procedures · process · routines · writing process · writing workshop

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.

7 thoughts on “Sometimes It Gets Messy

  1. I read all the time and never comment but I have to thank you for this post, it was so perfectly timed and I’m glad I’m not the only one. It was exactly what I needed to hear today. 😉


  2. @ Karen – I have a chart on the wall with the writing process. Each student has a card and they are to place the card where they are in the writing process. I then can see where my mini-lesson should go. I had a lot of students say they were “finished”, but I knew they weren’t.

    Here’s an example:
    What I did was say everyone needs to stop and listen. We are going to work on Introductions that grab. I teach the mini-lesson and then I say “Everyone is going to write a new introduction. You may like the one you have already written, but at least try a new way of writing an introduction.” After doing that, students could go back to where they were in the writing process. I did mini-lessons along the way. It took longer, but I feel that it was more successful.

    Thanks Ruth for all of the thoughtful responses!

    I struggle with the noise level. I do have three symbols that the students can see on the board.
    A green go sign – whisper talk
    A clown sign – talking too loudly – warning
    A stop sign – no talking or conferencing.

    It works but I have to be consistent.


  3. Great Questions! Great thoughts! Perfect topic for today.
    I could see myself in so many areas of this post. Some questions I already ask, others I need to add to my mantra.

    The one thing I do now that was not on the list is, double check to make sure I have Pandora music playing in the background. It helps the children but does something inside of me too!


  4. I KNOW you peeked in my room today. I teach 4 fifth grade classes of (thankfully) 20 students each. They have never worked in the workshop model before this year. I did routines for weeks-now I want to get more into craft and some kids are ready to publish and I haven’t done this routine yet. I find myself repeating to each one what that process involves. Even when I did a mini lesson about- it was if the kids who weren’t ready didn’t t hear it. So then I tried gathering a small group but I am still spinning. I didn’t want to stall those that were ready because it served as a motivator for others. How do you handle writers at so many different stages?


  5. Oh my gosh, Ruth, it was like you were right here in my second grade class with me. Thank you for this post. I am going to print this out and put it in my journal so I can think and write about it. I need some quiet time to think about this…recess duty, outside supervision, meetings…these times don’t lend to meaningful reflection for me! 🙂 Thank you for asking the right questions!


  6. Great questions, and helpful follow up questions to help tell what’s really going on. So, I have a little mess to ask: I am teaching a blog class to middle school aged students and we are up and running. I have introduced the slice of life idea, shown loads of examples, talked about writing ‘little’ instead of ‘big’, and we’ve practiced. There are nine students, and there are one or two that seemed to have embraced the idea of almost daily posts, talking with a true voice, etc. The rest are meeting the assignment expectation, but I’d love to see more jumping in, trying out new things, etc. We meet twice a week. One thing I am going to try next time is to have them help me make a list of what’s working and what’ not in their lives, about the blogging. Perhaps all together we can make more happen. I’ll see. Thanks for asking Ruth! I will share your questions with the teachers I work with!


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