community · procedures

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?

7 thoughts on “Empowering Independence

  1. I like the word “stuff.” Thanks for the explanation. I get kind of crazy about people seeing themselves as writers, too. I direct a writing project site and feel so moved when teachers going through summer institute begin to see themselves as writers. And then I feel sad that they’ve been in classrooms with that perception of themselves. How can they help students see themselves as writers when the teachers’ view is limited? I appreciate your site. It always makes me think. Thanks.


  2. I like your idea about creating independence, too. It is just so easy to become the person students depend on to make their writing choices and decisions for them. One thing I wonder, though, has to do with the first statement: “Writers make books.” Does this suggest that if you don’t make a book, you aren’t a writer? I don’t think you mean it as a restrictive characteristic, probably more as a goal for your class. But it makes me wonder about something I’ve noticed. I have taught junior high and high school students; now I teach adults. It surprises me how many say they are not writers because they think they have to have written a book or published fiction to be considered a writer, as though that is the only definition of writer they consider valid. Or they produce texts for classes but don’t consider that making them a writer (talk about a lack of independence–they barely write outside of assigned writing tasks). Can writers make letters to friends or to people in public places? Can writers make poems that stand alone? Can writers be people who blog? I understand wanting publication as a goal, but I wonder about “books” as the signifier. Maybe “writers create texts like those they see in the world around them”? Or “writers create texts that do things: tell stories, change minds, scare people, share emotions, explain how things work, . . . “? Just wondering how I can create my own list that moves older students to see themselves as independent writers. Any suggestions?


    1. @debbiedean1204 — I wondered if anyone was going to ask about “the book” statement. This morning when I was writing the post I was in a bit of a rush & I had three kids all wanting my attention. The list is incomplete. The minilesson “Writers make books” is for primary students early in the year to prevent their writing to focus only on story. By inviting children to make books, the door is flung open to many possibilities, as opposed to the very limited “write a story” (which is often the invitation in primary grades). It isn’t a lesson I use with older students. With them I say “Writers make stuff” and then ask them to make the chart with all the possibilities of “stuff” writers make. (I know some cringe at the term “stuff” — but since kids always know what I’m talking about I continue to use it). Intermediate and middle school (& even some high school) writers tend to get a glazed look if I use the word “text.” Asking “What possibilities of kinds of texts can you create” tends to be a damper on the conversation. “What kind of stuff do writers make” usually leads to a rich conversation.

      Even in primary grades I introduce letters early on and add some “letter paper” to the writing center to help scaffold these new writers. I also advocate for classroom blogs & Twitter feeds, giving even our youngest writers a well-rounded view of what it means to be a writer.

      Although I don’t think of myself as a loud person, when it comes to what makes a writer, I tend to get animated & a little crazy — If you develop the habit of writing, you are a writer. Having your name on the front of a book isn’t what makes someone a writer.

      As always thanks for your comment & giving me a chance to say the things I wanted to this morning, but didn’t have the time.


  3. I love this post, as well as your possible topics. The concept of whether or not the teacher is a gatekeeper is a good thought to ponder for all workshop teachers.

    One of the other most important start of the year mini lessons that I emphasize is: Writers read like writers (or learn from other writers).


  4. I like what you say about eliminating those checkpoints that we use when we start doubting ourselves, especially about the progress children make during writer’s workshop. I am amazed at how quiet this progress/growth is until a child reveals a thought, a plan, or an idea they’ve been percolating in their brains and can now verbalize. Then, I reaffirm the value of a workshop approach. The challenge is to be patient and trust the process.


  5. I have the opportunity this year for the first time to teach writing all day. The problem, it is broken into 51 minute periods! But I too am creating a vision of what our writing class will be. My middle school writers come to me most with a vision of not being successful in writing, so creating this new environment, where we thrive, not compete is so critical. I think it is more important than ever to build community and establish a place for expression in this critical age. Thanks for giving me some more to consider as I work on my own projects right now.
    We have the opportunity to have technology in our hand, hence the title of the class Writing in my Hand. Students will have access either to iPods or laptops daily, and we are so excited to see where that might lead.
    Some questions to consider for our project
    What is your digital footprint?
    What responsibilities do you have both in creating and participating in an on-line community?
    How will we support this technology?
    What does it mean to our traditional writer’s notebook? I truly believe we still need pen and paper, particularly since they don’t have access to the technology at home, but how do we integrate the two? I don’t want students simply copying what they wrote at home in class…
    the thoughts continue.


  6. I like the list, and agree that it should be deliberate teaching (the mini lessons) to aid in your goal of independence, not just assume that students know these things. I would add ‘writers gather resources needed before writing’ and ‘writers make appointments with the teacher for a conference when needed’. I know that we all work with students through the workshop, but I’d like students to ask for one, too, with questions about some part of their writing.


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