workshop model Archives - The Jose Vilson

workshop model

Our Own Conductorless Orchestra

by Jose Vilson on October 24, 2007

OrchestraFirst off, shout-outs to History is Elementary for the latest Carnival of Education, which I participated in. I need to get with the program and actually turn my blogs in on time and early.

Also, tomorrow, for those of you reading for my Penny Harvest escapades, I’ll have a whole blog or two on them in the next couple of days. That should be fun.

In any case, I went to Carnegie Hall last night with my girl and our friends. Yeah, that’s far from my favorite chill spot. I might have been the only dude of my demographic representing there.  The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, dubbed the most famous conducterless orchestra, had their opening night. The show itself was amazing; the sounds captivated me and really took me to another place, and that’s something music should do. I found myself tapping my feet trying to look for a drum or a dope bass line, but alas, I knew better in Carnegie.

It made me think about the purpose of having an inquiry-based class, where kids actually ask critical questions about what they’re being exposed to. The violinists and cello players come in when they need to. The flutes go off on time. The drums and horns come in time with everything else in the song. And it was all without someone telling them what to do. They just did it. When I thought about it, though, I said, “They’ve had this type of training for decades, and practice their rituals and routines almost every day. Even with a summer break, they’re ready to roll when they come in.”

Unfortunately, we don’t have a system in place where that can occur.

I’ve expounded on this before, but I think it’s worth noting: students in most urban schools are having a hard time with the workshop model, and it’s very simple. Studies have shown that student-centered models of education don’t work unless they’ve had a stable foundation of step-by-step direction and / or teacher-guided instruction, and that the latter tends to be more efficient through the primary years. In other words, many of them need to be shown what they’re supposed to be researching and how to do it before they go about it themselves.

Politically, this also means that, if indeed we have more teacher-guided instruction, that actually makes us more indispensable, and they can’t just treat teachers like cogs in the factory. I’m pretty sure people want the most effective and experienced teachers in there, but when we go to the other extreme of student-centered teaching, there’s a popular sentiment that you can put practically anyone up there and they’ll just moderate the kids’ work.

The most successful examples of the workshop model have been where the teacher incorporates a healthy dose of both. I agree that children should start learning concepts and abstractions at an early age, but if we think about the stage of their lives they’re in, it’s obvious that they often need direction. Why would it be any different in the classroom? They should at least be afforded the opportunity to know what are the more important questions, hence taking more and not less ownership over their own learning.

So I look at the orchestra again, and they’re kickin’ butt. All they do is look at each other and they’re off. Strings flying, horns blowing, and all sorts of other instruments playing their part, all without a conductor to let them know how loud or soft they’re supposed to be, or to remind them of when they’re supposed to join the music. They all just know.



cakeAfter an intense review of the test that my kids bombed, and running around the school trying to get the school ready for Penny Harvest, I had a nice lunch with my fellow teachers, and we were discussing, amongst other things, the crazy Boston Red Sox vs. Cleveland Indians game, why Yankees’ fans carry their 94-year tradition like they physically won them all, how Mets’ fans react to that in a really obnoxious way, and of course, Joe Torre. As we started talking about his contract and his rejection of the merit pay system, it made me think aloud the kinds of things we have to do to earn our 2% pay cut.

Of course, someone mentioned something about baking a cake, and I laughed because I was already imagining how the metaphor would work if the workshop model was about a cake. At least based on how they want us to work it …

(insert dream sequence here)

[on the board]

Objective: We will learn how to bake a cake.
Do Now: What is a cake? Describe 3 characteristics of a good cake.


Mr. V: “OK, class, let’s look at the Do Now. A lot of you put down characteristics about what a cake should look like, and that’s great. Now, let’s look at this cake.”

[puts up cake]

“What do you notice?”

Student1: “It has pink frosting on it.”
Mr. V: “Yes, what else?”
Student2: “It looks good.”
Mr. V: “OK, you’re getting there. Anything else?”
Student3: “It’s cylindrical about a y-axis.”
Mr. V: “Hmm, OK. I’m glad you’re thinking about it. Now, I need a volunteer.”

[volunteer comes up]

“OK, try this cake. Tell me what you feel.”

Student4: “Mr. Vilson, this tastes really good. It has good texture, and it’s soft. Mmmm. Can I have some more?”
Mr. V: “No, time’s up. It’s been only a few minutes, but we have to keep it moving. They don’t call it the workshop model for nothing. Now, for your assignment, you have materials in the middle of your desks. Take those materials, and using what you learned today, bake a cake.”
Student1: “But Mr. Vilson, I don’t get it.”
Mr. V: “You’ll get it eventually. Use the characteristics you noticed, and think about how you would make that using the manipulatives in front of you.”
Student1: “Uhhh …”

[15 minutes later, Mr. V walking around the room]

Mr. V: “OK, Table 1, what did you notice?”
Student1: “I noticed my cake wasn’t very tasty. The actual cake was a little too hard.”
Mr. V: “Well, what do you think would make the cake a little softer?”
Student1: “Uhhh …”

[Mr. V moves to Table 2]

Mr. V: “What did you guys come up with?”
Student2: “Our cake is really sweet, and it came out too clumpy.”
Mr. V: “Think about the characteristics of a good cake, and the things we discussed during the mini-lesson. How would you improve on your methods to ensure you have a better cake?”
Student2: “Ummm …”

[Mr. V moves to Table 3]

Mr. V: “Wow, what a beautiful cake!”
Student3: “I know. Made it all by myself, and told everyone else in my table how to make it.”

[Mr. V goes to the front of the class]

Mr. V: “See? Why can’t everyone be like this kid? He used the same materials you did, and made a very beautiful and unique cake!”

[Student4 raises hand]

Student4: “That’s no fair! His father’s a baker!”
Mr. V: “Now, I know it’s unfair, but so is time, and time for the group work is up.”

[Mr. V looks out into the class of long faces, dirty baking powder, and clumps of dough]

“For your journal, I want you to write about what you learned today. Don’t just give me the title, but everything. What did you learn? What was most important? How did the characteristics of baking a cake help you make your own?”

[As the day closes, Mr. V reads the journals and begins internal monologue]

“Man, how did this happen? I followed the workshop model so well. I didn’t show them the answer directly. I tried to have them come up with the answers themselves. I mean, that one kid got it; why can’t the rest of them get it? The higher-ups tell me that this system is the best for the kids, but the research shows me that this only works when kids are already self-motivated and high on task intelligence.

I love asking intriguing questions, and love it when the kids get what I’m talking about. I also like when I have a little more flexibility to control my lessons and go over what I need to. This workshop model’s rather restricting. I mean, these kids aren’t telling me anything in this journal that I haven’t already written for them.

I wonder how Socrates taught without all the gadgets we have. And why is it that those who were schooled under the rote method are more critical thinkers than the kids we have now? And isn’t it important to model how something’s done before actually doing it at least sometimes and then let them venture off? I mean, even artists of all kinds imitate before they venture off into their own spheres of influence, right?

Am I crazy for having an internal monologue in a public blog?”

jose, who used to feel invisible, but now knows he’s invincible …