agency · community · feedback · goals · management · routines

How do we Know When our Workshops are Working?

So, how’s it going? 

You know, that all important launch of the workshop. At this point you’ve likely been in school anywhere from a couple to a few weeks, and you’re looking around and asking yourself this very question. 

Launching a writing workshop is hard work. Intentional work. What are those “look fors” that let us know that our workshops are gelling? That community is being built, routines are being established, and writing work is happening? 

I would argue that this is a collective goal, and it should be co-constructed, owned, and monitored by the group. Have you considered whether the writers in the workshop have the same clarity that you do around what it will look and sound like when the workshop is working?

In the same way that writers need to have a vision for what they are writing, members of a workshop need to have a shared vision for the kind of writing community they are building. Teaching writers to notice and name indicators that show the workshop is working will help you to get there faster. 

We want writers to internalize the “look fors” of a positive, productive workshop. Often, these look fors are generated in process minilessons during the launch. We might co-create anchor charts with titles like, “What Does it Look and Sound Like During Minilessons/Work Time/Conferences/Share Time?” or “How do Partners Work Together in a Workshop?” Our goal is to support writers in building the habits and routines that will enable them to write with independence, creating space for us to differentiate through conferring and small groups.

The most effective way I’ve found to reinforce the transfer of these minilessons and anchor charts to current reality is through the strategic use of descriptive feedback, particularly during the closure of the workshop.

First I’d like to define descriptive feedback and differentiate it from other types of feedback. Descriptive feedback is non-evaluative; there is no positive or negative judgment attached. No adjectives such as terrific, super, or excellent. It is simply a description of what IS. Descriptive feedback is as specific as possible, using language that is clear for the learner. For example: 

  • All writers found a cozy writing spot and were busy writing three minutes after the minilesson ended today. 
  • I noticed six writers visited the writing center and independently helped themselves to extra paper and the stapler during work time today.
  • Writers were engaged in writing for 36 of 40 minutes of work time today. 

When offered descriptive feedback, the learner is the one who decides if this result is positive, neutral, or negative. The learner decides if the outcome is a match for what they were going for, or if there are adjustments to make in order to get closer to their goal.

I do want to make a distinction between descriptive feedback and the, “I like the way so-and-so is sitting up so straight and tall on the carpet” positive reinforcement I was taught to employ as a new teacher. That type of feedback, while effective as a management tool, establishes a much different power dynamic than the one I’m advocating for here. As soon as a speaker adds the phrase “I like,” the feedback becomes evaluative. There is an implied positive judgment on the way of sitting being praised, and an implied negative judgment on anyone sitting in other ways (or not yet sitting). Students learn to adjust their actions based on their perception of that adult judgment. 

It is not my goal to build a community of compliant writers who act in productive ways in an effort to please me (the teacher/adult). My goal is to empower each member of our community to be self aware, noticing that HOW we work together—and their own active role as part of that how—contributes positively to the environment we are building together. Each one of us matters in this process. We are a community, and the way our workshop looks, sounds, and feels is a reflection of our collective decisions. 

That said, offering the descriptive feedback is step one. I then pair that descriptive feedback with why that noticing—whatever it is—matters in the context of the workshop we are trying to create together. This is a strategy I learned from Samantha Bennett in crafting coaching notes. In that context, when offering feedback to teachers, it’s descriptive feedback + why it matters for student learning.

As a strategy for elevating workshop noticings (and connecting them to our collective vision), it sounds something like this:

  • Today while I was conferring, there weren’t any interruptions. That matters because it means writers are being respectful of each other’s time in conferences. It also means that conferences are shorter, so I have time to meet with more of you.
  • After the minilesson, it took less than one minute for all writers to find a cozy writing spot and be ready to get started. That’s twice as fast as yesterday, and it means that we all had more time to write and draw! 
  • I noticed two writers reading through our Where Writers get Ideas anchor chart at the beginning of workshop today. After a couple of minutes reading and talking to each other, both writers were able to get themselves started on a new project. This shows that writers are using their tools (and each other) to get themselves unstuck! 
  • I saw multiple students giving their fellow writers silent signals when they were getting distracted by too much talking. This matters because it means writers are taking ownership for their own writing spaces. Instead of coming to tell me (an adult) so I can solve their problem, they’re making their own needs clear—and their friends are listening. 
  • Every writer I met with today during conferences could tell me what they were working to do on purpose as a writer today. This matters because it shows that writers are setting their own intentions and taking an active role in the conference. 
  • I noticed three different writers today who finished their current project, took a minute to celebrate and share with a partner, and then jumped right into a new project. This shows that writers are invested in their writing work, motivated to use every minute of work time to keep writing! 
  • Five writers shared their pieces with me in Google docs yesterday, including a comment telling me what they were working on and the kind of feedback that would be most helpful for them right now. This meant I could read and comment after school, and now these writers have what they need to move forward without waiting around to meet with me. 

Once the descriptive feedback + why it matters is elevated in the room, writers can reflect on their own perceptions and experiences. There is space for them to recognize and share how and why we should continue (or discontinue) those specific actions.

In the beginning, I am the one offering the descriptive feedback + why it matters. As soon as writers are ready—and the more consistently I model this the faster they are ready—I encourage them to add their own noticings + why it matters to the mix. It is motivating to make space for writers to celebrate our collective progress in this way. I want writers to understand that it’s not just about WHAT we write—it’s also about HOW we write in this space we build together. Making growth in our HOW is just as worthy of celebration as growth in the WHAT of writing.

As we notice and name the look fors that let us know how our workshop is progressing, we add/connect those look fors to anchor charts. We set goals around look fors that are requiring more work to achieve and celebrate when we reach them (e.g. reaching a certain number of minutes of sustained writing time). There are so many possibilities when we use descriptive feedback as a strategy for determining (together) how it’s going in our workshops. If you haven’t yet made space for this reflection in your own workshop, now is the perfect time!

4 thoughts on “How do we Know When our Workshops are Working?

  1. Thank you for sharing this, especially the part about how descriptive feedback should be different from the “I like” positive reinforcement. I used this today in my Writing class and plan to continue using it in the future!

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    1. Thanks so much for mentioning that, because I almost left it out. I’m glad it made a difference in how you understood and applied the descriptive feedback! Way to go, jumping right in and trying it out today! (I know that’s evaluative feedback, but there is a time and place for simply cheering people on!)


  2. I hadn’t made this connection to Workshop from our coaching practice. Of course! Another parallel practice, and now I’m in the coaching role, I can work it backward from my work to teachers’. Thanks for the connection!

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