Thanks so much for stopping by and checking in with our Back to School series. So far, I’ve shared some time saving tips and tricks for the structure of workshop including how to manage time in your mini-lessons. If you are just tuning in, make sure to check out the first post in the series: Launching Writing Workshop Part 1.
So I have a confession to make… early in my teaching career, and for a long time, I worried about teaching writing. I wasn’t a confident writer myself, and I struggled with how to teach writing. I must admit that back then I assigned my students thematic writing topics. I even created journal prompts for them to use as a scaffold, thinking foolishly that if I let them pull the topic out of the journal jar they would feel empowered to write. Right? Wrong!
What I noticed was, my classroom was not a productive happy place during writing. Therefore, I absolutely dreaded teaching writing. Enter… there had to be a better way. Fortunately, I stumbled across Debbie Miller and the Lucy Calkins writing curriculum and it was a literacy teaching game-changer for me.
I set out on a mission to change the look, and feel of my classroom and the results were simply miraculous. Not only did we become a happy, supportive community of learners, but, I began to see a shift in three very significant and interconnected things: student confidence, student learning behaviors and student improvement. Looking back, I recognized 3 big areas that impacted student learning and achievement: time, tone, and talk. Last week we discussed time and today I want move on to the next big area, tone, more specifically structuring independence.
Calkins was really on to something when she made the following assertions:
- Writing instruction should foster life-long writers.
- Teach the writer, not the writing.
- Writers learn to write by writing.
- People teach people to write, not programs.
- Writing instruction should address the writing process shifting emphasis from the finished product to what the writers think and do as they write.
- Writing should not be seen as stage-bound but a linear, recursive process.
- Teachers, not a program, must be the foundation for building a community of writers.
Have you ever entered a workshop classroom and noticed the tone? There’s an energy about it that’s unmistakable, a happy, productive hum. Here, students are empowered to make all types of decisions like choice in paper, time and topic. It’s quite a heady mix of terror and liberation all rolled into one. But, with the right amount of planning and forethought the results are amazing. Lucy reminds us by keeping the workshop structure simple and predictable it frees the teacher from choreographing students every move. And let’s face it, writing is tricky to teach because it’s a careful balancing act of several skills. So keeping structures predictable and simple allows for the work that is so unpredictable and sophisticated.
Calkins reminds us, students invest themselves in writing when they have the opportunity to choose to write about topics that are important to them and to write readers who matter. The writing center supports students in developing choice and independence which are both integral in setting the tone in workshop.
The Writing Center
While there are a lot of pretty pictures of writing centers on Pinterest don’t be fooled… the writing center is NOT where students go to write. The writing center is the engine of your writing workshop. There’s no right or wrong way to set it up as long as it has the essentials.
The Writing Center Essential Materials
So what are the essentials? Here’s some of my tried and true writing center resources. Be sure to include the following in a primary classroom:
- Lots of varied paper choices
- colored pencils
- Flair tip pens
- writing folders
- individual word walls for reference
- anchor charts for reference
- hole punch
- spelling dictionaries
- colored pens for editing
- revision strips or flaps
- revision tape
- editing checklists
- In an intermediate classroom be sure to include the same materials as listed above, but also provide individual students with a composition book or writing notebook.
These resources will be where they start flash drafts of writing pieces that they will later expand and develop. Generally, these are not housed in a writing center, but are easily accessible to students. The intermediate classroom writing center may include reference material like dictionaries or thesauri along with other content area related reference materials when appropriate.
A writing center can be set up on a bookshelf, a desk, a rolling cart, community bins, or table. It doesn’t matter as long as it works for you and your students. I know some of you might disagree with me about the use pens vs. pencils for students in writing workshop so please allow me to birdwalk.
- Pens allow me to see what students are doing in writing. When I can track students writing progress, and see their tangles, I have valuable information to teach into. When students are provided pencils I often lose this valuable data. Pens illuminate what steps I might take moving forward with students and give traction to my teaching simply by providing me a history of their progress that can’t be erased not to mention this one strategy stops writing procrastinators and perfectionists in their tracks! No more erasing and re-erasing.
FYI- I love the Flair type pen ( for more information about it click here). It glides across the paper and helps students move towards increasing stamina and volume. And the best part, it rarely smudges even in the hands of emerging writers.
Paper- A Differentiation Tool
While I am birdwalking, here are some personal thoughts about paper choice.
- Variety of paper supports kids writing in different text types acting in some ways like a graphic organizer of sorts. Provide paper in portrait and horizontal formats with varying numbers of lines. By differentiating paper choice you are scaffolding students by allowing them to use paper that is suited to where they are at that given point in their writing development and will help them become the best writer they can be.
- Revision strips: keep half sheets of blank and lined paper in the writing center for students to add additional parts (flaps) to their writing when revising. This eliminates the need for students to erase or start over and allows them to be more productive with their writing time. This is all a part of the revising and editing process students will come to use and understand.
I am a huge believer in providing children a variety of paper choices So much so I created several grade level and text type specific papers as products for TpT. You can check them out in my Teachers Pay Teachers store by clicking here.
I’m an advocate of planning with the end in mind. At the end of each unit of study you will want to clear out a student’s writing folder and ready it for the new writing they will be doing in their next unit. I suggest some type of portfolio system to house student work that can be accessed to show student growth and change over time.
This is also an excellent tool to bring to student study meetings, articulation meetings, and to have for parent conferences. Developing a system to support long-term storage of student writing is always helpful.
Independence and Resilience
Teach students the procedures from day one in workshop that support independence when using materials. Teach them how to get their writing folders and how to use them, how to distribute and collect materials, as well as the use and care of their writing supplies. Teach them what to do when they encounter a predictable problem such as a pencil breaking, not knowing how to spell a word or what to do when they think they’re finished writing a piece.
This is an incredibly valuable part of writing workshop as it frees you the teacher from orchestrating their every move and provides you the opportunity to meet and confer with individuals and groups of students. These routines and procedures will need to be modeled and explicitly taught over and over again.
So there we have it, part two in the Back To School Series about launching writing workshop in your classroom. I hope you stay tuned for the last post in the series next week where we'll talk all about talk.
As always, if you have any questions about writing workshop I'd love to answer them, please ask away in the comments below. Any questions on tone from this week's post, time from last week's post or thoughts on other writing workshop information you’d like to see me elaborate on? What about tips on how you establish tone in your writing workshop or how you create your writing center?!? I’d love to hear from you!
I hope you are all enjoying your last few weeks of summer and thanks for stopping by!