The Geography of Story Workshop
In this post, I describe how I’m currently understanding the structure of Story Workshop. Recognizing that we are all in different contexts with many different variables influencing our intentions, I think considering this structure together gives us a foundation for our conversations.
THE GEOGRAPHY OF STORY WORKSHOP:
Story Workshop is the structure that has developed over time at Opal School to support language and literacy development in the preschool and primary grades (typically, with children ages 3-8). Within this structure, we are inviting the children to explore the classroom in search of their stories. We are wondering together:
Where do stories live?
What stories do the materials inspire?
When using the materials, what memories are awakened?
At Opal School, Story Workshop takes place four or five days a week and lasts up to 90 minutes each day. We invite children to find and write their stories. We set up spaces and materials to inspire and entice children. Materials like blocks, paint, water, sand, colored pencils, and loose parts collage become the vehicles for the children’s stories and act as inspiration as they capture them.
There are five elements that make up the structure of Story Workshop which include: preparation, provocation, invitation and negotiation, story creation, and story congress. I’d like to give you an overview of each of those elements.
Story Workshop begins with preparation, which often happens before the children arrive and includes teachers examining our own beliefs and assumptions, making visible our own thoughts, questions, and ideas, setting intentions, preparing the physical environment including the organization of materials, preparing for the organization of time and space, preparing systems of organization for documentation and assessment, and wondering about the children themselves.
Within each of these pieces of preparation, there are questions I try to ask myself to guide and clarify my thinking.
- Examining my beliefs and assumptions
- What do I believe about children? What assumptions do I carry? How will I pay attention to how those beliefs and assumptions show up in my practice?
- Making visible my thoughts, questions, and ideas
- What are my teacher-research questions? What am I genuinely curious about exploring with the children I work with?
- Setting intentions
- What is guiding the decisions I make? What will I pay attention to? What do I want the children to learn? What am I expected to support them to learn?
- Preparing the physical environment, including the organization of materials
- What do I want the physical environment to communicate to the children? How can I create an environment that supports children to express the stories they have to tell, to share their gifts with a community of peers, and to learn by experience what it means to participate? What materials will be available to support this? How will the materials be organized so they are accessible, flexible, and inspiring?
- Preparing for the organization of time and space
- When in our schedule will Story Workshop happen? What time will it start, how long will it last, and how many days in the week will it occur?
- Preparing systems of organization for documentation and assessment
- How will I organize my time to listen to the children’s stories? What tools will I use (journals, cameras, audio recording devices)? How will I keep track of and organize what I notice about children’s choices, experiences, and skill development?
- Wondering about the children themselves
- Who are these children? Where have they been? What do they care about? What are they curious about? How will I learn more about them? How will I support them to learn more about one another?
As we continue to move through this Module, you’ll be invited to look more closely at and answer these questions for yourself.
A provocation is a question that is introduced to children to engage and support their interests and curiosities. Although a provocation can be offered to a small group or individual, Story Workshop often begins with the whole group thinking together about a provocation (in Writer’s Workshop, this part of the day would be called the mini-lesson). Because we view learning not as isolated or individual, but as a collaborative and creative process, we invite children to think, connect, be inspired, share ideas, question, wonder, and create, and we do so through provocations. A provocation can be a question about a mentor text, a child’s story, a situation, a new material, the environment, a concept or skill and more.
We select provocations based on what we know about our students, their interests, and abilities. The provocation may be selected based on a concept or skill that we are introducing based on the curriculum expectations for our school. As in all areas of curriculum, we work to find balance within the tension that can occur between children’s interests and society’s expectations. Provocations will look different from day to day and year to year because they aren’t a predetermined set of lesson plans, but a response to what we observe.
When planning provocations we might ask ourselves:
What do I notice are the strengths, interests, and curiosities of the children I teach?
What are the children already doing? How might I build off those interests to engage their curiosities further?
What are the connections between my own intentions and what I notice the children doing?
What have I heard the children say that I might bring back to them to provoke further thinking?
What kinds of shared language and understanding do I hope we will create together?
Our work in Story Workshop is to support children to see themselves as authors. Author Frank Smith suggests that it is about inviting children to view themselves as members of a “Literacy Club.” A provocation is an invitation to join that “club”: to see the work of mentor authors and think, “that’s what I do. I am an author.” When we support children to belong to the “club,” when we believe in what children do and together get excited about and study what mentor authors are doing, we naturally build a bridge between children and mentor authors.
A provocation can be an invitation to join the “literacy club” even when it is intended to provide opportunities to learn important skills such as concepts of print, letter recognition, vocabulary development, and grammar that we know young authors need to learn. Valuing inquiry and listening means valuing the meaning children are making–and the development of skills can be a part of this. When we are planning to offer provocations, we are working to take responsibility for creating context that will have meaning to every child.
INVITATION AND NEGOTIATION
After we’re all gathered together for the provocation, we invite children to join the author’s “club” by doing what authors do – to discover what it is that they care about and to tell their stories.
The invitation and negotiation part of Story Workshop lasts only a few minutes, but it is essential in supporting our intentions and also in supporting children to become more metacognitive of their own processes and intentions. This time is a transition from a whole group dialogue to individual or small group story creation and a time for zooming in on each individual’s intentions and plans for the day.
After the provocation, the teacher invites children to engage in creating their stories. Each child has an opportunity to be thoughtful and reflective about where they might go in the classroom to do this. The child shares that plan, then child and teacher negotiate. The teacher has the opportunity to check in, listen, nudge, encourage, and hold accountable. The teacher supports children to become more articulate and more intentional about their plans each day.
During this time, we might ask questions such as:
What is your plan?
Where will you go/what will you do during Story Workshop today?
Will you go back to a story or start a new story?
Are you finding a story or do you already have an idea?
What is your idea? Will you share a sneak peek?
Is this a story you care enough about to stick with?
What material will support you to tell your story today? Why that one?
What is your intention?
I remember yesterday you said you’d try small blocks. What made you change your mind?
Yesterday you told your story in collage. Would you like to try it in paint today?
How will you capture that part of your story?
During invitation and negotiation, we often hear new words or ideas that become shared language and a part of the culture we develop together with the children. As teachers, we make our expectations clear and develop routines that support the way we all want Story Workshop to look like, sound like, and feel like.
Story Creation is the time during Story Workshop where children go out into the classroom to find, tell, and capture their stories. This part of Story Workshop can last up to 45 minutes and includes materials, people, connections, and lots of invitations. Finding what you care about, and communicating that in a way that other people might understand, is vigorous work; it requires you to bring your whole self. And, it looks very different for each child. During this time the teacher holds individual conferences with children, which are based on the relationships she has with the children and the emerging interests, capabilities, and needs of the children. Based on my own beliefs and intentions, time and trust are two of the most critical elements to this part of Story Workshop.
This time of the day can look very different from one day to the next. For example, one day children might be telling individual or collaborative stories with a wide variety of materials available. Another day children might be all writing in the same genre we’ve been studying together. While still another day children might be considering the interesting ways authors use punctuation as they write their stories. In all cases, this is the time where the children are creating stories.
Because of the changing nature of this work, there are many stories I could share to try and illustrate what this time of Story Workshop might look like. Because we’re at the beginning of the school year, I’ll share two quick stories that I hope will highlight two very different beginning of the year experiences with two children who were in a first and second-grade classroom. This particular year, the initial provocation given to the children was to use the materials to find and then capture a story they really cared about.
Sometimes, it’s incredibly easy to trust this structure because it seems to come so naturally. It seemed like Aoife had been waiting all summer to come back to school to tell her story. When she arrived, on the very first day of school she knew exactly what to do with the materials, she knew exactly what story she wanted to tell, and she couldn’t wait to dive in.
From the beginning, it was visible that she already viewed herself as a part of that “literacy club.” She knew she belonged there. She was one of those authors who would think about her story long after Story Workshop was over. She would share new details as they came to her during lunch or math, and would come back to school after her night at home with printed photographs from her summer trip that would help her readers get mental images of the far away place that she treasured.
Here’s just a peek into Aoife’s story.
Ch. 2 Climbing the Mountain: At first walking up dirt roads was hard. Then it got rocky. It got a lot easier. Emma said, “this is fun!” I said, “I’m thirsty.” My mom said, “Drink from that stream” and I said “ok.” It was deep cool mint ice cold refreshing water. Delicious. It had made it easier to walk. I think that I couldn’t have made it this far if I hadn’t had that. I felt like I was in wonderland!!!
Most of the time, the invitation to join the “literacy club” takes a little more time and navigating for both the teachers and the children.
Story creation looked very different for Calvin then it did for Aoife. While Calvin also had prior experiences at Opal School using materials to find and share stories, he didn’t come in at the beginning of the school year knowing what story he wanted to share. He also seemed to be hesitant about writing in general. He did begin the year ready to connect with his peers though. What finding a story looked like for Calvin was joining a new friend’s story each day. Each day, he would work hard to convince me that this new story was the story he really cared about and wanted to tell.
As I observed this pattern for multiple days, I began wondering:
What did Calvin need in this moment? What would support him to be more deeply engaged during Story Workshop?
How could I support him to find a story to stick with – one that he really cared about?
How could I support him to move from relying solely on his peers’ ideas to finding his own voice as an author?
What would that nudge look like for him?
After some observation and reflection on this particular situation, it seemed to me that it would be important for Calvin to trust in his own stories, and not rely on someone else’s idea. I invited him to find his own story. It was hard for him at first. I got pushback from him. He clearly let me know this wasn’t his first choice. It took some time for him to find his story but eventually, he did.
This is a brief example of one of those situations where there are multiple ways as a teacher to respond. It may have been that what Calvin needed the most and what would have supported him, as an author, was this connection with his peers. I’m mentioning this because I could have made a different decision about how to support Calvin. But the decision I did make, to ask him to find his own story, was in response to what I was noticing about Calvin, was based on my relationship with him, and his needs across the whole day, not just during Story Workshop.
Although Calvin was still hesitant about writing his story, he found an idea that he was excited about. It was a story that really showed us a peek into Calvin, into his love of animals, his silly sense of humor, and his desire to connect.
Chapter 1: The Turtle: What the turtle saw was scary! It…
Was a monster
Luckily, it was dead.
He built a bridge to the monster.
A Nate monster? Yes. The turtle nearly got destroyed!
ROLE OF THE TEACHER
Our role as teacher during story creation is essential, and delicate, and important. Trusting means giving time, but it also means developing strong relationships, knowing our students, their needs, their capabilities, and knowing when the most supportive way to encourage them is with a nudge—even when that nudge might not be their first choice.
Engaging in a pedagogy of play during Story Workshop doesn’t mean that things always feel fun. When I refer to play as children’s most innate and natural learning strategy, I’m not referring to it as a means for entertaining children. The work of an author is incredibly challenging and learning is more likely to occur when the task at hand has required sustained effort. I view my role during Story Workshop as supportive of this kind of learning.
Beginning with play doesn’t mean lowering our expectations to make things feel easy for our students. I want my students to know play can mean taking on challenges and I want them to experience the feeling that comes when you accomplish something difficult. Engaging in a pedagogy of play can mean supporting children to engage with the world playfully as they take on challenges, grapple with ideas, communicate, make meaning, and uncover their own capabilities, beyond what they may have believed possible on their own.
Story Workshop closes each day with Story Congress. This is a time during which children receive feedback from peers and teachers in the form of comments, compliments, and questions in order to support the author’s story development. Teachers also use Story Congress as an opportunity to build community, to practice listening and making connections, to inspire children to take on new challenges and to refine the values, expectations, and culture of Story Workshop.
Story Congress can take many forms, but it is always focused on reflection and connection. Congress can take place between a teacher and a child. It can take place between two children who are invited to sit “eye to eye and knee to knee” and share with one another. It can take place as a part of a publishing celebration or when a piece is in its very early stages—when an author is finished or stuck or has barely begun. Story Congress might work best one day with small groups of students and another day with the whole group. Some days it can happen at the beginning of the workshop in order to provide the day’s provocation.
Story Congress can take many forms and can showcase a variety of modes of expression. Children can act out each other’s stories, they can read, dance, or share a set of paintings. Children can be encouraged to ask questions of one another, to pay attention to the need for clarifications, and to learn to listen carefully and give suggestions. Lucy Calkins writes, “As writers, what we all need more than anything else in the world is listeners, listeners who will respond with silent empathy, with sighs of recognition, with laughter and tears and questions and stories of their own. Writers need to be heard.”
Story Congress is the structure that supports us as teachers, to ensure that all of the writers in our classrooms have the chance to know what it feels like to be part of a community of authors and to feel heard.
Questions that may guide my decisions for Story Congress:
What child or children might offer inspiration, challenge, provocation, or model for the others?
What group of authors’ work will provide the most productive collection of models or contrasts on any given day?
How might one child’s story or process – or another child’s questions or connection to that story – be used to highlight and reflect on a skill or strategy I want the children to learn?
Who has tried something new that others might like to try?
Who needs a boost of confidence?
Who made particularly interesting use of that day’s provocation?
Who has an important insight to share?
Who needs a chance to celebrate?
How can story Congress foster a sense of success, confidence, and a sense of belonging for all students?
As you read/reflect on the structure of Story Workshop, I wonder:
- What do you notice?
- What is something new that you hadn’t considered before?
- What questions do you have?
- What connections do you see to the work happening in your own classrooms?
The Geography of Story Workshop, from the Museum Center for Learning