One of my favorite classes to teach has always been Writing Workshop. Over the years I made changes to the set-up of the class, but the best part of the class was the informality and the relaxing atmosphere in the classroom. The class met once a cycle (the school where I taught had an eight-day rotating schedule), and the best writing I read from my students always came out of this class.
It’s a real challenge to teach kids to write. Within each class there are students who love to write, who are confident about their writing, and eager to share it with others. Then there is a group of reluctant writers, who are also usually reluctant readers. They often have the most wonderful ideas of all the students, but they just can’t access the words. That’s where Writing Workshop can be a great class for them.
Here’s how I set up the class:
1. In the beginning of the course, students are assigned to create a writer’s notebook. I suggest they buy an artist’s sketchbook if they can afford it because I allow them to draw also in the notebook and then write about the drawing. Sometimes just starting with a sketch frees up the mind to get down words describing the picture. They can buy an inexpensive spiral notebook instead. Students are also required to clip at least twenty pictures from magazines or download graphics from the computer that relate to them. For example, a skier could find a picture of a snow-covered mountain and a basketball player could find a picture of a basketball. Students could also bring in photos of family and friends and pets and vacations. All these images provide a starting point for a writing topic.
2. The Writing Workshop always began with a mini-lesson about some aspect of writing: how to write a lead, choosing an effective title, writing conclusions, word choice, for example. Students were then asked to work on incorporating that lesson into their writing that day. I also put quotations on the board, inspiring or controversial words by authors or actors or athletes that students could respond to, giving them an opportunity to write reflection or persuasion. The pictures in their notebooks usually provided opportunities to write description or narration.
3. After the mini-lesson came the music. I always chose classical or New Age or something relaxing without lyrics. Students often complained about my choices, but they got exposure to a variety of music and they could focus more on writing than the words of a song. It was important for me to write with my students. No teacher should attempt to teach writing unless he or she also writes. That is especially true for major writing assignments. Writing along with the students enables a teacher to find those difficult parts of the assignment, the parts that can trip up students without the teacher’s knowledge of the problem.
4. The best part came next–conferencing. I would circulate the room offering suggestions and help, especially stopping at those desks where no writing was happening. These students would insist they had nothing to write. That was often because somewhere along the line they came to believe that perfection was expected, no errors allowed, and that was paralyzing. Once they realized they were not going to be graded on spelling or grammar or even completeness of ideas, writing became easier. Sometimes I would even tell them to write down “I have nothing to write” until something came to them. They could write an entire page of nonsense if they wanted because inevitably something would happen along the way, some seed of an idea would be planted and that seed could become the first sentence of another piece of writing.
5. Next would come the sharing. This was not the best part of the class for many students, but usually one very confident writer would raise his hand and read his piece for the day with the realization that we all knew it was not finished, not polished, not perfect. No negative comments were ever allowed, just words of praise or support. I did require each student on the last day of Writing Workshop to read something from their notebooks, even if just a paragraph or short poem. All writers need an audience.
6. Students were required to turn in two pieces of writing each quarter, usually a short piece such as a poem or descriptive paragraph and one a little longer, a narrative or persuasive essay. The choice was up to them. The idea was to focus on the kind of writing each student did well. Some students wrote long stories or the beginnings of a novel!
Teachers can and should develop writing workshops for their students that they have created entirely their own way. I read dozens of book about teaching writing and attended many teacher conferences on how to teach students to write, but in the end the workshop needed to be something I created that fit my teaching style and the personalities and needs of my students.
More about teaching kids to write will come up frequently in my blog. Keep checking in!