Empowering Independence

One of the things I think most about this time of year is how can I empower students to be (more) independent in writing workshop.  What do I mean be independent? This is a crucial vision for us to develop as we head into a new school year. For a moment let’s suspend reality. Let’s ignore the fact that there will be children in our writing workshops who don’t want to be there, who lack confidence as writers, who will use every tactic in their arsenal to not write. Let’s just imagine what writing workshop would look like if it were utopia.

For me, I imagine students scattered around the room. Some in chairs, more on beanbags, a few on a couch, others underneath tables, and a handful on computers (or if I’m really suspending reality most on computers). Some are working in their writer’s notebooks, others are writing a first draft, some are revising, a couple are gathered together editing, and a few are giggling over someone’s latest book. They move as needed to the writing center, the bathroom, the pencil sharpener…yet there isn’t so much movement that it is distracting. Music quietly plays over the whispers of writers. And I am working one on one or with small groups listening to the work they are doing and helping them to do it better.

This is my goal each day…to help establish this kind of culture during writing workshop. It’s not something I can set in motion on the first day and then sit behind a big desk, checking email, and expect it to continue. It’s a constant work in progress and dare I say, an art to develop a community of independent writers.

In order to breath life into this kind of community, I consider how I can empower independence.  I think sometimes I want this community so badly, that I begin putting in rules or checkpoints with students. Check with me before you use the writing center….Ask me before you sharpen your pencil…Get more paper from me if you want to start something new…Show me your plan before you begin drafting…The list can go on and on.

Sometimes, I think the question needs to become: How can I avoid being a gatekeeper?

I strive for less of me and more of students during writing workshop. I desire for them to make their own choices as writers, not because they’ve checked in with me and I’ve given them permission to “move on,” but because they’ve decided this is the best course of action for them as writers. When I approach community development from this perspective, I end up with a list of possible minilessons as opposed to a list of rules.

Here are some possible minilessons I have tumbling in my mind to start the new school year. I won’t give every lesson in every classroom (and yet there are probably some lessons that will make their way into every workshop — no matter the age of the students or the experience of the teacher). Please add your ideas to this list in the comments section.

  • Writers make books.
  • Writers write what they know.
  • Ordinary stories are worthy.
  • Reread your book before you start the next day.
  • Reread your book when you aren’t sure what should go on the next page.
  • Reread your book when you finish drafting.
  • Writers add to the pictures.
  • Writers add to the words.
  • Writers use a writer’s notebook to gather ideas.
  • Writers get the supplies they need when they need it.
  • Writers are prepared before writing time (ie: go to the bathroom, use the pencil sharpener, find your writing folder).
  • Writers spend time not talking at the beginning of writing time.
  • Writers talk with others to figure out the next part of their book.
Okay… that’s enough for now. What ideas do you have?