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The Data-Driven Workshop Part 1: How to Model Independent Practice

When I was seven years old, my family moved from France to Philly. At the time, I didn’t speak a word of English, and walked into a classroom full of English proficient students. I struggled quite a bit at the beginning. My teachers weren’t particularly well-trained in working with students like me: newcomer, English learner, or what we now call emergent bilingual.  

I remember very vividly how hard I tried to understand what was happening in the classroom, specifically what the teacher was saying. To this day, what stands out to me is the level of confusion I experienced because of how instruction was delivered in my second grade classroom.  

The latest fad in education at the time were centers. Students were “engaged” through a greater number of centers: activities they would do “independently” while the teacher worked with a small group of students. At the beginning of each lesson, the teacher would introduce or review one center, and then send the class off to 5-8 different centers: creative writing, computers, math, science, social studies and reading. The centers were intended to develop a broad range of language goals, spanning a wide variety of content areas.  

Every lesson would begin with the teacher modeling one of the centers, and Little Marie would listen very carefully. Too frequently, however, when it was time for Little Marie to go to a center, the center available to me wasn’t the one the teacher had just modeled. It was one of the other six centers that we had learned about days ago. Well, if you’ve ever been an entering language learner like me, you know that you can barely remember all of the steps and language that was taught an hour ago. So forget remembering what was taught days ago. Somehow, I had to make this system work for me: I spent two years sitting next to my buddy, Chelsea, and copied everything that she did; I wrote the same words, drew the same drawings, and even used the same colored markers. I had no idea what I was supposed to do!

The diagram on the left depicts how a teacher using learning centers only benefits a small fraction of students. It doesn’t give the rest of the students an opportunity to observe and practice the same language and skills. Some students may be lucky to practice the same goals as the teacher, but the majority do not. This is a big disservice to language learners.  

The diagram to the right shows the teacher modeling one activity (or center), and that same activity being practiced by all kids. This enables an immediate transfer of both content and language for all of the students.  

I share this story to illustrate how important it is for teachers to model exactly what the students will all do once they go off to independent practice. As a student, I rarely benefited from the teacher modeling because I was usually removed from the activity that was being taught. Every activity has its own language goals related to the materials (“dice”, “roll”, “count dots”) as well as the relevant social language involved (“Let’s take turns.”, “You go first.”, “I think it’s my turn.”) Even more difficult to attain, new activities require new academic language: “I counted 5 dots plus 3 dots.  That’s 8 dots total.”  

When teachers teach in a linear fashion, where their modeling mirrors what students will practice later, they enable students to meet and exceed expectations.  The Data-Driven Workshop is based on a linear approach.  Students can see what the expectations are during the model.  They can try out the strategy and benefit from the feedback the teacher gives them during the guided practice.  Even more important: they can begin an activity confidently using the skills, strategies and language they have seen modeled by the teacher and fellow students.  A linear fashion to the workshop model means Little Marie gets to go off and do the exact same thing the teacher modeled at the beginning of the lesson.  

Thankfully, I wasn’t taught using learning centers throughout my elementary years.  Starting in fourth grade, Ms. Elias taught using this linear approach.  Finally, in fourth grade, I became a reader in English.  Mind you, I had been reading in French since before we moved to the States.  So, it didn’t make sense that it took me so long to start decoding and comprehending well in a second language.  Maybe if I had understood and been able to practice an activity immediately after hearing it, I would have made more progress!

I’ll be posting about the Data-Driven Workshop over the next few weeks.  Thanks for tuning in, and feel free to subscribe to the blog here!


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