At the beginning of each new academic year, students will exclaim, during our Writer’s Workshop introduction, how much they hate writing. “I hate writing and I will never like it,” students are often heard saying during that first week of classes. By the end of the year though, those same students can’t stop writing because they have grown to enjoy it so much. The Writer’s Workshop approach to the teaching of writing provides students with freedom and choice. They can write whatever they want based on a broad topic. At the start of the year, we introduce students to the personal narrative style of writing and have them craft a personal narrative piece. It can be fiction or truth, they get to decide. It can tell the story of literally anything. We want our students to play with writing and words so that they learn to see the fun that can be had while writing. As most of our students have never experienced this style of writing instruction, they are usually so excited that they are able to choose what they write about. It’s not that our students ever hated writing, they were just never provided opportunities to see how much fun writing can truly be.
Today in Humanities class, the students had one final Writer’s Workshop block to work on their most current writing piece. Throughout our unit on Africa, we had the students begin working on three different writing pieces based on our mini-lessons. From those three pieces, they chose their very favorite to finish and bring through the writing process. We’ve spent this whole week working on this process in Writer’s Workshop, and today was the final chance for students to receive feedback from their peers and teachers. While a few students had already finished their piece prior to today, most students had not. Those students who had finished, spent the period reading or completing other work. They were focused on the task at hand while the other students polished their Africa writing piece. Some of the boys sought feedback from their peers while my co-teacher and I conferenced with the others. It was so great to have one-on-one conferences with each of the students. I asked them what kind of feedback they were looking for. “What do you want me to look for while I’m reading your piece? What kind of feedback would you like?” I would ask them at the start of the conference. I then asked them, “How would you like me to provide you with this feedback? Shall I comment in your Google Doc, tell you the feedback orally, or write my suggestions at the end of your piece? What method will work best for you?” I want to make sure that I am tailoring the conference to meet the needs of my students. Every student was looking for something different. Some students wanted me to help them with their grammar while others wanted me to be sure they used enough details from our mini-lessons in their piece. These conferences were so individual and unique. It offered me the chance to praise my students, notice their growth as writers, and provide them meaningful feedback to help them grow and develop as writers. During these conferences, the other students were focused and diligently working on making their pieces even better so that they could exceed each of the three graded objectives. It was an amazing period filled with beautiful writing, excellent questions, quality feedback, and hard work. I was so impressed with my students. They continue to amaze me on a daily basis.
Now, getting the students to the point at which we are currently in the classroom takes much time. Our first few Writer’s Workshop blocks are filled with learning opportunities. Some students write for about 10 minutes and then move onto another task. Helping the boys learn to develop their stamina as writers takes time. During our first go-round at peer editing, the students give and receive very little feedback that is at all useful. They focus on the font size or color. They don’t analyze the writing to see that adding more depth to the character would help move the story forward faster. All of these little details about writing and what an effective Writer’s Workshop should look like takes much time and effort. We do much modelling for the students on how to provide quality feedback, utilize feedback provided by others, stay focused on writing for long periods of time, self-edit and revise their own work, and generate writing ideas. After several months of mini-lessons and practice, the students get to the point that we were able to witness first hand today in the classroom. The students know what to do and how to do it and so they just do it. They write, edit, peer edit, revise, conference, talk about writing, and really work to make their writing stronger and more detailed.
Observing an effective Writer’s Workshop in action is quite the amazing sight. It almost feels like you are in a tiny cafe in a city where writers sit and work all day, drinking coffee, writing, and talking about writing. Fostering this love of writing and care for others takes much time and energy but is so worth it. Because I am able to meet with every student and not worry about what the others are doing as I know they are focused and on track, I am able to differentiate my instruction to meet the needs of each individual student. I make sure to pay extra close attention to grammar when I am conferencing with my ESL students. I also do some teaching during these conferences too as I notice recurring mistakes. For my more advanced writers, I focus on the nuances of writing like plot holes, character development, and setting. I challenge those authors to focus on revising the bigger parts of their writing. These conferences provide me this time to really focus my instruction for each student so that I can be sure they are prepared for the rigors of seventh grade English.
Using the Writer’s Workshop method to teach writing has not only made me a better teacher, but it has helped my students learn to find the enjoyment in writing. By June, my students love writing and enjoy talking to their peers about it. This method of instruction also allows me to make sure that my students are accurately applying the skills discussed and practiced during our mini-lessons. Differentiating the instruction is crucial to helping students be and feel successful, and Writer’s Workshop is one easy way to create opportunities to do just that in the classroom.