Reflections on writing workshop: Sometimes when they say they’re “done” they’re really done


copyright: Bill Watterson – Calvin and Hobbes

This is pretty much how Josh felt when I pulled my conferring stool up next to his desk yesterday and asked, “So, how’s it going?”  He had been working on his memoir for the past week, and making very slow progress.  Most of our writing workshop class were revising for the last time and getting ready to publish their writing pieces , but Josh was still struggling with his first draft.  In fact, Josh has struggled in Writing Workshop ever since we began the school year.
He was pretty upfront about his attitude  in his writing survey – “I hate writing” – so I knew that my work with him this year would focus on developing a more positive view about the writing process.  The early days showed promise – he responded to mentor texts, and shared experiences as we filled in our heart maps and writing lists.  His early Writer’s Notebook entries were brief, and when  the time came to choose a piece to develop into a memoir he had a difficult time choosing something to write about. When the class  shared their topic selections, Josh was the only one less than enthusiastic about the prospect.
I have each of my students write a purpose statement before they begin a writing piece: “I am writing about……; I want my reader to know…….”  I feel that this allows my kids to keep track of their topic, and helps me in the conferring process: are they staying on course? veering off-track?  Josh shifted his focus quite a few times, changing his purpose statement to reflect his new story line four times.  By Friday, his writing piece had a sustained focus…but little else to speak for it as an interesting piece of writing.
We scanned his yellow writing pad together, and I noticed how many times he had begun sentences only to put a line through them.  I noticed the post its with sketches and webs filled out – vestiges of our conferences through the past two weeks, as I tried this and that technique to expand scenes, describe them, lend voice to his writing.  My question still hung in the air and Josh was ready, finally, to respond: “I think I’m done, Mrs. Smith.”  I realized that, actually, he was.    There was no more that we could do with this particular piece, Josh needed to move on as a writer.  True, there were many things I could suggest to make this a better memoir, but Josh was simply done – it was time to move on.

So, I restrained my instincts to push, and nudge some more, and reflected on what I noticed in the piece before me, Josh had made progress in:

  • punctuating dialogue
  • creating paragraphs
  • choosing more specific nouns and verbs

And…we have the rest of the year to accomplish the rest .
Josh was so relieved to hear that come Monday he could begin to type up his piece! As I moved on to the next student on my conferring list I thought back to my early days of teaching writing workshop.  Then, I think I wore my kids down with revision.  I felt that I had failed as a writing teacher unless I had squeezed every bit of “improvement” out of a student’s writing.  Now, I know that you can only go so far with a particular piece of writing.  Goodness knows that I have begun many a writing project of my own that has fizzled out.  I learned something new with each effort, but not every effort was “finished.” Likewise, my kids move forward a bit with each piece of writing they tackle.  Some will be much better than others, and some they will feel strongly enough about to happily revise many times until they feel it is truly “done”.

But, sometimes, when they say they are done…they’re really done!