Sometimes It Gets Messy

Sometimes writing workshop gets a little messy. At least it does for me. I think we are trucking along, working our way through a unit of study, learning as writers, preparing for a celebration and then — all of a sudden — it crashes. Sometimes it crashes and burns. And sometimes I just want to quit.

I’ve come to realize this is sometimes the nature of workshop teaching. We are focusing on the writers in the room and whenever our focus is on writers, things are bound to get a little messy. After all, writers are people. People are human. And humans tend to make messes.

So if you are standing in the middle of a mess of writing workshop, I’d like to say just breathe. Don’t give up. This work is too powerful to let a little mess stop you. Here are some of the things I do in the midst of the mess:

  • What is going well? Stop laughing. You know if you look hard enough, with the right set of lenses, you will see good. There are attempts at writing well. There are approximations to living as a writer. There are even golden lines hidden under the heap of words. Can you teach into these positives to move out of the mess?
  • If you had a magic wand, what one thing would you make go more smoothly? This is about procedures. Typically the mess is happening because a routine is weak. Finish this sentence: If everyone would just ______________. Then ask yourself (or the teacher next door or me in the comments) what kind of routine would empower students to just ___________.
  • Are there any misunderstandings? Sometimes young writers believe wacky things about writing. Sometimes they think the faster they write, the better. Other times they think writing lots (even nonsense) is the best. Are there misunderstandings about writing that are preventing workshop from running smoothly?
  • Are students stuck in a phase of the writing process? Sometimes young writers get hung up in the planning stage and keep coming up with ideas for writing, but never write. Sometimes they get stuck in the revision stage. You’ve seen this, they reread (and doodle) and cross out a word and add one word, but never really do anything significant (except waste time). How can you help them gain a sense of the big picture and move through the writing process (or cycle through the collect and draft, collect and draft part of the cycle)?
  • Do they know the purpose of their work? This may seem like a silly question, but do they know what they are making? If they are writing personal essay have they read personal essays? If they are collecting specific entries in their writer’s notebooks, do they understand how those entries will effect their drafts? Often when students lack a vision for their writing work, writing workshop takes a turn toward a mess.
  • Do they have energy for writing? It is inevitable that writing will be hard on some days. This is a truth of writing and something all writers experience. The thing that brings writers through is we believe in the writing work. We see ourselves as the kind of writers who can get through the tough spots. We have energy to write. If the writers in our workshops don’t have energy to write, then it’s important to help them gain it.
I’d love to hear from you. How do you work through the messy times in writing workshop? Or if you are in a mess, let us know and together (as a community of teachers) we can help find a solution. This workshop teaching isn’t for the feign of heart. That’s why I know a little mess isn’t going to stop you.