In high school, almost every English class I took utilized the same format for writing instruction. Every student in the class completed the same assignment at the same time. If it was a creative story, then everyone was writing the same style of creative fiction. If it was an essay, everybody used the same prompt or guiding question when crafting their essay. There was no choice involved. While the teacher did meander throughout the room while we worked in class, he or she generally provided us all the same feedback as we were all writing almost identical pieces because of the format and setup of the assignment. I was bored to tears. Then, in my senior year, I took a creative writing class that was very individualized. The teacher allowed each student to write about what intrigued or interested him or her in any format or style. Some students wrote poems while others crafted stories. Not only did my craft as a writer grow over the course of that year, but my enjoyment and love of writing also grew exponentially because I could write about what I really wanted to write about. It was awesome. Had my previous teachers taught using this same model, perhaps I would have grown even more as a writer.
As students need to be engaged with what they are learning about or doing in order for meaningful learning to take place, we use the workshop model of literacy instruction in the sixth grade. Students choose topics to write about as well as books that interest them. It’s been highly successful for our students over the four years that we’ve been utilizing this model. Our students grow as writers and readers at a rapid pace throughout the year. But more importantly, those students who begin the year disliking writing or reading, generally grow to enjoy it by the close of the academic year.
Today in Humanities class, the students participated in Writer’s Workshop as they chose a writing piece to bring through the writing process that they will then use to share aloud with the class and their parents during my school’s Parents’ Weekend beginning on Friday. They had the ability to choose any piece they had not already been graded or assessed on. If none of their current pieces tickled their fancy, they could also craft a new piece to use for this assignment. While this choice would require more effort and energy, it was certainly an option. My co-teacher and I were surprised by how many students chose this path to solving the problem. Many of the boys seemed very excited about their new ideas.
They spent the double-block period writing, revising, editing, and peer editing their piece. Only a few of the students finished the writing phase in class, and so, most of the boys spent the entire class working on bringing their piece to a close. None of the students seemed disinterested in the task at hand. They were all deeply engaged in their writing. They were enjoying the freedom of choice that the Writer’s Workshop model of writing instruction allows.
While the boys worked, my co-teacher and I had a chance to challenge and support them. We began by simply observing them as they got started so that we would not be a distraction. As they began working, some of the students needed assistance or affirmation. We helped those who needed it. One student wondered if his story idea would be appropriate for an audience. He explained his basic idea to me. It was quite creative and very appropriate. I think this boy just wanted to know that he was on the right track. He often second-guesses himself when working. He just needed affirmation that he was on the right track.
Then, as we got deeper into the period, I had a chance to read over the work the boys had completed and provide them with feedback. One student challenged himself by crafting a new poem; however, he chose a format we had already used this year, which included much repetition and very little original thinking. So, I shared some examples of different kinds of poems with him and suggested he challenge himself a bit more. He took me up on the offer and wrote a whole new poem that was very different and showcased his growth as a writer. Some students need guidance and reminders like this to grow and develop.
At the close of the period, we allowed those interested students to share a few lines or sentences from their pieces. Almost every student raised his hand to volunteer. They were all so proud of their work. As the boys read their pieces allowed, a positive energy of camaraderie was created. The boys supported each other and laughed at the funny parts. It was great to see a community of writers being formed in the sixth grade today in class.
The boys were engaged in writing and revising their pieces because they were permitted to choose their topic and form. They were not bound to any formula or restricted from any genre of writing. They were able to just write, create, work, and have fun. The Writer’s Workshop model of writing instruction creates an atmosphere of freedom and empowerment within the students. They are in control with minor oversight from the teachers. We act as the critics, offering feedback and suggestions. We don’t tell them what to do or how to do it, we merely help them understand how to do it. They do the work while we guide them. If we didn’t utilize this model of writing instruction in the classroom, we worry that the students wouldn’t be engaged and, therefore, would not grow as writers over the course of the year. We want our boys to see the value and fun of writing so that they want to develop themselves as writers and thinkers.