Writing workshop is a powerful framework for teaching writing in the elementary school. It is not a program or package. It is an approach to helping students become engaged, self-directed, and deep thinking writers. But, there’s a confusing trend you may have noticed lately. Vendors are slapping the term “workshop” on all kinds of products leading some teachers to believe that simply renaming their traditional writing instruction with the term writing workshop is enough.
So, what defines a true writing workshop from other types of writing activities? Below are seven essentials you will find at the heart of every genuine and successful writing workshop.
- A defined (and protected) time of day (45 – 60 minutes)
- Explicit instruction
- Meaningful student choice
- Ongoing projects
- Responsive teaching and feedback
- Purposeful reflection and sharing
1) Joyfulness- In an authentic workshop, joy fills the room. It is palpable. Kids are engaged and joyful because they are working on projects that they care deeply about. They have the permission to make their own smart choices, as real authors do. They feel empowered by the process and connected to their work. They are doing real writing, for real purposes, to be shared with real audiences.
2) A DEFINED time of day (45-60 minutes) – Writing workshop isn’t an extra or an add-on for when time allows. Writing workshop is not “writing across the curriculum” or “work on writing” as a center. Writing workshop is a defined time of day that holds its own special place on the schedule. It is a time when explicit, purposeful, planned instruction about writing types, purposes, process, and conventions takes place. Ideally it would be between 45 minutes (primary grades) and 60 minutes (intermediate grades).This is a time of day dedicated solely to writing instruction and real writing. The kids are clear on the that. The teacher is clear on that. This is writing time. The focus is on becoming stronger writers.
- Why writing across the curriculum is not the same as writing instruction. When kids write across the curriculum (and don’t get me wrong – they definitely should) they are focused on using writing as a tool to process and share what they know about content. Success with writing across the curriculum is one of the reasons we teach writing. Writing is powerful way for students to make thinking visible. However, writing within content areas cannot be a substitute for explicit writing instruction. To become strong and confident writers, students need clear and focused instruction and lots of time to practice, play, and experiment with writing craft. Writing across the curriculum, then, is a goal of writing instruction, not a substitute.
- Why working on writing as a literacy center rotation is not the same as writing instruction. Although working on writing in a center often contains the important element of choice and also provides students with time to write, which is so important, there’s one important ingredient missing . . . the teacher! An essential difference between center time writing and writing workshop is the presence of teacher; providing focused mini-lessons, observing, thinking deeply about what is happening, and providing scaffolding through individual conferences and small group instruction. Having students write as rotation or activity during a literacy block is a great chance for them to extend their writing practice minutes. Working on writing in center or stations can become a compliment to writing workshop, but should never be viewed as a substitute.
3) Explicit writing instruction – – Although kids have lots of choice and control in the writing workshop, it’s far from a free-for-all, hippy-dippy, loosey-goosey time of day. During the writing workshop, the teacher provides explicit and targeted instruction on writing types, craft, process, and conventions. Instruction is provided in three formats:
- Whole group mini-lessons at the beginning of each workshop where all students learn a strategy or skill that they can apply to their writing, not only today, but across time. This lesson follows a gradual release model, starting with explicit modeling and moving to guided instruction and eventually individual practice.
- Small group instruction based on common needs – When a teacher observes several students who might benefit from additional support or extension of something that has been taught in the whole group, she may pull a small group of students aside for additional instruction.
- Individual Conferences – Every day in the writing workshop the teacher engages in individual conferences with students learning more about what they are attempting in the their writing and coaching them to higher levels of success based on what she observes.
4) Meaningful student-choice is a cornerstone of the writing workshop. There is a strong research base to support the idea that student choice drives motivation and engagement in the writing classroom. Even though students may be working within a common genre or type of writing, students choose not their own topics, but they also make choices about author’s craft, structure and process. When it comes to the Common Core reading standards about craft and structure, writing workshop kids have a huge advantage, because they are active authors making active choices about how to craft their message every day.
5) Extended writing time for ongoing projects. When students have predictable writing workshop time each day, they are able to engage in ongoing projects, sometimes referred to as extended timeframe projects. So, rather than writing about a topic for a short time within one class period, students are working on projects across several days. This extended work actually allows the brain to stay engaged with and thinking about the writing project between workshops. When students are working on ongoing projects, they will often engage in conversations about them, get additional ideas, and seek out suggestions between writing sessions.
6) Responsive teaching based on student needs. Teachers don’t push through their instruction at a predefined pace, without regard to student learning. Just the opposite. Although they have a big picture idea of how much time they will spend on each of the types of writing in the year, and they know clearly the standards, craft tools, and conventions they want students to master, their pacing and instruction are driven by true evidence of learning. It doesn’t matter if you’ve taught it, if students aren’t able to use it. Responsive teaching is teaching that is informed by the ongoing observations and assessments of the students in the room. It calls on a teacher to be keenly aware of the needs of individual students and to use varying degrees of scaffolding to meet those needs. It requires that a teacher is willing to do things like back-up, reteach, find a new way of teaching the same concept, speed up, skip a planned lesson, or reach out to other teachers for help, all in the name of delivering the instruction kids actually need.
7) Daily purposeful reflection and sharing – At the end of each workshop, before moving on to other things, the teacher spends 5-10 minutes bringing meaningful closure to the day’s writing work through personal reflection, partner work, or group sharing. Although it can feel tempting to skip this part of the writing workshop, especially when time is tight, it provides an essential link from one day’s learning to the next. It also provides the a chance for writers to share their writing; to experience the response of a reader. And isn’t that what writing is all about? Creating a message to share with an audience of some kind. In the workshop, students have regular opportunities to not only share their writing, but to accept and provide meaningful feedback, learning from each others successes and struggles along the way. Helping students learn to gracefully share and reflect on their own writing and the writing of others is not only a writing skill, but a life skill.
January is the perfect time to reflect on your writing instruction and consider if any of the practices above could use renewed attention. Your kids will thank you for it.