Considering Writer's Workshop
by Judy Mazur
Would a workshop model help students become engaged and confident writers? As I considered switching from a more traditional approach to the workshop model, I began extensive research. I read Atwell, Graves, Murray, Calkins, Fletcher, Spandel, and more. They are all brilliant and offer practical and thoughtful suggestions for helping our students learn to write. I incorporated their advice into what we call Writer's Workshop. Perhaps some of my learning, as seen through our workshop, will help you. Though my workshop experience is with third graders, I am certain that this model works quite well with grades 2-8. Initially the workshop can be daunting for you, the teacher, but I hope you will persist to find its plentiful rewards. My ultimate goal is for my students to learn the joy of expressing themselves through their writing, but there have been innumerable bonuses along the way, like the student who explained that he had begun the piece he read to me as narrative writing, but decided it really needed to be a poem, or the girl who stated, "I like third grade because you treat me like a real writer."
Our workshop takes place for one hour four times a week.
- We begin with the minilesson. Here we address our state standards by learning the writing process (prewrite, draft, revise, edit, publish) and organizing our learning by the Six Traits (ideas, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency, and conventions). We begin with personal narrative and move into other genres; for my third graders this means letter writing, nonfiction, and poetry, while my fifth grade friend teaches her students about poetry, persuasive writing, and research reports. Sometimes our minilesson consists of a convention, perhaps a traditional explanation of paragraph form. Other times I simply read aloud a picture book with a focus in mind; for example, we had a lively discussion about voice in Steptoe's Stevie. We look at published work and student work (with permission, of course) on the overhead and I ask Regie Routman's question, "What do you notice?" About once a month, I model by doing my own writing on the overhead. Students learn to use rubrics to evaluate and revise their own work. I often look to Spandel, Fletcher, and Lane for help with my minilesson and, of course, some minilessons will be determined by needs you see in your group of writers. It is easy to incorporate your favorite writing lessons---just be careful to watch the time. I aim for a 10-15 minute minilesson.
- The second segment of WW is the 30-35 minute time block for students to write while I am conferring with individual students.
Student Writing: Each student has a one-inch binder with 3 sections: drafts, published work, and handouts (seeds, information about authors, rubrics, etc.). We use Fountas' & Pinnell's paper from Guiding Readers and Writers; the dot reminds students to write on every other line, leaving them plenty of room for revision. Students always select their own topics; my only stipulation is when we are exploring a new genre---then they must write one work in that genre before returning to what last year's class called their "real writing." The only prompts we use are in fall and spring for the district assessment. I do not believe that they need to practice writing to what Spandel calls "the dreaded prompt;" I believe they need to practice writing. Students learn to write independently and seek conferences with a peer or with me during this time. I dislike unnatural deadlines so the time allotted a piece of writing is generally as long as it takes (of course, I must remind certain students to work productively). If we have an authentic deadline, like our Poetry Night at Barnes and Noble, I simply warn the kids and I find that they are responsible when I have given them plenty of warning.
The Conference: Upon completion of the minilesson, we simply write 'conferences' on the whiteboard and students sign up for a conference with me. I encourage them to do this mid-writing as that is when I believe I can be of most help to them. Be prepared for a lot of "I don't know what to write about" conferences in the beginning of the year; these will dwindle when your minilessons have taught your students how to come up with a topic and genre that they have selected. I have learned a lot about conferring from 2 sources:
Carl Anderson's How's It Going?
Tommy Thomason's Writer to Writer: How to Conference Young Authors
In the beginning of the year, I always begin the conference by asking, "How's your writing going?" (Anderson) Students soon learn to come and sit down next to me and start talking about their writing and why they need a conference. I listen carefully to what the child is saying and consider his work with respect. I usually ask the student two questions (Graves):
- "What do you like about your piece?"
- "What do you think needs improvement?"
This is an excellent time to teach the individual child based on her writing. I do this through discussion---I never tell a child what to write or how to revise his work. I try to use published text to show examples. I praise what they have done and have borrowed an observation from Atwell: "There's a line I wish I had written." I treat them as writers and I try to ask questions to help students "discover" the teaching point themselves. I am learning to talk less and listen more. Examples of teaching points for the conference: line spacing in poetry, voice in nonfiction, the question as a lead, dialogue format, considering one's audience...the list is endless. I will warn you that at first it is very difficult to pinpoint the perfect teaching point for your conference, and I still sometimes have better ideas in hindsight, but I believe this teaching time is invaluable. The individual conference lasts about 5 minutes and I keep notes in a binder with a section for each child; I have experimented and found this simple, open format best for me. I write the date and usually record something well done and something that needs work. This way I am always ready to refer back to our recent conferences. My notes are not secret---I happily share them with the student. And what about the reluctant conferee? I always reserve the right to invite students over for a conference and I also walk around the class for brief conferences once every two weeks. I always end the conference by asking, "What are you going to do now?" This gives the student a chance to reiterate what he has learned during the conference and for me to make sure that the child understood my teaching point; the student should now be energized to continue writing.
- Sharing never ceases to surprise me. This is a very important time for learning. We save the last 15 minutes of the hour to share our work. We sit in a circle on the floor with one chair for the student sharing. The writer tells us why she is sharing (for example, "I'm looking for help with titles," or "I want ideas for where to go from here.") We listen attentively as she reads and then we offer comments and suggestions. We are always polite and we always raise our hands for the writer to call on us---yes, I raise my hand, too. I find that my students begin by modeling their comments/suggestions on our minilessons and conferences and what I say during sharing. This can be tough in the beginning of the year, but please stick with it as sharing is highly rewarding for all students. You will be amazed by the quality of student comments and suggestions and how quickly the kids pick up writerly talk. My students love to begin by explaining that they are piggybacking on the comment of Jose and want to add their own insights. Of course, there are students who need to be encouraged to share, but once they begin to see themselves as writers, you will have more sharers than you have time. The kids learn so much from each other through sharing.
About management: my workshop is not a silent place, but a place where students, those who are helping one another or engaged in small group writing, try to remember to whisper. At first the noise bothered me; I now hope that our classroom is buzzing with student learning. I want us to be a community of learners who are "floating on a sea of talk." (Britton) And though I made a 'state of the class' chart where students use clothespins to show their current stage of the writing process, I find I seldom refer to it as conferences and sharing help me know where each child is. Assessment is based on Six Traits rubrics and my goal is for the students to learn to evaluate and improve their own work.
When I first started thinking about the workshop approach, I couldn't fathom teaching something and then having kids not practice it immediately. That's exactly what I do now and it works. My students refer to a teaching point or minilesson or sharing comment months after it was spoken---because it becomes meaningful to them. "Remember when we said we don't want to get to the end of the piece and then say, 'huh?'" explained one child to another during sharing as she described and applied a discussion from months before. Be patient with yourself and your students as there is a lot of modeling and learning to be done. Getting started is tough, but I promise you the rocky beginning is well worth the struggle; I have never done anything in all my teaching that continually amazes and delights me as much as writer's workshop. I have never worked as hard; my students have never worked as hard, nor as meaningfully. I find I am becoming more knowledgeable about writing--I have had to study hard and deep and it is a continual process--but the payout is that we become a community of writers who are confident and growing...writers who love to write.
Atwell, In the Middle
Calkins, The Art of Teaching Writing
Fletcher, Craft Lessons and Nonfiction Craft Lessons
Graves, A Fresh Look at Writing
Ray, Wondrous Words
Spandel, Creating Writers
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