I am such a fan of the writing workshop. Here is an article I wrote on the subject. Though the focus is on children, the methods can be easily adopted to all age groups. Written in 2012 during my graduate studies, the ideas and principles are still true today.
Writers’ Workshops: Revisited and Updated
“Children want to write.” That was the assertion of Donald Graves, one of the forefathers of the writing workshop method, years ago (Writing 3). He also felt strongly that we underestimate what children can do. Nancie Atwell, another major proponent of writers’ workshops still maintains that everyone has the ability to write and she attributes the success of her students to “their hard work [which] made significant writing happen” (Middle 14) rather than the raw talent that others attribute good writing to. As educators, we need to be mindful of this and make sure that students do just that - work hard to achieve the best writing possible. Yet, educators today are still struggling for ways to effectively teach students how to write.
Writing is integral to both academic and professional success. This is not just the belief of those of us in the teaching profession, but is a firmly held belief of both parents and students alike (Pew ii). According to the 2008 Pew poll on Writing, Technology and Teens, the vast majority of parents and teens, 83% and 86% respectively, feel that the need to write may well be greater today than ever (iii). As such, the earlier we can get children to write well, the smoother their path will be in elementary, middle and secondary school and beyond. Of course, this begs the question as to how.
The answer might actually come from our teens themselves. According to the Pew poll, 82% of teens feel that that additional writing instruction and in-class writing assignments would go a long way toward upgrading their skills (iv). This sentiment is echoed by Atwell and Linda Rief, another giant in this area, who feel that middle school children can do more if asked and are expected to do so (Writing, viii). The key question is how can we as teachers help children reach their full writing potential. More importantly, how can we motivate them to be excited about the writing they seem to recognize as being one of the keys their ultimate success?
The structure of a writers’ workshop sets a system in place that has the ability to harness children’s talents, tap into their passions and produce excellent writing all at the same time. A writers’ workshop is a very individualized and organic approach to learning. The basic format of a writers’ workshop has remained essentially the same from when they began until today. The workshop affords the writer the opportunity to fully explore and actualize a piece of writing and genre through specific methods of idea generation, and teacher and peer feedback coupled with multiple stages of revisions. There are, however, some interesting recent modifications made by an array of talented teachers that have further enhanced this thus far underutilized teaching technique. Moreover, using the technology available today as a tool makes this technique especially useful in effectively teaching writing in our current environment. All this makes this an exciting time for implementing these workshops on a broader scale. However, even if departments are resistant to fully implementing writers’ workshops, it is worthwhile to examine its components which, in some cases, may be incorporated in a piecemeal fashion.
Elements of this method have roots as far back as the apprentice system (Fletcher and Portalupi 2) and, according to A.R. Gere, we had college literary societies in the 18th century (qtd. in Farnan and Fearn 61). More recently in history, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop started in 1922 and was the predecessor of the International Writing Program. A workshop for writers of fiction and poets started in 1936 and fanned out across the country (Galef 4). Writers’ workshops began to gain real popularity in the 1970’s and 1980’s when people like Donald Murray, Donald Graves, Lucy McCormick Calkins, Nancie Atwell as well as others were publishing some of their signature work and pioneering this method in their classrooms. Atwell described her excitement upon implementing the writers’ workshop in the 70’s, “I liberated myself as an English teacher by liberating my students as writers” (Middle 17). These proponents quickly became resources for pre-service teachers who wanted to avail themselves of this method. Much of their landmark work is still in use today.
The rationale for implementing a writers’ workshop as a method for the teaching of writing are as compelling today as they were 25 years ago when it first started gaining a foothold and the reasons supporting its use might even be more valid. Penny Kittle is dedicated to the workshop method since elements inherent to it actually systematizes and encourages procedures critical to a good writing product - passion and revision. Kittle encourages us to have faith in this method when she quotes William Zinsser, “Trust the process. If the process is sound, the product improves” (3). Though it is highly focused on process, the writing workshop focuses primarily on the writer. It strives to produce good writers who in turn produce good writing. Mary Ellen Giacobbe asserts that if we “focus on the writer… the writing will come” (Writing xiii).
There are quite a few common elements to the most noted versions of writers’ workshops. Most authorities talk about the need to have a predictable framework to ensure the success of the workshop. They advocate writing 3 or 4 times a week for about an hour a day with set rituals and rhythms as well as strict guidelines with respect to conferencing and community response as well as minilessons and authentic publishing forums. Yet, even with the most organized of groups, the “variability” in children’s composition has a lot to do with topic, teacher, process, audience, mechanics, self-concept, the physical room and the organic materials in it (Writing 263). Interestingly, many teachers who employ the workshop method do not use a commercial program (Troia et al. 157) which could account for greater variability, on the one hand, but could also afford for great pedagogical freedom and discretion. I agree with Lucy McCormick Calkins, the pioneer in using and training others to use the writers’ workshop, when she says, “Consistency is important in the writing workshop, but so, too, is variety” (354).
Using the workshop method, teachers can more easily cater to the individual student. Graves describes writing as a “very messy operation” (Writing xi) and warns that in teaching writing to children; “variance is the norm, not the exception” (Writing 270), so it is best to be both prepared and flexible in your approach. Calkins asks and answers the following key question, “How do we help our students connect with writing? ... one by one” (174). This attention to the individual is exactly why the “workshop model for student-centered classes works well for differentiated instruction” (King-Shaver and Hunter 55). The workshop is another way to address today’s challenge of teaching writing in ever expanding class sizes. King-Shaver and Hunter go on to say what most other proponents of this method believe; flexibility is the key “for this model to work smoothly.” They say that “the teacher has to plan carefully, monitor the students’ work, and revise the plan as needed” (56).
The beauty of this teaching technique is that children learn to write independently. Their teachers cultivate this in every step of the process from idea generation all the way through to the final draft. Atwell cites Jerome Bruner’s “handover phase” (qtd. in Middle 19) and Lev Vygotsky’s “mediated learning” to describe “what the children can do in cooperation [with the teacher] today he can do alone tomorrow” (qtd. in Middle 221). Atwell goes on to say that “our first goal is not for them to write well but for them to write independently, moving fluently through the writing process”. Calkins discusses finding that “kernel” to develop and work through (351). Our goal is to get them into what Mihaly Sikszentmilhalyi calls the “flow zone” in which the student “loses track of time and becomes totally engaged in the task” (qtd. in Fletcher and Portalupi 3). The workshop furnishes students with the tools to crack any future writing assignments all on their own.
Writing workshops also encourage original thought. Calkins feels that all this independent thinking “can take [children] on trails of thought” where their teachers “help them probe their topics and explore the mysteries of their subject” (153). Calkins writes that “our goal is to make youngsters feel so at home with the rhythm of gathering entries, finding a kernel to develop, living with and gathering details around that kernel, and then drafting, revising, and editing” (351). The children learn to “expect their writing to be a time of thinking” (153). One of her students even attested to this when she said, “I’ve learned to go much deeper in my writing” (qtd. in Calkins 152). With the new common core standards placing even more emphasis on clarity, analysis and synthesis, workshops may well be an idea whose time has come for broader acceptance.
Writing workshops can energize both students and teachers. Actually, Atwell commends the workshop method for empowering students when she says, “There are as many teachers in a workshop as there are students” (Middle 80). This testifies to the fact that children come to see themselves as teachers and even as writers. Fletcher and Portalupi describe setting up a writers’ workshop and comment that in a workshop a teacher creates an “environment where students can walk in the shoes of writers nearly everyday” (xi). Graves notes another advantage when teachers turn from lecturer to seeker; there is much less of a danger of the “profession’s energy crisis” (qtd. in Class-Based 86). Atwell concurs that teachers “no longer feel drained by the demands we impose on ourselves when we view our classrooms as contexts which we motivate, orchestrate, and evaluate” (Class-Based 86). Because the classroom shifts from being teacher centered to student centered, a lot of the pressure is taken off the teacher allowing a freer flow of energy for all.
A basic element in a workshop is student choice with respect to what they write. Atwell, Calkins, Graves, Fletcher and Portalupi as well as a host of others all advocate allowing students to pick their own topics. The way to get the deepest and best writing out of students is to allow them to choose subjects they relate to and about which they have something to say. Allowing students to write about firmly held opinions or hobbies about which they feel passionately is an excellent way to get a higher quality writing product. Graves asserted that a “writer can only write what they know” (Writing ix). Graves notes that when we allow children to pick their own topic, we are blessed with the “surprises” that “come when children begin to control their writing as a craft” (Writing 3).
When children know their subject, “they take ownership and control of the writing” as well (Writing 4). They have a real stake in it and work hard at ensuring the product is both high quality and precise. Children have “much more control when telling their own stories” and, as such, the writing becomes a real “medium for learning to think” (Writing ix). Calkins also maintains that there must be student choice in workshops in order for students “to write with purpose and self-investment” (166). Rief concurs by saying that giving children “choices about the kind of writing they do has helped them make a commitment to that writing” (Ad-dull-escence 64). Perhaps the most succinct argument on this front was put forward by literacy consultant John Poeton, “choice leads to voice” thereby ensuring “a sense of ownership – personal investment” on the part of the writing student (qtd. in Fletcher and Portalupi 23). Unless children feel connected and responsible for what they are writing, they will not be conscientious about giving it the time it needs and the audience will quickly see it as the weak piece that it is.
When children are asked to choose their own subjects, topic choice is often a big hurdle for them to overcome. They can become overwhelmed with the task of what to write about. Atwell suggests shared readings or “read alouds” (Middle 144). Materials for these readings could range from the teacher reading a piece of literature, article or even the teacher’s own writing to the class to one of the students sharing a piece he or she has written. These readings give students time to think as well as mentor texts which might spark ideas in the individual student. This then can serve as an effective invention strategy for pre-empting writer’s block.
Erin (Pirnot) Ciccone developed a very interesting method for topic generation which she originally stumbled on quite accidentally. She found that though her class was scheduled to write first thing every morning, Mondays never felt like the right time for the class, so she used that time instead for a “gab session”. These developed into “Headline News” segments where the children had to write a truthful headline in creative ways. Soon after starting this practice, she found that her students easily found writing topics and she credited these sessions for that. These “gab sessions” enabled the students to practice “the art of storytelling” in addition to affording plenty of “prewriting, planning, and thinking.” Ciccone said, “Because of those sessions, student writing was better organized, contained more distinct focus, had stronger voice, and best of all, had my students thinking like writers” (26).
Independent reading is an important first step toward independent writing. Fletcher and Portalupi suggest using independent reading as a launching pad for topic generation because, as they see it, “writing without reading is a little like seesawing alone” (84). They feel that the “time children spend reading the books of their choice will fuel their writing” (78). To reiterate, in order to get children to write, they need to begin to actually think like writers. They need to pause and see that their perceptions of the events in their world are worthwhile to explore through writing. To that end, Graves also believes that using literature is profoundly important. Reading affords children the opportunity to see “how professional writers select ordinary incidents that parallel the children’s own lives” and use them in their writing (Writing ix).
Critics of student choice misunderstand it as a less rigorous and sloppy process, but that is far from the truth. Formal guidelines are incorporated into the classroom when it comes to choosing topics. Graves suggests having children discuss topics amongst themselves, having a topic folder in the classroom for public use or each student keeping a topic list in their personal folders (Writing 17). He also suggests that these personal folders could be used to house some discarded written works (Writing 29) or drawings and diagrams that could spark future creativity (Writing 83); something I have long done with my own personal writing.
Just plain good listening makes a writing workshop run so much more smoothly for both the student and teacher. Conversations had by actually taking the time and effort to get to know your students (Graves Writing 22) and teacher conferencing (Writing 30) can be fertile ground for topic generation. Calkins urges teachers to get to know their students, “to build a relationship with them,” in order to effectively help their writing (168). A few pointed questions during an impromptu conference as well as keen listening to your students’ voices and interests during the invention stage can augment the development of rich topics later on. Teachers need to be on the lookout during their interactions with students for interesting bits to be used later.
The minilesson which was developed by Calkins and enhanced by others has become synonymous with teaching in the writers’ workshop. These 5-10 minute lessons are not difficult to incorporate, but they do require a “significant teaching shift” (Fletcher and Portalupi 3). Calkins describes this as a complete revolution in the way we teach. “Instead of planning each day’s new activities and assignments, we need to anticipate how we will initiate, scaffold, and guide the classroom community toward an ever deepening involvement…no small challenge” (183). Atwell is fond of minilessons since conferences only reach one student, whereas a minilesson benefits each and every student in the class (Middle 150). Though not full blown lessons, scaffolding the process is still necessary for effectiveness (Writing 271). Atwell also finds that “the language of the lessons provides a frame of reference for the conversations that makes [conferences] richer and more efficient” (Hard Trying 18).
Teaching this way emphasizes the student’s writing rather than the teacher’s teaching (Fletcher and Portalupi 4). The bases for minilessons could be a student’s writing, a teacher’s writing, a piece of literature or anything the teacher deems as useful for getting the point across for maximum student assimilation. Minilessons can be drawn from anything about the craft of writing itself or the protocols of the workshop such as peer response etiquette. What to teach is wholly dependent on the needs of the students at the time which factors in both what is expected of the grade in terms of the common core standards in addition to the immediate needs of students with regard to their writing and workshop participation. The teacher can judge whether a deficiency uncovered in one student’s knowledge should be elevated to a whole class lesson. Though differentiated instruction is challenging, there is really no other way to teach writing since “writer variation calls for a different approach to responding to children’s writing” (Writing 270).
Minilessons are useful in that they provide an avenue for condensing English Language Arts (ELA) instruction time thereby allowing a shift into practical writing workshop time. In the words of Fletcher and Portalupi, take time for the workshop from “out-of-context skill lessons” since you won’t need them anyway (98). In fact, there is very little evidence to support that explicit grammatical instruction has a positive effect on a student’s writing. In fact, Graham and Perin’s meta-analysis of research suggests that there might actually be a negative effect (460). Rief suggests putting these in-context minilessons together into a handbook so that the students will have written their own textbook by year’s end (qtd. in Middle 153). Minilessons present another opportunity for children to “learn collaboratively” and share what they know with each other, which has an added advantage of further enhancing the class as a “community of writers” (Middle 150).
Getting community sharing right is an important principle in workshops in terms of the amount of collaboration and writing presentation that is involved. While we know socializing is at the core of why children come to school to begin with, Atwell says that adolescents actually “come to school in order to work out their social needs” (Middle 67). Atwell says that since children tend to measure themselves against other children and that “learning is also more likely to happen when students can be involved and active and when they can learn from and with other students” (Middle 69). As such, Calkins says that the peer group is a powerful force to harness while students work on their writing (169). Graham and Perin found in their meta-analysis of studies that “collaborative arrangements where students help each other with one or more aspects of their writing had a strong positive impact on writing quality” (463). The workshop method of sharing takes advantage of these facts of life and cleverly uses them to its advantage in the teaching of writing.
Integral to writers’ workshops is building a sense of community in the classroom, and building this camaraderie gets more and more difficult as students get older. Calkins maintains that adolescents and older children can be both supportive and brutal (142). Many veteran teachers and experts offer up their experiences and advice when it comes to this essential workshop component. It is imperative that the teacher create a “social climate” that is “socially safe” for sharing (Calkins 142). Writing for class sharing by itself promotes a sense of community since it “promotes both deepened understanding and meaningful interactions” (Dean and Warren 51). Atwell has learned to set the tone for student feedback in her workshops because they won’t work “unless writers trust that their peers won’t shoot them down” (Middle 75).
Appropriate peer response can be invaluable to honing the skills of budding writers. Once students become adept at responding to their peer’s papers, their input can often have more weight than that of the teacher (Farnan and Fearn 65). This is especially true when it comes to forums and genres more suited to their child or adolescent peers than their adult teachers. Graves speaks about students responding to each other about their writing as a way to get children comfortable with talking about writing in general (Writing 146). Peer responding as “rehearsal” only helps to improve their writing (Writing 221). Fletcher and Portalupi say that rehearsing or rereading papers is a way for children to become “the best expert in the world on [their] own writing, and the way to do that is by rereading it over and over as [they] write” (69).
Margaret Queenan, an English teacher, says that she relies on small groups and does not allow any peer response until the students are aware of very specific guidelines and lines of questioning to pursue (qtd. in Calkins 171). Keri Franklin gives many helpful hints regarding the social skills necessary for supportive and effective peer conferencing such as eye contact, head nodding, tone of voice and length of comments (80). She found that generating lists of behaviors and expectations with students is beneficial, but the real turning point came after she employed what Peter Elbow termed “sharing without response” where students just listen and respond with a simple “thank you” for two weeks (82). Students engage in deep listening and unpressured read alouds thereby providing context and building their response skills in a worry free environment.
Nancy Farnan and Leif Fearn found something very interesting about peer response. After training, “student and teacher feedback align quite well” (64). After a fair amount of instruction by the teacher regarding “functional feedback”, students gradually worked up from whole class feedback using the central question “does it work?” to small group feedback (63). The areas of instruction stressed were craft, word choice, sentence design and style. Reading their stories aloud also resulted in quite a bit of self-editing (64). Students seemed to love the feedback portion of the workshop. The testimonials read, “The teacher reads writing to grade it; kids read and listen to writing to see if it works.” “When I was writing my papers, I found myself thinking about the feedback” (65). This is a win-win situation both in terms of quality, constructive feedback and productive, meaningful whole class and individual social interaction.
When children share their writing, especially in the composition stage, new and interesting things can happen. P.J. Lancia documented his finding with respect to over 400 second graders where he found that students borrowed elements of plot, character and genre from their classmates writing for their own. R.A. Freedman found that 2nd and 3rd grade students borrowed “elaborated lead sentences” and plot details for their own stories creating whole new class specific genres (qtd. in Lewison and Hefferman 459). Class sharing and projects reinforce the sense of community and pull students together. Perdita Finn, a colleague of Calkins, found that writing a picture book united her class while Rief found that a whole class Holocaust project had the same effect. These teachers wisely “followed the energy they sensed in their classroom” to add new dimension and unity to their classes (Calkins 176).
Much research and thinking has been done on the value of writing authentic projects for real audiences. The benefits of having a real audience are described by Deborah Dean, “Because of the possibility of publication, students were more willing to look at what they would normally consider the ‘boring’ issues of writing…Suddenly it mattered” (Dean 44). Rief concurs with this when she writes, “when they make something for a real audience for a real reason, they move out of ad-dull-escence into young adulthood” (Ad-dull-essence 65). Since sharing is a pillar in the process, the writing that is done in a writers’ workshop is by definition done for an audience. This method takes the student’s writing out of the static two way dialogue between teacher and student and brings it center stage for everyone in the class to learn from and enjoy. The 2008 Pew Study Writing, Technology and Teens showed that teens “found it motivating when their writing could have broader impact through being publicly shared in class, in person, in print or on the Internet” (qtd. in Wiggins 34). Jim Volpat found that when writing for an audience “kids start to give extra attention in their writing to ways of engaging their potential listeners” (9). The audience component substantially adds to the power the workshop method has in honing children’s writing skills.
Fletcher and Portalupi attach another benefit to peer response which is when teachers listen to how their students read and respond to each other, we all get “an intimate glimpse into their lives and loves outside school” (76) which can be handy have during a workshop when a student claims not to have anything to say. Additionally, Franklin points out that “by training students to respond well to each other’s writing, teachers can focus their efforts on student who may need more help” (80). Each student becomes a junior teacher’s assistant enhancing the sum of the parts in the classroom.
Writing partnerships is an interesting and intelligent addition to the idea of peer response. Cathy Hsu introduced this idea first developed by Calkins into her writing workshops and found that it added a wonderful dimension. Hsu felt that in the traditional workshop, “the flow of traffic bottlenecked” (158), so she decided to pair up students in the class. Partners consult with each other in the early stages of the writing process and the teacher and classmates add additional feedback (155). As a result, “students were no longer flocking to the teacher as the sole source of support” (153). Partnering with their peers encouraged “frequent student-to-student conferencing substantially increasing students’ practice with critiquing writing and with recommending actions” (153). Only after a semester of work does Hsu open up the arrangement to writing response groups. She feels that this new arrangement adds a tremendous amount of energy to her classroom workshop. Hsu avoids social pairing and likes diverse partnerships (155). Volpat also endorses heterogeneous groupings for the reasons that it enhances the principle that “all kids have something to teach one another,” but, unlike Hsu, he sometimes allows students to pick their own collaborators (36). Both these models of pairing have merit. Sometimes higher achieving students will want to work with each other when pairing with a weaker student could benefit all of them more. However, students often have a good working relationship with certain students and allowing them to choose their own partners could provide a creative dynamic that a teacher could overlook. Thus, Volpat’s hybrid solution of allowing student choice for certain assignments might be best.
Conferencing is another way of teaching skills in the workshop framework and can be done one-on-one or in mini groups. This generally entails the teacher going around to each student privately while the rest of the students are writing. The teacher interfaces with a particular student about whatever they are working on at the moment in their writing. These conferences are no more than a few moments in length and provide differentiated instruction either on a technical writing point or about the direction of the piece in general. According to Fletcher and Portalupi, teaching writing is a challenge because it “is not so much one skill as a bundle of skills that include sequencing, spelling, rereading, and supporting big ideas with examples” (1). As such, the conference is the perfect forum for addressing the individual needs and skill level of each student within the context of their individual writing in order to ensure a much more long lasting and genuine learning experience.
Conferencing is important because skills are best “taught in the context of a child’s own paper” (Writing 147). At an early stage in a draft, the teacher usually asks a few incisive questions on a global or organizational issue with regard to a student’s writing. An astute line of questioning by the teacher can add depth and direction to the student’s work (Writing 107-118). Later stages are more editorial in nature where real learning regarding grammar can take place as opposed to teaching it in an isolated drill fashion. Furthermore, the more students engage with the material, the more they are likely to “grow as writers” (Fletcher and Portalupi 15) and nothing could be more engaging to a student than using their own piece of writing as a basis for a personally designed writing lesson.
There are protocols for conferencing and Fletcher and Portalupi give some very useful tips. Some advice such as speaking in a low voice projecting understanding and privacy is logical and easy. Other ideas like being present, “deep listening”, reading body language and making sure to teach only one thing per conference take time to cultivate (48-52). Other useful techniques are asking for details beyond what is written, re-capping the piece for the student, and asking the student to critique their own work without being confrontational (56-59). Calkins classifies the different stages of conferring as research, content, design, process and evaluation conferences each with its own set of protocols (231-47). However, Atwell warns of “over-ritualized conferences” becoming “a source of tension for teachers” and advises that “a good writing conference is a conversation that grows out of a personal relationship between an adult and a novice” (Hard Trying 17). Graves suggests setting up a written dialogue with students and talks about these conferences as conversations; conversations that move “through successive layer[s]” leading toward “more in-depth thinking” (Investigate 35). As a general rule, Graves declares that the overriding principle in conferences should be “I want to help. I want to listen” (Writing 98). This is yet another proof that far from being an undisciplined process, writing workshops can indeed be deceptively structured. It is up to the individual teacher to think about and experiment with what works for them and their class.
Modeling is a most effective pedagogical method and is extremely useful in teaching writing. Graves and Kittle describe it as an “artist paint[ing] with his class” (Inside Writing 1) and Graves talks about how modeling sets “the tone for writing” in the classroom (Writing 12). Modeling is valuable at any stage including topic generation, early drafting or even word choice (Writing 43). Modeling comes into play throughout the entire writing process from composing to response training all the way through to revising and publishing. The writing process can be modeled by composing in front of the whole class with a SMART board, overhead projector or easel. That way, students get an inside track into the process of composing as they watch their teacher work through the process. The teacher should also share their own writing in the classroom “to get the children used to responding” (Writing 16).
Atwell points out that another important result of modeling is that “we slow down when we engage in looking at and thinking and raising questions about our students’ writing activity” (Class-Based 85). The teacher walks in the shoes of the student and can tailor and implement a relevant game plan for writing from an inside track. Modeling also gives students insight as to how writers think. Graves and Kittle say, “When teachers compose texts of their own – texts they care about – during writing workshop … Teachers reveal to the students decisions all writers must make” (Inside Writing 1).
The modeling process is also useful for building ties in the classroom. Graves says that as models “we become writers together” enhancing the community environment in the classroom (Writing 51). According to Best Practice: Bringing Standards to Life in America’s Classroom, a teacher can bring all kinds of innovative techniques into the classroom, but unless the classroom in a safe laboratory, all these “can fall flat” (Zemelman, Daniels, and Hyde 144). It is up to the teacher to create open environment and train students on workshop etiquette. To that end, teachers need to “model respect and supportive questioning” (Zemelman, Daniels, and Hyde 144) in all their interactions with students.
Teachers putting themselves and their work in front of the students embodies Kittle’s sentiment about teaching, “My goal is not catching students making mistakes and penalizing them; it is motivating them to listen and learn” (192).
Atwell says that a great by product of all of this conferencing and responding is that it keeps kids moving, thereby allowing for “fewer discipline problems.” She likes to “create places for kids to go to talk with each other” (Middle 75). Interestingly, a recent study of six urban elementary school teachers employing the workshop method found fewer discipline issues due to its “heavy emphasis on routines, collaboration, cooperation, and sharing, and the writing process demands a high degree of self-control” (Troia et al. 159). Again, this is something extremely important to keep in mind as we manage larger classes than ever.
Donald Murray, a forefather of the teaching of writing, states, “All writing is experimental” (377) and recommends that we try to “understand the free-writing process” (380). If we are to follow that philosophy as a foundation for conducting writers’ workshops, how are we to foster that trial and error spirit while at the same time conduct formal assessments of our students? Fletcher and Portalupi feel that writers’ workshop pieces should not be graded because “students need to take risks to develop as writers” and “try new genres and experiment with different literary techniques”. They also suggest having children evaluate their own work to keep “them growing as writers” (105).
Both Rief and Atwell are fans of self-assessment. Rief says, “Until we realize that the student is the best evaluator of his or her learning, we will never know what our students really know or are able to do” (qtd. in Middle 300). Atwell says that conferencing goes a long way toward building their evaluation and assessment skills. In conferencing either with the teacher or classmate, they need to articulate what they know and what they don’t, what they think works and what they think doesn’t. Atwell says, “In the day-to-day workings of a workshop, kids ask for help, make decisions, set plans and goals, and form judgments. They learn how to look at what they’ve done and what they need to do next” (Middle 301). Dean and Warren point out that sharing also integrates everyone into the evaluation process (54). They correctly feel that all students benefit from hearing the stories and constructive criticism of their classmates and group learning leads to a real sense of purpose (51).
Atwell uses portfolios “to collect evidence that documents what a student has worked on and produced and how he or she has grown” (Middle 301). Other ideas for evaluation might be to have students submit their best work, layer teacher comments onto the student’s own self assessment and/or give a rubric with clear criteria (Fletcher and Portalupi 106). Calkins likes looking at the body of work of her students in “some general fashion.” She takes into account their “volume of writing, risk-taking, willingness to revise, ability to edit, helpfulness when peer conferring, and so forth” (313-4). Most workshops generate a wealth of material from their journals, writing notebooks, planning charts, drawings, diagrams and the like, so there is plenty of student samples from which to choose.
Although her first edition was more student-centered, by 1998, Atwell came around to instituting a bit more structure to her workshops. She now advocates more of an “interventionist pedagogy” with more student responsibilities (expectations)” for productions and a higher degree of “expert demonstration (apprenticeship)” (Taylor 48). Today, Atwell takes a more “direct approach” than she did before. She gives longer mini-lessons and is much more straightforward in telling students “what works and what doesn’t and collaborating on their writing rather than ‘following the child’” (Taylor 49). This “post-process view” of a workshop curriculum is a more balanced, yet flexible approach to the classic model. Atwell seems to have moved “from a static notion of what writing workshop is (and who teachers and students should be) to a more balanced and inclusive view of writing pedagogy” (Taylor 50). “The most important implication of Atwell’s second edition lies here – in understanding the kind of teacher authority [is] granted in this new workshop” (Taylor 51). With her newly evolved “knowledge- based approach” (Taylor 50), “Atwell grants permission to teachers to demonstrate what they know and value” (Taylor 51). This should entice teachers afraid of totally giving into the process and ceding too much to their students. Atwell now truly advocates a workshop that is “in the middle” (Taylor 51).
Based on the idea by Rief, Graves and Kittle feel that “quick writes are foundational to a sound writing program” (Inside Writing, 3) and advocate incorporating them into a workshop. These are short, 1-3 minute assignments responding to something read in class (Quick-Writes, Rief 50). The quick writes technique provides many benefits to children. These writing assignments can enhance the timed test taking skill so important to children’s future academic lives. Furthermore, “quick-writes are non-threatening precisely because they are short, quick, but yet so focused” (Quick-Writes 51). Graves and Kittle laud how quick-writes get students to concentrate and organize their writing using their own “distinct and recognizable voice” (Inside Writing 3). These are also great additions for already time strapped ELA instruction.
Another variation of the writers’ workshop is writing circles. It was developed by Jim Volpat and “the structure of writing circles mirrors that of literature circles, with kids’ writing serving as the text” (Volpat 3). It is groups of 4-6 students who meet regularly to draft and discuss their writing. The children actually name their circle and take on different roles such as “first writer” and “time keeper” (Volpat 10). Each writing circle has a large share of the responsibility of record keeping using a writing circle notebook to house all drafts, topic suggestions, responses and reflections (Volpat 85). The children share many drafts and then decide which one they will as a circle take all the way to the publishing stage (Volpat 18). Volpat gives them a lot of training regarding how to give constructive and supportive feedback. He feels that responding is not a matter of right and wrong; “it’s about kids sharing what they experience while listening to the writing, and the writer listening and deciding what to do with the response, if anything” (119). He has a comprehensive and interesting sampling of sentence starters to help the process along.
This technique is exciting because it combines a lot of the attractive elements of the workshop method such as topic choice, community, sociability, peer response, rehearsal and audience. It even includes the principle of writing partnerships’ ending the bottleneck at the teacher. Volpat says it can be exhausting to get to conference with every child, but with this framework in place, no child is overlooked because the children conference all the time - with each other (8). “When kids listen to one another’s writing about the same topic, they all learn something about language, voice, and audience” (Volpat 11). Echoing a sentiment expressed by Atwell, Volpat says, “Instead of one teacher of writing for thirty kids, there are thirty teachers of writing plus one” (17)! A shift from teacher centered models to student centered enhances a teacher’s ability to teach each student more effectively.
As technology evolves, teachers have more and more tools at their disposal to make lessons both more relevant and engaging. We have progressed from the easel to the overhead projector to the word processor and personal computer all the way to the world of SMART boards and blogging. At all these technological stages, the younger generation has been the beneficiary.
Troy Hicks’s digital writing workshop focuses on engaging “students in real writing tasks” and using “technology in such a way that it complements their innate need to find purposes and audiences for their work” (8). The exciting aspect of these advances today is that the youth has become energized by this technology and since the older generation has trouble keeping pace with the speed of all these new introductions, they put children, labeled by Marc Prensky as “digital natives” (qtd. in Rochette 46) on a footing as colleagues with their educators, Prensky’s “digital immigrants” (qtd. in Rochette 46). Using the children as our guides, this sense of community we teachers have been working so hard to effect has become a natural byproduct of introducing these new technologies into the classroom.
Overall, parents see a more positive impact of technology on their children’s writing (Pew vi), but there are some aspects of the data that indicate that teens would greatly benefit from the support of technology in the context of the writing workshop. Although all the new gadgets on the market may lead us to de-emphasize the old fashioned pen and paper, the Pew poll tells us that 72% of teens say they usually compose their personal writing done outside of school by hand (Pew v). However, when it comes to that all important work of rereading and revision, 57% teens say “when they use computers to write they are more inclined to edit and revise their texts” (Pew vi). As we all know, not only is editing and revising critical to good writing, it is essential to the successful application of the writing workshop method. Once more, we see an alignment of practice and practicality with the workshop method. The upfront more enjoyable work can be done with pen and paper while the more tedious grunt work can be more easily done with our technological toys.
The SMART board opens up new vistas in education. Lessons can be worked out in the classroom and then saved for later use and disseminated to the students. The students can fully engage in the classroom exercise unencumbered by note taking responsibility. Tangents can be fully explored following the students’ lead on the road to learning. When you connect SMART boards with wireless laptops, the potential for in-class emphasis on processes such as organizing and composing is unlimited (Rochette 46). Patricia A. Watson and Jan Guidry Lacina describe how a web-based classroom begets opportunities for the student “to receive both peer and instructor feedback on their writing through all the stages of the writing process” (38). Maybe even more important, Watson and Lacina contend “learning in a web-based environment allows students to take risks with their own writing in a nonthreatening context” (38). This supports the risk taking environment Graves advocated as necessary to the workshop.
Laura Christine Rochette is totally enamored with the use of SMART boards finding that “the visual representation of analysis and interpretation, and its collective creation, made a substantial difference in the written essays that followed” (44). Incorporating images into writing gives students the ability to write pieces that are more interesting and clear. An online notebook opens up the invention process to the entire class and online minilessons can be another important resource for the entire class to use as they continue their writing process (Watson and Lacina 40).
Web-based conferences open new vistas. They afford another avenue of expression for shy students and the preservation of the transcript is an added bonus. Forums such as Blackboard allow mini-groups more time for reflection and richer responses to their peers as could emailing drafts. Exploring blogs and creating blogs is another important route for students to explore. Class blogs demonstrate the power of blogging and its “expanded thinking” in a more relaxed forum. Through blogging, students can concentrate on the structure and logic of an argument without the pressure of a more formal genre (Rochette 47). The other benefit of blogging is its aspects of authenticity and audience. “The very nature of its being public challenges [students] to be at their best – perhaps without their realizing it” (Rochette 47). It is writing and publishing all rolled into one.
Now, I just want to say a short word about how the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy can be easily met through the use of this teaching technique. The common core standards ask that students learn to do things like plan, revise, edit and re-write; write for specific audiences and purpose; write routinely, and use technology to support their work (45-47). This sounds a lot like foundational elements of the writers’ workshop. By definition, the student writer that goes through workshop training will be able to do all that and more in a variety of genres. In fact, on a daily basis they will be building arguments to support claims, organizing their thoughts and synthesizing ideas all with the support of their teacher, classmates and technology. Thus, the writing workshop might actually be the best route for achieving these far reaching goals on a class wide basis since students get to solidify their skills and move ahead at their own pace thereby enabling the teacher to cover a lot more ground.
While implementing a writers’ workshop in toto would help children to produce superior writing, I realize that the commitment by administrators and teachers may not be there. Teachers’ hesitations due to things such as resistance to change, the fear that the workshop creates a less disciplined environment and doubting students’ abilities to review their peers’ work. Many of the teachers quoted here had the same reservations at first. Through being open minded and trial and error as well as having some excellent mentor support, they were able to make their classrooms into a workshop that worked for them and their classes. However, in lieu of total conversion, there are many individual elements of these workshops that could be incorporated into the English teacher’s classroom and introducing them, even gradually, would greatly benefit the children. Atwell says, “Growth in writing is slow” (Middle 93). I am willing to concede that the same is true for the growth of the writers’ workshop. Writing workshops continue to be a great method for teaching writing. Though the technology has changed, kids have not changed all that much and we must do all we can to reach this precious next generation. We need to teach them that they have something to say and that we are open and eager to hear it.
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