How to Run a Productive Workshop


Workshops -- in which students examine one another's work -- lie at the center of most ENWR classes. Workshops give students the chance to improve both as readers and as writers. They also help students to understand that writing is a process that involves revision informed by reader feedback.

In an effective workshop, writers get helpful comments from their peers and learn to think critically about their own work. Ultimately, then, good workshops mean that students can revise without direct input from the instructor.


Key guidelines | Workshop Procedures | Workshop Variations | Workshop Worksheets

Here are a few key guidelines:
* Workshop goals must match the course content. Especially at the beginning of the semester, these goals should be well and narrowly defined. (For example, a class that has been working on claims might identify paragraph-level claims and decide whether they are contestable, supportable, and appropriate to the genre and academic discipline in which the writer is working.) Defined goals ensure that workshops reinforce other class activities and keep students from offering purely local grammar corrections and vague assessments of whether the paper "flows." Students should provide specific, written comments to each other's work.
* Early on, you should set the workshop goals. As the semester progresses, the class might generate them ahead of time, using the shared vocabulary of LRS.
* Editor's worksheets are a good way to keep students focused on the particular goals of any workshop.
* Students work best as articulate readers. Ask them to report and evaluate what they see on the page. This feedback is an invaluable resource for writers, especially novices, who are often surprised to find that the argument in their heads (or their outlines) never made it into their essays. Student editors should comment on what's actually on the page instead of what the writer might have written, where the argument could have gone.
* After the workshop, ask writers to review the comments on their own papers and turn in some written account of what they learned and how they will proceed in light of the feedback they received. (They might write this in class or as a homework assignment.) This step reinforces the results from the workshop.


Workshop Procedures
(adapted from work by Betsy Winakur Tontiplaphol)
* Students should always know in advance that their writing will be workshopped. Writing should be submitted before class so that students have a chance to consider and refine their reactions to the papers. Papers for workshopping should not be submitted with any further explanation of the student's work; the text should stand on its own.
* Before the first workshop, have a class discussion about what makes a good or bad workshop. Students have often workshopped before and have strong feelings about them. Then, model a workshop. Hand out a piece of writing (written by you, a former student, a published author—anyone who isn't actually a student in the class) and ask students to comment as if they were talking to the author in a workshop. Afterwards, ask students to critique the comments that their classmates offered.
* Ideally, workshop groups should probably be between 2 and 4 people. A smaller group means that everyone is sure to get involved but there isn't a huge reservoir of ideas to draw on; a bigger group means that there can be lots of discussion and debate, but quiet (or underprepared) people can hide.
* At least at the beginning of the semester, you should probably assign workshop groups, so that you can separate chatty best friends, spread out class leaders, or group together people with similar paper topics. It's also handy to change groups around early in the semester so that students can all become familiar with one another. Later in the term, you might want to keep students in the same group for several workshop sessions, so that they can become familiar with one another's writing.

Workshop Variations
(adapted from Betsy Winakur Tontiplaphol)
Typically, the workshop group works together to evaluate all relevant aspects of a paper. Here are some possible variations.
* Have the whole class workshop the same document. This ensures that everyone learns the same lesson, but can cause quiet students to retreat from the discussion.  
* Exchange papers in such a way that students aren't reading the work of anyone in their workshop group, so that, for example, Group A and Group B would exchange papers. Then, Groups A and B could come together to report back about each essay.
* Ask each group to act as a specialized unit: a writing SWAT team. During a problem statement workshop, for example, there might be a status quo group, a destabilizing moment group, a consequences group, and a resolution group. The students in each group will focus only on their designated element when they read the class' papers, which will be analyzed within the group then passed on to the next team.
* Designate specialties within each workshop group. During an argument workshop, for example, there might be a claim member, a reasons member, an evidence member, and an acknowledgment and response member. Then, each member could comment only on her given specialty, but the group could reach a consensus on how well all the parts fit together.
* Devote a workshop to expectations and predictions. For example, ask students to write introductions but exchange only the status quo, destabilizing moment, and consequences. Then, workshop groups can predict what they think the resolution is and compare them with what the writer actually came up with. This helps writers to understand the importance of reader expectations.
* Move around and get rid of the worksheet. When students get out of their chairs and put their pens down, the energy in the classroom can really improve. For instance, to workshop for acknowledgment and response, ask students to stand in two lines, facing someone in the line opposite them. Students on one side should all tell their claims to the person in the opposite line, who will answer with an objection (acknowledgment), and then the claimer will have to come up with a response. When they're through, students in the claim line should move down one place, so that they can tell their claim to a new person, and hear another objection.
* Vary the time limit and formality level. Some workshops might last for an entire class, and others for only a minute or two. Some might involve complicated worksheets to be filled out, and others might only require sketches or verbal responses.
For more on workshop variables, with specific pros and cons, click here.


Workshop Worksheets:

Parts of Argument

Problem Statements


The Whole Paper: These workshops address, in various combinations, argument, problem statements, and style. They are most useful later in the semester, when your students are familiar with the course's principles and are ready to workshop complete drafts. You can also adapt and excerpt these worksheets for shorter, more focused workshops or workshops of partial drafts.