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The Secret Ingredient to Creating Engaged Writers

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I’ve been thinking about student engagement in writing workshop for the past couple of weeks.  I started thinking about it as I was reading Guy-Write, Ralph Fletcher’s new book.  My thoughts about engagement continued as I sat in Maggie Beattie Roberts’s class about technology and media at the summer Reading Institute.  Everything came to a head when I received a Tweet from UWKatie which said:

Looking for ideas to get middle schoolers engaged in ind. writing as part of workshop #RWworkshop #engchat @raisealithuman @chrislehmann

There isn’t one way to engage students in writing workshop.  In fact, it’s hard to know what the exact ingredients are in the recipe for creating a workshop full of engaged writers.  I know that some of the ingredients for making students engaged with writing is to give them choice.  Students who have the opportunity to make choices about the topics they write about will care more about their writing.  In addition, there are other choices teachers can give to writers, which can range from choice in the revision process to choice of materials to choices about the audience of a given piece of writing.  All of these choices honor students for the people they are.  (Our book, Day by Day, has an entire section about choice, which is one of the pillars of a strong writing workshop.)

Another ingredient for engaging writers is by understanding and infusing technology into the workshop.  In most schools, students are using technology in ways none of us could have imagined when we were kids.  Many kids are walking around with computers in their pockets (i.e., smart phones).  They’re using those phones to text, blog, Tweet, Facebook, and stay in touch with their friends.  Often, they’re not even talking on their phones!  Rather, they’re using their phones to read content and to communicate with others through writing.   Therefore, it’s incumbent upon teachers to not only understand the technology students use, but to figure out ways to integrate it into the classroom.   (As someone who taught in schools where students did not have their own computers, I realize that integrating technology can be costly and challenging.)

That brings me to the secret ingredient of creating engaged writers in the classroom.  I believe you have to know your students well.  Kids are different.  Therefore, every child will be engaged in writing in a different way.  Therefore, it’s up to teachers to get to know their students.  Some ways you can get to know your students are through literacy interviews, 1:1 conferring,  casual conversations, and even through focus groups. (By focus groups I mean anything from a lunchtime conversation to gathering students together to learn more about them by watching them as people.)

To get you started, I updated the writing interview I used to hand out to my students on the first day of school.  The responses I received on this type of questionnaire allowed me to assess who my students were as writers… not who they were as writers based on what their former classroom teacher had told me.   Reviewing a writing interview students submitted to me helped me to prepare for my first writing conference with them since it allowed me to know a bit more about them as writers.

I made the writing interview more 21st century friendly, asking students questions about both classroom writing and non-school related writing.  (In the past I only asked about school-related writing.  I’ve come to realize that kids are doing a lot of out of school writing, which needs to be honored if we’re going to engage with them as writers.)  If we show our students that we care about them and take a true interest in who they are as writers, then we are on our way to engaging them as writers.

If you’ve ever eaten a delectable chocolate soufflé, then you know it takes time to prepare.  One has to be patient as the soufflé rises in the oven.   Just as a soufflé takes time and patience to make it just right, it’s important to remember that it takes awhile to get to know writers well.  One questionnaire is not enough to engage students.  We have to work hard, in a variety of ways, to learn who students are so we can find exactly the right way to engage each student so they can become engaged as writers.

You can download the writing profile I created below.  Feel free to adapt it to your grade level.

Writing Profile

What are some ways that you’ve used to engage students as writers?  Please share your tips below.


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Stacey Shubitz View All

I am a literacy consultant who focuses on writing workshop. I've been working with K-6 teachers and students since 2009. Prior to that, I was a fourth and fifth-grade teacher in New York City and Rhode Island.

I'm the author of Craft Moves (Stenhouse Publishers, 2016) and the co-author of Jump Into Writing (Zaner-Bloser, 2021), Welcome to Writing Workshop (Stenhouse Publishers, 2019), and Day By Day (Stenhouse, 2010).

I live in Central Pennsylvania with my husband and children. In my free time, I enjoy swimming, doing Pilates, cooking, baking, making ice cream, and reading novels.

8 thoughts on “The Secret Ingredient to Creating Engaged Writers Leave a comment

  1. Good post, Stacey. Engagement is a tough topic, especially when you’re faced with the same classroom and students every day. As a performer who conducts one-day workshops in schools around the world I constantly get asked about engagement by teachers. Not having the benefit of student knowledge or lots of technology, I find that students get really engaged as soon as they have no fear of instant, negative feedback. I posted something on my blog about it today…


  2. I have been spending a lot of today going through professional books and blogs to collect ideas and inspiration for our new teachers. I love your interview questions, although we will have to change them a bit for our younger students. Thank you so much for all that you share. As the new writing specialist in our district, I will be sharing a lot of your ideas!


  3. I am curious about gardenlearning’s group projects for the beginning of the school year. Sounds intriguing! Im starting my kids with the “I Am From” poem “project”– something almost all my students do well given its simple and repetitive format. They also start infusing abstract ideas and metaphors into their writing without realizing it. Of course, it helps us all get to know eachother better. I teach a diverse group & it is a fabulous way to truly gain insight into their backgrounds and distinct cultures.


  4. Another way to engage students and get to know them right away is by setting up group projects the first week of school where all students can have success. They are doing something – making something. This sets them to talking and sharing. I can move from group to group listening, asking questions and connecting to what they did or experienced over the summer. It provides a causal way for talking. We then begin to write about our shared projects. I avoid the summer reflection since so many of my students will say they sat in front of a TV – many of them did.


  5. You’ve written about such an important idea–know your students well. It’s so essential, not only to encouraging writing, but learning in general. I think it’s easy to get caught up in the paperwork, the numbers, scores, etc. and too often we forget how much of our students’ success is based upon how much they think we care about them. Great ideas! I keep wanting to share everything I read on your blog. Thanks so much for your inspiring and encouraging posts!


  6. Engaging them on their terms in their time will help them take an interest in what a teacher is trying to teach them…thanks for the suggestions in the post-I think honoring that they have valuable ideas to add is so important!
    This post made me think of our local high school-they are doing a BYOD experiment this school year-students will be bringing their own devices to the building expected to use them for educational purposes! So exciting-can’t wait to see how this turns out. Stay tuned.


  7. I just want to thank you both…

    Over the summer, I took time to go back to the first days of your blog…I started in June 2007 and made my way to August 2012…I have been enjoying your blog for a few years now, but I wanted to take time to go through it slower…reread favorites, notice new things that I may have missed, find new books, and more. My “Day to Day” notebook is overflowing with inspiring words from you!

    Thank you.


  8. This is terrific, Stacey. I just wrote my post about waiting, what we are doing before the students arrive. There are loads of tasks, but until we start getting to know students, not much real planning can be done. Learning, yes, planning, no. One thing I did was ask my students to write me a letter (I called it their letter of experience) before school began. We have student/parent/teacher conferences before school begins, and I asked for those letters before the conference. I also asked parents to write about their children. It was my first look at the students, and a good beginning. Also, you should know, I wrote to the students first and this was their reply. Thanks for all your ideas, too.


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