Sharpen Your Workshop Routines: Writing Centers to Organize All Your Materials

writing center 2

In this classroom, a color-coded box holds the writing folders for each table. Around the corner are pencil cans: one for sharp, one for broken.

Every year, around this time, I start having dreams about setting up my classroom. In the classroom of my dreams, I’m moving around small circular tables, unfurling a brand new rug for the meeting area (the kind with the squares in bright colors), setting up a very large classroom library, and putting labels and color coded dots on just about everything in sight.

In these dreams, there are also lots, and lots of writing supplies: staplers, tape, notebooks, folders, post-it’s galore, flair pens, and regular pens, highlighter tape. In my back-to-school dreams I’m unpacking boxes of this stuff and placing it on shelves that seem custom built for holding all these things.

In real life, I had to push together mismatched desks to arrange seating in groups, buy a beat up old rug at a yard sale, and beg, borrow, and steal books to make a classroom library. But I knew what I WISHED for my classroom, and that made all the difference. I had a vision, and I scraped together what I could to make my hodgepodge of furniture and materials approximate the beautiful classrooms I had seen during school visits and in professional books.

Maybe this year you’ll be setting up the classroom of your dreams, or maybe, like the rest of us you’ll be dreaming about setting up such a place. Either way, there are a few things you can do to make ANY writing center a classroom-dream-come-true.

A PLACE FOR EVERYTHING AND EVERYTHING IN ITS PLACE

Writing centers are always fun to set up, because it doesn’t take a lot of fancy stuff to make a perfect, dream-come-true writing center. You just need a functional, practical place to store all the materials kids will need for writing workshop. This means a bookshelf of some kind, or maybe a repurposed teacher desk, or a table with a hutch or set of shelves on top.

Think about what materials your kids will actually use during daily writing time. Those are the only things that need to be available for kids in the writing center. The writing center is not where you need to store all your materials at once–it’s just the stuff kids will be using.  It will probably change as the year goes on. The rest can get stored in a closet. Here’s a list of the typical materials most K-5 classrooms would need available in the writing center at the start of the year:

1. Writing notebooks and/or folders. Most well-managed classrooms I’ve visited use one basket for each group of 4-5 kids, containing their notebooks and/or writing folders. Place these on an easy-access shelf so that you can assign one kid from each group to be the table captain to come and get the basket at the start of writing workshop each day.

2. Paper choices. Single sheets, plus pre-stapled booklets are a good idea. In K-2 the basic choices usually include a box for drawing, plus one or two lines, four or six lines, and ten or twelve lines. Usually three choices is plenty.

3. Post-it’s. When ordering supplies for your classrooms, or sending lists home for parents and caregivers, don’t skimp on the post-it’s! If you have plenty in supply, you won’t be tempted to be stingy with how kids use them during reading and writing.

4. Staplers and tape. You can mark the spots for the staplers and tape rolls with photographs or outlines of the tools, so kids (and adults) know exactly where they belong when they’re not in use.

5. Pens and/or pencils. First, see this post about the benefits of pens, versus pencils. Then decide where you will store things. A supply caddy for each group is a good idea. Table captains can pass out the caddies along with the baskets of writing folders. Keep the supply caddies right next to the baskets of folders on an easy-to-reach shelf.

6. Later in the year you you might introduce special revision pens in a different color, like purple or green. You might also cut strips of paper for kids to use as flaps, so that they can always make more room on a page for more writing.

It’s wise to mark everything VERY clearly, since the whole point is for kids to be able to get things from the writing center all by themlseves. You can use washi tape to mark off sections to show exactly where each item belongs, and you can label everything with very clear picture clues.

BABYPROOFING YOUR WRITING CENTER AND MATERIALS

Once you’ve figured out what materials you’re going to need for the start of your school year, you’ll also want to set the whole thing up in such a way that any kid, I mean ANY kid, in your class can get what he or she needs easily from the writing center–without messing the whole thing up.

It goes without saying the stacks of paper, just sitting on a shelf are not going to cut it whether you you teach five year olds or fifteen year olds. I recommend putting the stacks of paper in some kind of tray or drawer or basket, clearly labeled, preferably with a picture clue. This will keep your writing center nice and organized all year long.

Did I mention not put out any materials that kids aren’t going one using right away? This especially goes for paper choices. Why in the world would you need to put out paper for How-To books or poetry if you’re expecting all your kids to be writing personal narratives for the next six weeks? Putting out materials at the writing center is an invitation to use them!

FOSTER A LOVE OF WRITING SUPPLIES

I meant to say writing, a love of WRITING. But hey, a love of supplies is a step in the right direction. Many writers have written about the importance of finding the right notebook, the right pen, the perfect paper. I have fond, fond memories of school shopping with my mom. I still remember the smell of a new Trapper-Keeper and erasers shaped like fruit.

It doesn’t hurt to plan a few ways to help kids feel excited about the writing center. One way to build excitement is to keep the writing center closed for a day or two at the start of the year, promising kids you’ll open it up “when they are ready.” Then make a big to-do about opening it up to kids. Maybe tie a ribbon across it and have a ribbon cutting mini-ceremony, or keep it covered with fabric and do a big unveiling.

For more ideas for setting up your classroom, check out the other posts in our series, Sharpen Your Writing Routines. You can also join us for our Twitter chat on Monday, August 11 at 8:30pm EST. We’ll be using the hashtag #TWTBlog. Hope to see you there!

Let's have a conversation about sharpening workshop routines.

Let’s have a conversation about sharpening workshop routines.