"They already understood that reading and writing go hand in hand, we just needed to give them space and permission to try it out."
Maria Walther and Karen Biggs-Tucker are breaking tradition with their new book, The Literacy Workshop: Where Reading and Writing Converge. In this recent Teacher's Corner episode, they explain how they developed this idea, how it works in the classroom and remotely, and how their students responded.
About the authors
Teacher, author, literacy consultant, and children’s literature enthusiast, Maria Walther taught first grade for 34 years. She partners with teachers across the country to bring joy to their literacy instruction. The ideas she shares reflect her commitment to teaching, researching, writing, and collaborating with her colleagues.
Karen Biggs-Tucker is a teacher in St. Charles, IL where she has taught both second and fifth grade for 34 years. She believes in lifelong learning through reading, writing, researching, and then sharing that learning with others—just like her own students do in literacy workshop.
Read the transcript
Maria: Well, a Literacy Workshop is very similar to your reading and writing workshops. The difference is that you are combining the big ideas. So in our classrooms, what we noticed were that children, if you're talking about character or if you're talking about perspective, we were often in our classrooms doing a separate mini-lesson in reading and one in writing.
Maria: And so we were, in the way that we were teaching, separating a big idea instead of integrating. And after watching that for a while, we did some talking and thinking and we decided, what if we integrated into one experience a mini lesson or a big idea, and then provided choice for our learners that they could go off and choose to explore this idea as readers or as writers or as researchers.
Karen: And I think the thing of it is, is it also, as we began to look at as teachers, we never had enough time in the day. Time has always begun to become such a precious commodity for teachers that as we begin to get more and more things on our plate, whether it's science or social studies or social emotional learning, that we began to look for ways to streamline that planning. And so as we began having that conversation about how might we begin to do that, we began to look at those ways that reading and writing are so connected to each other. And we began to really just listen to our kids.
Karen: And our kids really so many times talked about how their reading was influenced by their writing and through so many other authors and researchers that have talked about reading like a writer and writing like a reader and all of that research, we really stand on the shoulders of that, that we began to think about how could we bring those things together to really help ourselves in our own classroom, really help make that learning more meaningful to students.
Karen: And then as Maria talks about that choice, really begin to empower learners to make those choices and then give them ownership of their own learning. And so for us, it really just became something that was just such a big aha to find those threads and to pull those threads together and weave them. And as we began to do that, we really just saw the learning in our own students really become just stronger and more meaningful.
Maria: Karen brought up social and emotional learning. And for us, that is part of literacy, that is connected in the Literacy Workshop. So by the books that we choose to read and the conversations that we choose to have, and just by giving students that ownership and choice and building agency, social and emotional learning is built into the Literacy Workshop and isn't a separate piece of instruction.
Maria: So I think that also when we were looking at ways to make learning make sense for our kids, it was what are all the pieces that we can take and put together in one big idea rather than all of these separate ideas. And then also, as Karen said, it gives more time for students to be reading, writing, researching when you combine your instruction around a big idea.
Nate: We're talking about student empowerment and agency. What have students' reactions been to this?
Karen: I think the very first few times I began to talk about Literacy Workshop with them and we really began to talk about those times that reading and writing were really connected for them and about how we were going to, I began just one or two days a week because I recognize that it was important, especially early on that they really needed those habits and behaviors of readers and writers.
Karen: And we talk about in the book, establishing those routines in readers and writers workshops. So when I began, we were still continuing in that readers and writers workshop, but it was one or two days a week that we were beginning that blended workshop. And so I was just talking with the kids a little bit about what does Literacy Workshop mean?
Karen: And I vividly remember to this day, and I think I called Maria on the way home and I said, there was this little girl sitting in the very front row on that rug that looked at me and she was like, "Well, Dr. Biggs-Tucker, why haven't we been doing this all along? This just makes sense. Why have we been doing it separately?" And it was one of those out of the mouth of babes kind of thing, because she...
Karen: And then the other kids started talking about how many times when they read something, they then went and did a piece of writing or how a piece of writing would then make them then go and look for a book that would help them with their writing. And so right away, something that I thought was going to require a whole lot of instruction to help them understand the reciprocity of reading and writing.
Karen: I just really stood back and let them begin talking about it. And so it was just one of those many opportunities that as teachers we think that we're going to hold all of the knowledge and really the kids knew what Literacy Workshop was probably long before I did and I just needed to give them the opportunity to do it.
Maria: And I agree. And for our littlest learners, that is the way they learn. Their learning is through play, exploration, integration and it is only in our classrooms that we separate that. And so, as Karen said, it just made sense to them. It was the way that they worked, for example, when they were out perhaps in a literacy center.
Maria: I mean, even though they might be reading in that place, someone will go grab a post-it and write that down. It was just naturally, and I think we've talked about this, organically the way children learn. And so by putting these separate workshops in place, we were separating it when they didn't need it separated. They already understood, as Karen said, they already understood that reading and writing go hand in hand, we just needed to give them space and permission to try things out.
Nate: It’s very much that idea of stepping back and facilitating this to occur organically. What's the decision process for when and how often you do this?
Maria: I think in the primary grades, I did it most often and most successfully when we could integrate everything. So when we could integrate our reading, our writing and a science or social studies topic and create this one big experience for kids.
Maria: So for example when we were studying nonfiction and our students were engaged in animal research, I was able to collapse the two workshops into one longer time where we were exploring non-fiction features as readers, we were exploring them as writers, kids were researching, reading, writing, and doing all of that for a longer period of time. So that was one opportunity that was really successful in the primary grades. And then Karen can talk a little bit about in the middle grades.
Karen: And I think in the middle grades, I think that as we look at the standards and the big ideas that drive our reading and writing work, a lot of that is built around topics like character and theme and setting. And so a lot of times where I really begin that work is looking for example, like at the big ideas around say character and how character is developed in books, and then how writers can develop character in their own writing.
Karen: So we look at those strands in reading and writing and then how students can learn to understand characters in their reading and then how they can create characters in their writing. But Maria was referring to that social, emotional piece, but what's really nice then about Literacy Workshop is then, okay, then as I read about characters and I write about characters, how then do I learn about myself through those experiences?
Karen: And as we sit with... and I would say this is true with kids no matter what their age, but obviously I work with middle-grade learners who are going through all kinds of things socially and emotionally, like trying to navigate friendships and navigate their families. We look at that whole idea about how can I learn about a character to help me navigate my own world.
Karen: But then certainly it creates an opportunity then as we begin to delve into theme, and as we look at providing kids lots of diverse literature and opportunities that they can also grow their worlds through lots of different experiences. So we really use a lot of the big ideas that exist and the standards when we look at some of those things to really drive workshop.
Karen: But I also think that when we make those decisions about the how and the when and the what, it really has to do, just like with anything else, about what those kids look like in front of you. And I remember over the last several years as I've been thinking about what this looks like in my own classroom, I had a group of kids one year that really, when we began doing reading and writing workshop, they really picked up those routines and those behaviors and those habits and those dispositions of readers and writers really quickly.
Karen: And we hit the ground and we were in Literacy Workshop, I would say within about the first six or eight weeks and to the school year that kids were ready to make those choices about when to read and write and research. And I tell you what, I was on cloud nine, they were on cloud nine. I was writing a book. Life was great.
Karen: The following year it took us about three months to really be ready to be readers and writers. So I really then had to slow down everything that I was doing because they needed more time to really learn those routines of being readers and writers.
Karen: So just like with any other practices that we do in the classroom, whether it's as a reading teacher or a writing teacher or a math teacher, anything, we look at those kids and what do those kids need from us, and we make those decisions based on that. So it's based on some curricular ideas, but it's also based on who those people are in front of us and what do they need and when do they need it?
Maria: And I think Karen makes a really good point. We called this a Literacy Workshop journey because for both of us, we don't have it all figured out yet. I don't know that we have anything in education figured out yet. And we wanted to walk alongside teachers as they made these decisions, not make the decisions for teachers.
Maria: So we wanted to say, well, this is what worked in one scenario, how might it work in your classroom? And we're already seeing teachers on Twitter, some of our colleagues re-imagining what we even, our definition of Literacy Workshop, and combining it in different ways that we hadn't even thought of.
Maria: So I think when you read the book and you think about the ideas, it's putting those ideas through your teaching lens, through the standards in your setting, through looking at your students, how can this support your students' learning across your year and how might you choose and when might you choose to go into a Literacy Workshop or come out?
Nate: Karen, you were talking about the difference between you had one year where the kids just picked up, it clicked, the next year, maybe not so much. Did being forced really to slow down your teaching, affect your interpretation of implementing Literacy Workshop? Did that offer any insights?
Karen: I think that it, in an interesting way, just made me believe in it more because I really just knew how important it was to get the kids there. But knowing that, just reminding me that everybody is different, every child is different just like every teacher is different.
Karen: And I'm just reminded, I think, why many of us really struggle with curriculums that are in a box and that say, you're going to do this on day one and this on day two and this on day three, that you really need that flexibility to stop and give students time. So I knew that they needed a little bit more time in learning how to choose their books and learning how to choose their topics. And I knew that.
Karen: I knew Literacy Workshop well enough to know that if I rushed them into that too soon, that they were not going to be successful. And I think one of the things that Maria and I hope that anybody who picks up our book and walks away with is that our ultimate goal for any learner in a Literacy Workshop will be that they are successful readers and writers and literacy learners.
Karen: And so what we do is we create that environment where they're reading, they're writing, they're researching, they're talking, they're listening, all those kinds of things. So I knew that if I had rushed into that, that they wouldn't be successful at that. And so I think we all know in our teacher hearts when kids are ready to do something and when they're not, and if we rush them in, they're not going to be successful.
Karen: And so I knew that if we rushed into it, if my calendar said October 1st is the day that Literacy Workshops starts and if I started doing that one day a week, two days a week, every day, the kids were not going to be successful. That they would be frustrated, I would be frustrated because they wouldn't have had the skills that they needed. So I needed to take more time.
Karen: So just like we do that with all kinds of things whether it's learning to walk down the hall in a line, whatever that is, learning how to talk about a read aloud book, we just need to give kids the time to be successful. And I wanted them to be successful because this was something that I believed in. And so taking the time to do it was well worth it to me. And they just took a little longer to get there. And I believe that kids take different times to do things and we just need to be patient and give them that.
Maria: And I think that's what the launching Literacy Workshop chapter, and then the demonstration lessons in that chapter really give you an opportunity to do what Karen's talking about. Get a read on where your students are as readers and writers and whether they are ready to make some of the choices that they will be making when they go out independently during Literacy Workshop.
Maria: So by working on perseverance and choice and challenge, and working through some of those big ideas with students, that's going to help you to make that decision as a professional. And that's what being a teacher is all about those professional decision making times. So hopefully as you work through some of the big ideas around launching and around independence, that will give you a better idea of when and if your students are ready.
Nate: We’re already well into the school year. Is literacy workshop something you can begin partially through the year?
Maria: Well, I think you can start this anytime of the year because as Karen has already talked about, it's all based on big ideas or standards. So if you jump into the fiction section, you will see demonstration lessons on character, on perspective, some of the big ideas that are probably already part of your curriculum.
Maria: So by taking those big ideas and combining them and looking at them from a reader's lens and a writer's lens at the same time, that will provide perhaps an opportunity to streamline some of your demonstration lessons or your instruction so that students can go out and experiment with those big ideas as readers or as writers. So, in my opinion, I think you could jump in any time.
Maria: I always believe that as educators we would go to a webinar now or a conference, or see a speaker and we can always come back into our classroom and say, "Hey, kids, I learned about this. Let's try it out." And I think that's another big point here, is that you might try it and... Be brave, give it a try, see what happens, see how your students react. And then as educators, we can come back in that support and say in that model, we can say, okay, here's what I'm seeing that they do when they were out there, here's the support I need to provide for them.
Karen: And I think a little bit of Literacy Workshop trivia was that Karen and Maria began talking about this in late January, early February, the year that Literacy Workshop was kind of beginning to evolve in our own professional journey and we kind of began thinking about, hey, this is kind of what they're doing and this is kind of what we're beginning to think about.
Karen: And in our own practice, we began rolling it out in March, actually. So I came to my students and we had been doing reading and writing workshop and I said, "Hey, we're going to try something a little bit different." And so Literacy Workshop in our own classrooms actually began to bubble to the surface in March. So we had been doing...
Karen: And the great thing when you look at these behaviors, when you look at something like perseverance, when you look at something like independence, or when you look at even the big idea lessons like character or theme, those are things that are not one and done things. I didn't teach perseverance the first week in September and all of my kids mastered it and I checked the box and now we're done with it.
Karen: Perseverance is something that I keep coming back to in different ways, with different pieces of text. And the same thing for character or for theme, it's the texts might be changing or what they're writing or what we're talking about begins to evolve and develop in complexity throughout the year. So a teacher could pick this book up today, this teacher could pick this up in a week or in a month and begin trying these things for one day a week or two days a week and then build up that traction as students are feeling successful, as teachers are building their confidence because that's exactly what we did.
Karen: And we were lucky enough that we had each other, we're not in the same school, we're not in the same district, but there were lots of conversations in the car on the way home and there were celebrations and there were, "Oh my gosh, what happened today?" And help me work my way through it, and there was lots of books sharing.
Karen: And so finding somebody to help you think your way through things is always a great way to do it, but it can happen whenever, just like Maria said. Anytime you get a great idea to conference and you're excited, you can take it and try it. That's the great thing about kids, they don't know any better. They just think you're coming in with something new and they're ready to just jump on the train. And if it's something that's exciting and good for them, they're going to benefit from it.
Maria: Well, yes. And I have to add to that that it is often our inflexibility as professional, my, I should say my inflexibility as a professional.
Karen: I would say our, I'll do that too. I'll get in there.
Maria: That stops me from trying new things. It typically is not the students. The students are resilient, they can adapt to new situations whatever time of the year it is. So I would have to push myself to try new things. And that's what was great about Literacy Workshop, is we had each other. So if you can find a trusted colleague or connect with us on Twitter, we're happy to reach out and talk to you about what's happening in your classroom. I think that makes the journey even more rewarding as a professional. And of course, your kids will give you all the rewards you need because they'll tell you exactly what is going right for them and what is challenging.
Karen: They'll tell you what you need to fix too.
Maria: Yes, exactly. If you listen to them, they will.
Nate: There are 50 lessons in the Literacy Workshop. How did you arrive at the titles and lessons your included?
Maria: The book's set up in two parts. So the beginning of the book really gives the background and the thinking behind Literacy Workshop to get you started. And then part two is the demonstration lessons. And a demonstration lesson when you look at it is very much like a reading or writing workshop mini lesson. The big difference is the lenses that the conversation leads students to look at that text and that experience through.
Maria: So you're not looking at it simply from a reader's lens or a writer's lens, you're looking at it from both. To find the picture books for all of those demonstration lessons took a lot of reading and thinking. And we wanted to make sure that they were books that were engaging for our kids so we read them to our kids of course, and talked about them and really thought about how that particular title or any titles that we paired with that title would help kids become better readers, better writers, but also better people, as we've talked about.
Karen: I also think that the great thing about the demonstration lessons is that the demonstration lessons are lessons that really once you teach that lesson, it becomes a great blueprint for you to teach that lesson kind of same same, but different. So you have that lesson as a model lesson for you to teach to that big idea through the reading lens, the writing lens, and then the literacy lens.
Karen: But we have given you a book title, but then also some kind of lookalike titles that you can go and you can teach that lesson again, and then potentially again, because we know the power of spiraling and coming back to those big ideas multiple times across the year with kids. I have been teaching fifth grade for, I think this is 21 years. I try not to do the math anymore.
Karen: But I had spent a number of years in second grade. And so picture books have been such an important part of my professional journey that when I went to fifth grade, they came with me. And the more I use them with my middle grade readers, the more important I know that they are a part of what we do.
Karen: And so I really encourage not only middle grade teachers, but middle school teachers and high school teachers to use picture books with their kids for just a variety of reasons. And so I think that it's so important to recognize power of the picture book because it's a short piece of text, it's an engaging text. And I think that we really tried to include picture books in the demonstration lessons that would speak to readers of all ages.
Karen: And we've gotten some feedback from some middle school teachers, and I even have a couple of high school teachers that have picked up and used some of these lessons and just changed some of the conversation prompts and what some of the after activities would look like. Because the way that a picture book can engage a reader and can create conversation around those big ideas that we built those demonstration lessons around, I think has really reminded me about how it can not only create conversation, but it can also then provide that mentor text for writing for kids.
Karen: And so as we think about Literacy Workshop, we want kids to have that reading experience where they're engaged with a piece of text, and then it also becomes a mentor text for writing. And I was reading something this past week and we were talking about theme and I had kids talking about the ellipse in the book and why the writer might have used that, and they're using that in their own writing.
Karen: And so it's exciting to have those pieces of text and those shared experiences. And I think that it's so important for teachers of older students to recognize that picture books have a place in our classroom. And so many authors have created some amazing books to have some great conversations around. So we were really thoughtful in choosing the books that we included so that they could reach a wide range of readers and teachers.
Maria: And I think, although the demonstration lessons in part two are divided by primary and intermediate, that was simply an organizational structure that we created. Those were the demonstration lessons that I had tried out in my classroom and the intermediate or the demonstration lessons that Karen had experimented with in her classroom.
Maria: But really, again, thinking about your readers and your writers and your learners, you could do any of those lessons in any grade level, just as Karen said. You can change the conversation. You can change perhaps the invitation that you're offering to your learners as they step off to read, write, research, talk. So although they are divided that way in the book, I think that really, you have a lot of choices of, as Karen said, just that demonstration.
Maria: It's a demonstration lesson for students, but it's also a demonstration lesson for you because once you've done a few of these, you can create your own. So I think that that is what we wanted. We wanted to create exemplar lessons that would be helpful for you as you continue planning.
Nate: The teaching landscape has certainly changed since you wrote the book. How has COVID changed the way that you teach and what does Literacy Workshop look like in an online classroom or hybrid situation?
Maria: Well, I think teaching and a pandemic is challenging in so many ways. Now, I'm not currently in a classroom, I'm supporting teachers, which in itself is a very challenging setting. So when this happened and we thought about Literacy Workshop, one of the first things that we did is we said, "Okay, so how can we support teachers who are teaching in all settings?"
Maria: So whether they're teaching face-to-face like Karen is, remote, the colleagues that I'm supporting are in a hybrid setting. And we created a guide that's online on our Stenhouse site to support you in some of that work. It's a starting place. I think when we're talking about whatever your setting is in this current teaching scenario, time is of the essence.
Maria: So whether you are remote and you have students on Zoom or another online platforms for a short amount of time, the ability to be able to combine and create demonstration lessons is even more important now and to provide that clarity for students about what your big idea is for that interaction with students.
Maria: So what I've seen teachers doing is using Literacy Workshop to create this clarity and to make that time with students, whether it's, again, hybrid, face-to-face even more effective. So that's one of the big benefits of doing Literacy Workshop right now. Also, streamlining your planning. I know some of my colleagues or one of our seventh grade colleagues is using the planning sheet that we provided in the book to plan her instruction in middle school.
Maria: She said it just helped her to really focus on what is the one big idea I want students to understand and what are they experiences I'm going to give them. So I think right now Literacy Workshop can help you provide clarity. It could help you streamline your instruction and can help you to create these opportunities for students when they are going off independently to read or write or research.
Karen: And I would just echo that. I spent the end of last year in a fully remote setting, as I think probably many teachers did. I had had the advantage of transitioning students into a Literacy Workshop. So my kids were using the planning sheet, they were making choices about their reading and writing and research.
Karen: So when we went to a remote setting, I had put that planning sheet into a Google Form. And so my kids independently were reading and writing every day. And so we had developed that routine. So I felt really glad that before we had gone to remote learning in the spring, that those routines had been put in place. This year we are fully in person in my district. So we're very excited about that.
Karen: So I have students in my classroom. So I have right now with me, 18 fifth graders in desks, six feet apart, we're masked all the time. But they have shortened our school day so that the kids are with us for a shortened day.
Karen: So echoing what Maria said about just being able to think about streamlining, planning what our instructional day looks like is a little haphazard at best. The being able to read, have a shared reading with kids on a document camera because obviously we're not all on the carpet together, having that read aloud opportunity is something that is really important to be able to do.
Karen: So we share those books, we talk about those books, finding creative ways to share text and talk about text, being able to think about, we found ways to put books in their hands and talk about their reading and writing. So it has taken us longer this year. It has probably been within the last, probably about three weeks that I have moved from reading and writing into Literacy Workshop simply because of just the challenges of books and writing and socially distancing.
Karen: But kids are talking. They're talking about their reading, they're writing. Maria would be happy to hear that we're writing lots of little books and we're reading them in Flipgrid and we're sharing them with other classrooms. So we're identifying as readers and writers. And I think that that's part of what is at the heart of Literacy Workshop. We're talking about text, we're making those connections between our reading and our writing.
Karen: And I think that even though it's taken us longer to get there because we had to create that safe space at the beginning and that social, emotional piece, it's happening. And I think that part of that is because of those pieces that are in Literacy Workshop because the reading and the writing and the listening and the speaking is there.
Karen: And I think that it's because it's part of the beliefs that we hold true. But I also think that for me, it's because I have now been able to, now we're thinking about blending the reading and writing and that will help in that planning to be able to find those common threads for myself.
Maria: And I think in a remote setting because in the remote settings that I'm working in students are with their teacher and then off doing independent work time back and forth with their teacher and off. And that's where in the guide that we created, we offered a menu of these different learner actions that students would be engaged in when they are off working.
Maria: Because we know for our learners, the grownups and our little learners, the grownups in their lives are the ones that are helping them to navigate some of this work offline. And so we tried to create some resources that we could provide for families to help guide them in what your child could be doing to better understand the topic that your teacher was talking about.
Maria: So I think in that way providing that clarity for parents of where we're talking about perseverance today, or we were talking about non-fiction features today, here are some ways your student can go out and explore this on their own and this is what that looks like. And I think that was one of our goals with the guide that we created, was to provide not only support for teachers in implementing Literacy Workshop in any setting, but also support for families.
Maria: And I think when you're in a remote setting, that's a big piece of the teaching. Not that we weren't always supporting families from our classrooms, but when you're supporting families who are working with their students remotely, we have to be even more clear and help them to continue the learning when they're not on the screen.