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How compatible is the workshop approach with the PYP?

Jennifer Risolo, grade 4 teacher & grade level coordinator, the International School of Amsterdam, Netherlands

This article explains what the workshop approach and the PYP have in common and how both relate to each other.

In my eleven years working with the PYP, I have heard a range of opinions on whether or not a workshop approach fits in with the philosophies and practices of the IBO. There are so many ways to look at this question, and as is the case with so many powerful inquiries, there is really no right or wrong answer. My current perspective is that if I was going to set two dear friends up on a date, I could not imagine a more complementary union than the workshop approach and the PYP.

Reflecting on the structures and philosophies of both the PYP and the workshop approach (in this case, the Teachers College Reading and Writing Workshop Approach), I realize that both philosophies are clearly articulated, and each allows for a high degree of flexibility in terms of structure and application. To me, this speaks to the fact that both organizations believe that learning starts with the learner and an assessment of what he or she needs. Professionals need to make decisions based on assessed needs, curriculum standards and research-based practices to design the most effective learning conditions for their students.

In Making the PYP happen (2009), the IBO states:

Inquiry, as the leading pedagogical approach of the PYP, is recognized as allowing students to be actively involved in their own learning and to take responsibility for that learning. Inquiry allows each student’s understanding of the world to develop in a manner and at a rate that is unique to that student.

This one excerpt alone gives us much to consider. Allowing students to be actively involved in their own learning – the first thing that comes to mind with this is choice. In order for students to be actively involved, they must have some degree of agency. That does not necessarily mean free-reign. In fact, when being introduced to new concepts and skills, that would be unfair and woefully ineffective. However, scaffolded experiences that invite students to make choices as they develop their understanding and skills can be planned in a way that gives students that sense of agency.

In the Language in the Primary Years Programme—annex to Making the PYP happen (2009)—the IBO advocates for integrated language development as opposed to teaching language as isolated strands. The workshop approach embraces the fact that expressive and receptive language are linked. The relationship between reading and writing demands that students learn about language as it exists, interrelated. As you will see in the example from my persuasive language unit, this extends out to listening and speaking, as well as viewing and presenting. This relationship also transcends individual languages, which is appropriate for the culturally diverse communities in our international schools.

One of the most beautiful aspects of the workshop approach to literacy development is choice. Students are not developing skills and understanding through directive, closed assignments. Rather, they are exploring concepts of language through a carefully curated collection of texts. Any workshop teacher will tell you that one of the labors of their craft is finding the resources, including a variety of quality mentor texts, which will serve as models for the students as they investigate, as well as a healthy collection of independent reading material for them to practice and develop with. This is to provide readers and writers with a scaffolded selection from which they can make choices in their literacy learning.

In my grade 4 class, our persuasive language inquiry explores how people use language to influence the beliefs and decisions of others, with a focus on the marketplace. It is integrated into our How we organize ourselves unit of inquiry with the central idea: The making, buying and selling of goods and services is a complex process that involves many people and many tasks.

My mentor texts include videos, television commercials, print advertisements, picture books, editorials, opinion articles, student samples, reviews and blogs. Each of these collections was formed to reflect how people use persuasive language across cultures, ages and genders; for a variety of purposes. After being exposed to samples from this collection, my students are empowered to make choices about which texts will best suit their learning goals and interests in the context of the unit of inquiry, as well as the language unit. This unit of inquiry provides a context as students explore advertising as an application of language, which intends to form or change the perspective of others. During the reading and writing workshops, students access the wider variety of texts and develop their understanding of persuasive language beyond advertising and the marketplace.

Student agency is extended into the writer’s workshop, not only by having a selection of mentor texts, but in that students are writing about topics and ideas of their choosing. They are writing about what they are most passionate about. My day-to-day experiences with students over the years show me that students who have been given the opportunity to make choices in their learning are far more open to instruction. They can be on-boarded with ease. By using the workshop model, we are giving the students a degree of choice that makes them want to learn how to communicate their ideas even more effectively.

Right now, my students who are writing letters to their parents about why they need a dog are learning just as much about the craft of persuasive writing as their classmates, who are writing about the need for more recess time, the reasons why everyone should read the “Adventure Island” series, why Star Wars is the best movie of all time, and why people should not litter. This element of choice is natural differentiation, where learners are developing their understanding of how people use persuasive language to communicate their perspectives to others and to try to convince others to agree with them. As they work on persuading their readers to buy into what they are claiming, they are learning about the strategies that people use in order to convince others. This helps our learners develop their own ability to use language in this way and also to be critical receivers when listening or reading persuasive language.

Student agency and integrated learning are two of the many things that the workshop approach and the PYP have in common. As with any relationship, there must be flexibility and an open mind. When this is the case in PYP classrooms using a workshop approach, the relationship is symbiotic.

Jennifer Risolo is passionate about teaching for understanding and helping students develop the dispositions to be caring, empathetic and respectful members of the international community. She is very interested in the continuing development of curriculum and pedagogy and enjoys engaging in professional collaboration, and exploration via twitter @jrisolo. She blogs from time to time at