportunity to remember why each learning experience matters. This is the time when students take their learning internally and make meaning of it for themselves. When we provide this time we are supporting, developing, and promoting agency in our learners.
  8. Model and take risks as a learner. Share your stories of understanding and vulnerability with your students. This can help create a safe place for students to take risks themselves allowing for deeper thinking to happen. 
  9. Never say or do for learners anything they can say or do for one another. This should be tattooed on my heart because I believe it so much. We must create learning opportunities that invite others to create their own understanding.
  10. Remember to have fun. Find the joy in teaching because when you’re engaged your students will be too. 

Teachers that are masters of these 10 concepts, are not Jedi Masters, but reflective learners that promote an inquiry stance of learning onto their students. They believe that they can make a difference and strive to do so everyday. Brene Brown writes in Daring to Lead that teachers, “must be guardians of a space that allows students to breath and be curious and explore the world and be who they are without suffocation. They deserve one place where they can rumble with vulnerability and their hearts can exhale.” I want to use Brene’s words to thank the many guardians that have taught me so much about these spaces that allow for curiosity, exploration, and vulnerability to happen,  because that is where agency lives and breaths. These classrooms where light bulbs go off and questions lead the learning is where I wish to stay because that’s where children grow and where my models of thinking come alive. 

I hope that my models have helped you see how my thinking has changed and I encourage you to make models of your own to track your own synthesis of thinking. Overall when you find yourself planning and are wondering if it’s “right” stop and ask yourself this; Will we be engaged in authentic ways? How will I empower them to think through the task? In what ways will they have opportunities for ownership in their understanding? And how will I connect the task back to themselves as learners and explorers of their world? If you can answer these questions then I’m sure your students will be engaging in a workshop of thinking where they will  feel agency in themselves and discover a passion for learning to last a lifetime.