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Establishing an Effective Writer's Workshop in the Classroom

written by: tstyles • edited by: Donna Cosmato • updated: 6/6/2012

The foundation of a good classroom writing program is one where children are involved in the writing process on a daily basis. Get tips for setting up an effective writer's workshop.

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    Building a Love of Writing

    Children don't need to learn writing through a series of grueling lessons on the technical aspects of the craft (i.e. grammar lessons and spelling units with a Friday test). That, in my mind, is a simple waste of time and detrimental to building an intrinsic love of writing. So much of traditional practices turn children away from the otherwise natural curiosities and desires they have in various areas. I say, if you want children who write in class then let them write, and let them write freely with support and guidance and modeling.

    The Ideal Workshop

    I suggest launching the idea of a writer's workshop by using the resource Look at My Book by Loreen Leedy. Once that is done teachers must do the hardest thing of all, inform the children that it is time to start writing. I always approach this with wonder. Who will actually go off and write and who won't have a clue what to do? Will they all stay committed to the task? What types of projects will they do? Who will they sit with? Is three working on one project too many? So many questions keep me wondering, but I realize writers workshop, after it is introduced, is something teachers simply have to jump into. Once you start to observe the children in action all your questions become answered and from there you get a bunch of ideas for mini lessons and you arrive at realizations about who is going to need more support than others when writing on their own.

    Starting the Workshop

    Introduce an editing form with simple symbols for marking miscues and model how to use it to edit. I use a form with five miscue symbols for spelling, punctuation, capitalization, missing words, and sentence sense. I use a mini lesson to teach how to use the checklist and then assign peer editors and list them on a chart. Before a draft comes to me they have to mark the first column of the editing sheet and have their peer editor mark the other column after having checked their buddy's story. Only then will I see their drafts.

    Let children work together. Some children will write stories on their own and others will want to be with someone for the fun of sharing a story or for the support of a friend in developing a story. In previous classes I had children working together on a script, which they wrote out together and then eventually performed.

    Let children know it's okay to start a project, put it aside for another one and get back to it later or maybe never get back to it. Not all ideas will lead to a published work.

    Circulate and tell children when you ask the question during writer's workshop "Where are you in the writing process right now?" they should be able to answer. If they can't, then they're not using the time wisely.

    Let your observations guide your mini lessons. If you overhear children talking about one of their characters being a fat, retarded kid you may want to have a mini lesson on writing appropriate content. If you edit five papers where book titles were used and not underlined then it's time to have a mini lesson on that. If a group you noticed has been working on a story for five weeks and are still in draft form have a mini lesson about time management.

    Don't worry about noise. Children who want quiet time to brainstorm alone or write alone will ask for a special place to go if it's too noisy, in my experience. Children need to be able to share ideas, edit together, write together, laugh together, research together. A teacher who wants it totally quiet during writing time is more interested in having control than hosting a class with excited, enthusiastic writers. Noise is good in the elementary classroom, much to the disagreement of many.

    Have a list of writing ideas posted. I have a big piece of chart paper on the wall with ideas for writing that I add to. I brainstorm this list with children in the beginning days of school. Some projects children might consider include: journals, comics, research, biographies, articles, genre fiction, newsletters, friendly letters....then children who are stumped can be led to read the list for ideas. I never give story starters because I think it stifles creativity to some degree.

    With these suggestions teachers can create a great writing time that children will love to start and hate to finish each day. That should speak for itself.

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    Teaching Grammar

    Yes, grammar has its place and whereas I am concerned it is in the context of real writing. In some places grammar may still be taught as its own subject, working from the parts to the whole context, often incorporating contrived writing assignments to suit a particular skill. This is not how grammar is addressed in writer's workshop.

    In writers workshop teachers analyze student writings to find out what the need is in order to push individual writers to new heights. In many cases while conferencing and editing student work it becomes apparent that a large number of students have the same misconceptions about a particular area, for instance, how to use quotations, or underlining the titles of books. In these cases a ten minute mini lesson prior to the writer's workshop session can address these issues.

    Sometimes I'll teach these whole group technical components in isolation, putting sample sentences on the board and modeling how to use the skill I want to teach. Other times I'll write a story for the class while they watch (remember writing for children while they watch is important to do) and leave various mistakes that reflect student need. For instance, if many of the children are spelling "I'm" as "i'm" I will make that mistake in my writing and when we edit the piece some student will point it out and I will teach the rule to the class.

    Mini lessons and model writing times are great opportunities for teachers to highlight various literary tools including, use of descriptive words, metaphors, synonyms, and a variety of other usage rules. Of course, children will need repeated exposure to various concepts before incorporating them into their own writing. As far as introducing terms such as pronouns, adverbs, adjectives, nouns....these formal terms can be introduced as you proceed through mini lessons and when used regularly in class and casual conversation children will internalize them better.

    It makes sense, as a writer, that grammar be taught this way. After all, writers write and later deal with editing and revision. We don't edit and then write. How could we? On top of it, I can say from personal experience that I grew more with the technical end of writing by having my work edited and doing lots of reading by great and inspiring authors. It wasn't by attending a grammar class.

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    Using a Thesaurus

    Built into the Writer's Workshop has to be a mini-lesson component. Every day prior to the independent writing session, the teacher leads the class in some sort of teaching about writing, whether it be on the technical side, or simply modeling a story.

    At the fifth grade level, a teacher should make one of those mini lessons focus on the use of the thesaurus. At this level, children need to start going beyond generic word use to become more sophisticated writers. I model this in my guided writing but also teach the use of the thesaurus in a more technical sense.

    I make sure, first, that all children have a thesaurus on hand prior to my lesson. I provide each child with a single word to research using the thesaurus.

    Some good examples of words to have children research the synonyms to are: tired, good, bad, ugly, nice, happy, sad....these words when used consistently in their writing paint vague pictures and are generally dull. As children begin to realize alternatives to these words new doors will open for them.

    On a piece of loose leaf paper, I have each child research his word and write down all the possible word choices that go along with it that are listed in the thesaurus. After the ten minute session is over, the children share their words and the synonyms that go with that word.

    I then collect each paper and bind them together into a class resource book, so that whenever the children are looking for alternative word choices for those given words, they can refer to the class book. As you do this activity throughout the year, the resource book will get thicker.

    In addition, the students will begin to naturally start using the thesaurus when they are looking for more interesting words in their writing.

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    Word Lists

    It's important for some children to have direction during their writing times, and even for those who are avid writers with tons of ideas word lists go along way to supporting their efforts. Typically I complete word lists with the whole group as a mini lesson prior to a Writer's Workshop period. Word lists are important because they provide children with the spellings of key words that they may use while completing a writing project related to a theme or a particular season. As well, various words may serve as a catalyst to creating a great story.

    Gather the children as a whole group and tell them that you want to create a list of words that will suit, Halloween time, for example. Tell them that during Writer's Workshop they may want to work on a story related to Halloween because it's that time of year. Ask them to think about what words they might use in a story related to Halloween? Also, remind them that their words can relate to the season during which Halloween falls to ensure you get seasonal words as well. Some children may simply want to do a seasonal story. Go around the room choosing children one at a time to share their words. As they share, add their words to a large piece of chart paper that can be displayed prominently in the class for children to refer to later.

    Examples of words children may suggest may include witches, pumpkins, graveyard, leaves, goblins, monsters....If children suggest a word like "bat" I may tell them it was a good suggestion but that because most of the children can spell the word "bat" I'm going to leave it off the list. The finished list should ideally include words children may use, but may also spell wrong in their writing. The completed list is a reference, and that is the point that should be highlighted in discussion.

    Teachers should make theme lists often for all occasions, including science themes, holidays, seasons, etc. To model the use of the word lists I will usually write a story during a modeling time specifically geared toward the theme so I can use some of the words on the list.

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    Iintegrating Workshop into the Rest of the Curriculum

    Integrating the curriculum should be a goal of every elementary school teacher. That means content areas like Science, Social Studies, and Religion can be taught in the context of reading, writing and math.

    With the Writers Workshop program teachers constantly have to teach brainstorming methods, model writing, and introduce new writing formats. The curricular areas provide a rich opportunity to teach these things.

    As part of a unit on ecosystems children should be given the chance to visit a nature preserve or environmental center. In the past, I have taken my children to study ponds, and part of their learning was distinguishing a new pond from an old pond. This provided a great foundation for having the children write a compare/contrast piece.

    I set the stage by setting up a Venn Diagram, which is two intersecting circles, with "new pond" labeled on one side and "old pond" labeled on the other. Of course, the middle section is reserved for notes about how both types of ponds are alike. In whole group fashion I go around the room and ask the students to add to the Venn Diagram, making sure they specify which part of the Venn Diagram I should add the information to. Once we have several details added to the Venn Diagram I tell them I want them to write a first draft of a piece that illustrates four things that new ponds and old ponds share in common, and four things that make them different from each other. I tell them that I want an introduction to the piece, two middle paragraphs (comparing/contrasting), and a conclusion. I let them know that this is a project they can work on during Writers Workshop, at home, or during Science, if appropriate. Since this is a class assignment the teacher will either have to assign a deadline or come up with a deadline with the student's help.

    Once the first drafts are done the teacher will provide assistance editing and revising like he would during any regular Writers Workshop session. The final product can be put on display or saved as a portfolio piece.

    Making writing relevant is an important job of the elementary teacher. A good way to make writing meaningful is by connecting it other areas of study. These opportunities to write are valuable and they likewise give children a chance to rethink what they have been actively studying.

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    Managing Workshop

    The biggest challenge I find in implementing a daily writers workshop is keeping track of what every child is doing from day to day. I emphasize to children that as writers their goal is always publication of material, but that they will not reach that end with every piece they write. Their folders at any given time will contain writing samples that have been placed to the side and writing pieces they went on to publish. In essence, a teacher in this context cannot bank on what a given child will be doing one day to the next. If Johnny is writing a rough draft one day and seems to be sitting in a corner thinking the next day,I might discover by asking that he has put the previous day's work aside because he was struck with a tantalizing new idea. On the other hand, a teacher may see Johnny seemingly trapped in a brainstorm session for days on end, which could signal intentional or unintentional writers block.

    In order to bring more student control over their place in the writing process at any given moment I devised a simple bulletin board that contains the heading for each part of the writing process. Brainstorming, First Draft, Editing, Revision, Final Draft, and Publication. On sentence strips I wrote each child's name and on the first day asked where in the writing process they would be for that particular day. I then placed each name under the specified heading, creating columns of names under each heading. I told the children that each day it was their job to move their name in the column that best matched where they were in the writing process for that day. That way, on any given day I can look on the board and find out where any child is, or is supposed to be, in the writing process. Likewise, if a particular child is showing up under the same heading day after day I know it's time to conference with him to talk about time management.

    I like the bulletin board because children have to take responsibility for where they are each day and by looking at where they have placed themselves on the board I can hold them to it.

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    I hope these tips and ideas have energized your writers workshop. Let us know what you've tried in your classroom by commenting below!

References

  • Look at My Book by Loreen Leedy