Workshop Routines for Littles, Middles, and More (Part I)

In my first semester beat, I’m exploring the life-saving power of routines–but not just any routines. I’m talking about routines that make life easier, more efficient, and more familiar–even in the most daunting of times (cough, 2020, cough). I’m talking about routines that allow students to thrive whether you are teaching in person, virtually, hybrid, or anything else under the sun. Routines are a compass that can keep us from getting lost in unfamiliar landscapes. Routines are anchors that keep our boats from floating away during the storm. Routines build good instincts so that when the fledglings leave the nest, they soar.

This semester, I’m exploring routines because, as the old Beatles title reminds us, “Tomorrow Never Knows”.

A Little Background: Skip to the Next Section to Get Straight to the Strategies

My wife and I should be in Canada by now, but, you know, pandemic.

Last year, we moved to Laramie, Wyoming so my wife could start her PHd. work. One week in, her advisor/the person she travelled all that way to work with resigned. Said advisor was then hired by the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. So, last winter, my wife put in for a transfer, and she was accepted. Then, the pandemic happened, the Canadian border shut down to non-essential workers, and Canada’s visa processing system ground to a halt. Since we couldn’t get visas, we couldn’t become essential workers. So, no Canada for us! At least, not yet.

“Tomorrow Never Knows” right?

In a mad dash, we threw all our stuff in storage and came back home to Ohio. I didn’t want to apply for a teaching gig because as soon as Canada processed our visas, we’d be heading on over. As far as teaching goes, I’ve been teaching a semester of freshman English at a community college, I’ve done some consulting work, and I recently started subbing.

TL;DR – We are temporarily in Ohio until our visas are processed because of the pandemic. I’m teaching college English, doing some consulting work, and subbing.

Instincts, Fish Out of Water, and the Truth

During my recent adventures, I had an epiphany: there are certain workshop routines that will work almost anywhere. Over the course of the next few posts, I’m going to share routines I’ve successfully employed with 3rd graders, 7th graders, and college freshmen. As for today, I’m going to take you with me into a 3rd grade classroom for which I recently had the pleasure of subbing.

Here’s what I’m hoping you’ll takeaway as you read:

  1. Form good routines early and often because routines become habits, and habits become instincts. If you sharpen your instincts, you’ll be better equipped for whatever this weird world throws your way. In each of the cases below, I was acting on instinct, which had been honed through the whet stone of good routines.
  2. Consider how my strange adventures could apply to your situation: in each of my circumstances, I was tasked with teaching a different kind of canned curriculum. In each situation, I had students who had missed massive chunks of class. In most of the situations, it was my first time working with these students. In all the situations, I was a fish out of water.
  3. No matter the group of students, and no matter the grade, there are certain things about school and writing that hold true. Use this to your advantage.

3rd Grade Reading: Worksheet Workshop

Last week, I was the dreaded sub, teaching the dreaded sub plan, which consisted of worksheets, workbook pages, and a spelling test. What fun! Several students in this full inclusion classroom were rejoining class after a 14 day quarantine, and because this school used a hybrid model, this was students’ last day of school for their 2 days of in-person learning.

Let me be clear: having taught for 14 years, I know that teachers have 3 expectations of subs: (1) Survive. (2) Complete all tasks. (3) Leave no messes.

So, just as a teacher charged with a canned curriculum, I set out to make sure students completed every little bit of that garbage work no matter how viciously it attacked my conscience. At the same time though, I was curious to see if there was an opportunity or two for real learning buried in these plans.

Life-saving Routine #1: Connect task to learning target

Before handing out reading packets, I glanced at the learning target on the board: “We will look to the story to find answers to questions.” I read it aloud to students, and I asked, “How do you think this learning target connects to what you’re doing today?”

Blank stares.

Realizing this was maybe the first time they’d done this thinking, I popped a quarter in my mini-lesson jukebox. “It’s a tough question. It’s basically like asking, ‘Why are we doing this?’ One answer is because the teacher forced us to, right? But another answer is that when we read a passage, we need to have enough understanding to be able to answer questions. So, what makes this so tricky sometimes? Can anyone tell me about why answering these questions might be difficult for some folks?”

A child raised their hand, “Because sometimes you don’t remember the answer.”

“That happens to me ALL the time!” I said. “What else can make it tricky?”

Another child spoke up, “Sometimes I don’t remember where to find the answer in the story.”

I chimed in, “Yeah, another good one! Sometimes, it’s hard to find the answer in the story. If I’m honest, sometimes, it seems so hard, I just want to just quit. Does that ever happen to anyone else?”

A few head nods.

“So, what do we do when we forget an answer, and don’t remember where to look in the story? Today, I’m going to teach you that readers can estimate where in the story they might find certain information. Let’s try it together.”

I read students a story about a girl who decided to build a time capsule. She added 6 of her favorite things, and buried it. The thing was, she realized a few minutes later that she needed some of the things she buried! So, she dug up her time capsule. The End.

I looked up form the story, and I asked, “Let’s say you got a question about why she decided to build the time capsule. In what part of the story would you look first?”

Several students spoke at once, “The beginning.”

“Good! What if someone asked you about what she buried?”

After a second or two, a student said, “Then middle?”

“You got it. She buried all that stuff in the middle of the story. So, that’s where you’d look first.” I added, “What if you a question asked you why she dug up the time capsule? Well, she did that at the end of the story, right?”

Head nods.

I launched into the important part, “This is what readers do. When they can’t remember information, they go back to the story to find the detail. This work is much easier if you can guess where in the story to look. So, today, when I check in with you one-on-one, I’ll be checking to see how you use today’s strategy to find your answers with the story. Okay, let’s get reading!”

Independent Work Time

As students completed the worksheet, I sidled up (socially distanced) to individuals, and asked them how they were using today’s lesson to do the work. If they nailed it, I leaned on the routine of asking, “So, what is your next step to growing as a reader?” If they struggled, I asked why it was difficult, and retaught or introduced a new strategy.

Debrief: looking for exceptions to the rule

With a few minutes left, I asked students, “Out of all the questions, which do you think was the trickiest?” A student said that number 3 was hard because she thought that the question referred to something early in the story, but the information she needed came up toward the end.

I told the class, “This is such a good example because kind of thing happens quite often! It seems like a question is about something early in the story, but the information we need isn’t provided until later. So, what can we do when this happens?”

Blank stares.

I turned to the student who brought it up, “What did you end up doing?”

They said, “Well, I just kept reading until I found it!”

“That’s always a good option!” I said. “Sometimes I do the same thing. Sometimes, I guess another part of the story, and other times I’ll try to skim, or look over the story really fast, for certain words that were in the question. Anybody ever do that?”

A few hands went up.

“The important thing, readers, is that when we don’t know an answer that we go back to the story.” I pointed to the learning target. “Today, we learned some strategies that will make this work easier.”

Tomorrow Never Knows

Later that day, on bus duty, I was talking to teachers, and they were, to put it mildly, anxious. They were burnt out from the planning that comes with this hybrid model, worried about the possibility they could go virtual at any second, and just frazzled by the inability to “Do their thing” under these ever changing circumstances.

I’d feel the same way, if I were in their shoes, but I’d also know that I have a few tricks up my sleeve, thanks to certain routines I’ve set up for myself as a teacher. Through these routines, I may not be able to change my circumstances (canned curriculum, pandemic procedures, being the dreaded sub), but I can take my weird teaching situation and find real learning opportunities for the students in my care.

The routine I shared today involved unpacking a learning target to find what could make it tricky. When I teach around an unpacked learning target, I can teach students a pretty decent lesson under almost any circumstances–even if I’m teaching someone else’s class. Even if the students are only there two days a week. Even if it’s a flippin’ worksheet.

What kinds of routines or habits do you lean on in uncertain times? I’d love to know! Leave me a comment below or hit me up on Twitter: @MrWteach You can also follow our work at


  1. First of all, I love the tone of your writing. I was so engaged throughout it all! I am a pre-service teacher and will student teach in January. I am so nervous; yet, so excited. I really enjoyed reading this article because it prepped me to know that routines are important and can help lighten the blow of the unknowns that will happen. I also really loved the way you unpacked the learning target to teach the students the WHY behind what they were doing is important. This inspired me to keep connecting my standards to my learning targets and learning targets to my activities. THANK YOU!!

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