Why One-Day Workshops Are Popular

With budget cuts and limited time for staff development, one-day workshops (along with half-day workshops) have grown enormously in popularity in the past decade. This is understandable, but there’s a big price to pay: loss of quality, and inability of participants to apply what’s presented to their real classroom lives. And no wonder. Nobody learns to write in a day–and no one learns to enrich curriculum with the traits in a day, either. Before we look at 6 reasons not to go down this path, let’s acknowledge a couple of exceptions: (1) an introductory workshop simply intended to pique participants’ curiosity and let them judge whether they want to learn more, or (2) the first day of a long-term commitment to training that might include multiple workshops scheduled over a period of time and/or a combination of workshops and classroom demonstrations. More on this later. Right now, here are the 6 reasons.

The 6 Reasons to Avoid One-Day Workshops

1. Rubrics–not concepts. The traits are NOT about rubrics. This is a common misconception–probably THE most common misconception about the six traits. You don’t even need to use rubrics at all if you don’t want to–but most training is (unfortunately) centered around mastering the use of rubrics. Why? They’re easy to teach. And many trainers out there think rubrics are the heart and soul of the six traits even if they’re not. Here’s the thing: You can learn to navigate rubrics in a day. Piece of cake. But traits are about concepts: the concept of idea development, the concept of organizational structure, the concept of voice, and so on. Concepts cannot be learned in a day. They’re complex–and you can study them for a lifetime. This is why it’s possible to begin teaching traits in kindergarten and still not run out of things to say by high school or beyond. Rubrics are a convenience: a way of capturing, in a nutshell, some of the basic features that characterize a given trait. They’re designed to simplify assessment. But a rubric doesn’t tell the whole story about a piece of writing OR about the trait itself, and even if you can use a rubric with crackerjack skill, you’ve barely begun to explore that trait. So–next time you attend a 6-trait workshop, ask yourself this: “What did they teach me? About the concepts behind the traits? Or simply how to use a rubric?”

2. Something’s gotta go. Ask anyone who’s ever planned or given a one-day workshop on the six traits and if they’re honest, they’ll tell you this: Something has to go. A one-day workshop typically opens around 8 a.m. with introductions (It’s 8:20 before you really get to it). There’s a break about 10, then lunch at noon or so. There may be an afternoon break, too, and the workshop ends at 3–typically. This can feel long to a participant, but it’s not a long day from a trainer’s perspective. It gives you 5 hours–maximum–to present six traits. And don’t forget, you need to introduce the traits and provide some conclusion to the day. You need to show how traits connect to process, writing workshop–maybe Common Core Standards and/or a state’s own writing rubric. Then consider this. There are several ways to learn/teach a given trait: (1) by assessing and discussing writing samples, (2) by reviewing and listening to great literature, (3) by modeling or participating in skill-building activities that focus on a specific trait, and (4) by writing and revising. It is simply not physically or intellectually possible to do all four of those things for all six traits. Something has got to go. At the end of the workshop, ask yourself this: “What was left out?”

3. Assessment at the expense of instruction. In a short workshop, the focus is often on assessment, not instruction. This worked well in the 1980s. Everyone, it seemed, was looking for a better way to assess writing at district or state levels. So a day-long workshop on assessment was very popular. Now, teachers are looking for ways to teach writing. They want, and need, to explore books and other literature. They are looking for ways to use technology. They hope to see good lessons modeled in ways they can imitate or improve upon. Of course, assessing writing can be fun and can lead to wonderful discussions. It should be a part of any six-trait workshop. The problem is, it’s not enough in and of itself. So it shouldn’t be the whole of the workshop. It shouldn’t take the place of literature and strategies that support instruction. At the end of the workshop, ask yourself: “Did we ONLY assess writing–or did I learn a wide variety of instructional strategies I could use? Did I see lessons modeled? Did I learn new book titles?”

4. There goes a trait–or two. Because it’s impossible to do everything, trainers who DO want to focus on instruction along with assessment must find another way to condense what’s presented. The obvious answer, when you only have a day, is to cut one or two traits. That way, you can present three or four traits in depth. This seems at first to be a perfectly reasonable approach. The problem is, the whole reason there are six traits is that together they provide a complete picture, a complete profile of how writing looks. It’s OK to focus on three traits if you’re planning to do the other three a week later (even two weeks later). If you wait much longer than that, however, you lose continuity. And if you never discuss those overlooked traits, you risk distorting the bigger picture of writing–or even suggesting that certain traits are less important. The traits most often cut are sentence fluency and conventions. This suggests that these two traits are not important or not all that interesting. Really??!! Not true! C&P (conventions & presentation), well taught, is fascinating–and it supports every other trait. You CANNOT have the full picture without it. A post-assessment study done by the State of Oregon a few years ago determined that of all the traits, sentence fluency was the most accurate predictor of overall writing scores. In other words, people who are judged to write well in general tend to have high scores in sentence fluency. Hm. That sounds important. So ask yourself: “Which traits (if any) were cut? Should we have talked about those too?”

5. The dreaded lecture approach. When you’re teaching and you find yourself in a rush–you have 10 minutes to present something for which you really need 30 minutes–what do you do? You know. We don’t want to do it, we don’t mean to do it. But when we’re in a hurry, we all do it sometimes: we resort to lecturing. There’s no time for being interactive. When you’re trying to do six traits in five hours, plus process and workshop, there isn’t always time for questions, group activities, talking with partners, reflecting, making notes and trying things out, hands-on applications, literature searches, visualizing–all the kinds of things we know lead to better learning. You have to just “say it” and move on. That is a perfectly TERRIBLE way to try to learn the six traits. You need to read aloud and be read to. You need to discuss student writing. You need to identify personally important topics, try writing a paragraph with voice, combine sentences, replace verbs, craft leads, hunt for transitions, test the impact of various conventions, design documents, etc., and talk with writing partners all the time, all through the workshop.  In short, you need to DO the things you plan to share with students. This makes it sink in. This leaves you feeling confident. Ask this at the end of your next workshop: “Did I have a chance to try things, hands on? Do I feel 100% confident sharing what I learned with students? Do I know at least three different ways to teach a given trait?”

6. Oops–no time to write. In any writing workshop–whether it’s about the traits or not–you need to write. Don’t you think? How else are you really going to know whether the things you’re learning really help writers? How else are you going to develop the writing skills you need to teach well? How else are you going to prepare to model what you are learning? How will you judge the value of new strategies from your students’ perspective? But sure as anything, when things are being cut–those special things that make a workshop memorable–one of the first things to go will be time for writing. Think about it. Writing takes time–a lot of it. A trainer can’t just hand out paper and say, “Go for it.” There needs to be some sort of lead-in, perhaps the reading of a favorite passage or time for drawing, note making, or talking. Then you have time to write–and perhaps, if you’re fortunate, time also to reflect and share. It’s almost impossible to imagine doing this in less than half an hour–and even that is rushing things a bit. Writing is a reflective activity, but it’s often taught (in workshops) as if it were comparable to changing your motor oil. You don’t teach that way–and you don’t want to be taught that way. So your sixth question will be this: “Were we given time to write–and to reflect on our writing and/or share it if we chose to do that?”

Some Training Options

So, ideally, what should training look like? Here are a few options:

1. I know Saturday sessions aren’t popular, but in two consecutive Saturdays you can present the six traits with all the bells and whistles: literature, time for writing, sample lessons, modeling, and discussion of writing. You won’t need substitute teachers, and you won’t have to sacrifice any traits or strategies.

2. Saturdays not a possibility? Then try scheduling a series of one-day workshops, preferably all within a month. Don’t do one in October and a second in April. People forget too much, and will wait to try anything until the second workshop is completed. Push the workshops as close together as you possibly can. And here’s a tip: People get VERY tired in the afternoon, so if you can, consider doing three workshops instead of two. Do two traits at each workshop and finish both by lunch. In the afternoon, ask the trainer to do a classroom demonstration lesson–or perhaps two–focusing on one or both of the traits you’ve covered. Allow time for questions at the end. This approach makes people feel ready to try things in the classroom on their own.

3. If you’re lucky enough to work with a trainer who lives nearby (doesn’t need to fly in and can come often), consider doing a series of half-day workshops with only one trait per workshop. Have the presenter introduce the trait by assessing writing samples–not just student writing either, but samples from the newspaper, textbooks, etc. Then take time to share literature–some provided by the trainer, some brought into the workshop by the participants. Write. Reflect. Share. Have the trainer demo one or two lessons with the group–then do one of those same lessons with students while teachers observe. If possible, have the trainer take time to assess one or two writing samples with students, too, asking them to share their opinions and to work with partners in putting scores on papers. The discussions that result will amaze you. You may find yourself saying (or thinking), “I never knew my students had such insight!”

4. Or–pull out all stops and just host a two- or (even better) three-day workshop. Because of the time and expense, this isn’t often an option these days, but it is time well-spent from a staff development because participants leave ready to teach writing in a new way.

5. If you really want/need to save both time and money, invest in a good text (e.g., Creating Writers) and do a study group approach. Meet weekly or bi-weekly to discuss a chapter, and try out lessons in the classroom, then discuss results. Share literature with one another. Assess writing together. Model lessons for one another and keep notes on what you learn. “Building it yourself” sounds daunting, but it’s entirely feasible, and teachers learn more from one another than from virtually any other “expert.”  

One last thought . . . Some one-day workshops are, admittedly, better than others. Some trainers have a gift for packing a lot of information into a short time frame. If you get such a trainer, you are fortunate indeed. Here’s how to know the difference, though. It’s one thing to have a good time–many a trainer can be entertaining for five hours. But when you leave, you should not only be feeling good. You should also be thinking to yourself, “I see writing differently now. I will remember this next week and next month because it’s part of me now. I am truly a teacher of writing, and I feel completely confident teaching this to students–or to colleagues.” If you’re thinking those thoughts, the workshop was a success, no matter how long or short.