Creating Classroom Environments: Setting up for the middle school writing workshop.

writing folders

Teaching writing workshop at the middle school level can be an extraordinarily satisfying experience: middle schoolers are ready and willing to think deeply about issues, they understand more, they want to examine issues about the world and themselves, and writing workshop gives them the perfect opportunity to stretch and grow as individuals and as writers.  But teaching writing workshop at the middle school level can also be an extraordinarily chaotic experience: many of us share spaces with other teachers, sometimes teachers of entirely different subjects (my colleague Jen shares the 7th grade Math classroom, for instance), we must juggle the writing needs of three or four times the number of students our elementary colleagues do, and then there is the fact that most middle schoolers are a hot mess – they are a volatile and puzzling bunch of kids, much as we love and are amused by them.  So, what’s a middle school writing teacher to do? Here are some issues I focus upon as I begin the new school year:

Supplies:

I try to keep these requirements to a minimum – the less we have, the less likelihood of lost/misplaced/disappeared items when we need them.  Every student has a writer’s notebook, and a 2-pocket folder to house their drafting pads on one side, and reference notes on the other:

John's writing notebook   2 pocket folder legal pad

Consistency in workshop structure and logistics:

Kids in middle school are so busy trying out personalities, figuring out middle school mores, and worrying about their place in a vast and shifting constellation of friendship groups and popularity indexes, that they tend to need more than ever a consistency of classroom structure they can rely upon.  From our very first day together, I let my students know exactly what they can expect the next day and every other writing workshop day to follow with this chart, adapted from Mary Ehrenworth at a TC Summer Institute:

IMG_2271

My sixth graders are a mix of children from four different elementary schools and eight different teachers.  Writing Workshop looked different in each of those classrooms, so I make sure to walk through the writing process in my class, and I remind them that no matter what the routine was last year, this is the flow chart for our work with each writing piece (this eliminates a lot of argument and discussion about who did what and when and how):
writing flowchart 1writing flow chart 2

Another step in making sure that the year gets off to a smooth start is thinking through the the logistics for writing workshop based on my summer PD as well as the new digital tools that our school will make available for the new school year.  For instance, we will have Google Classroom available from the beginning of the year, and (as a result of reading Digital Reading: What’s Essential in Grades 3-8 by Franki Sibberson and Bill Bass) I have also set goals for creating digital portfolios for my students as well as using Google Forms for surveys and conferences.  Once I have thought out the logistics, I plot out the steps through which we can achieve this, which I will share with my students the first week of school; doing this ensures that we work out critical details and understand each step of the writing process – from sketching out ideas to publishing finished pieces:

1.In your writer’s notebook: keep lists of ideas, sketch them out, try out leads/characters/dialogue/endings.

2. Begin drafting your writing piece – skip lines for legibility – confer to move your writing along.  Use the Editing Sheet to let Mrs. Smith know where you may be stuck.  Place your writing folder in the box marked: “Writing for Review” the at the end of workshop time so Mrs. Smith can make suggestions for tomorrow.  If you are on a roll, place your folder in the “Working Folders’ bin.

3. When you are ready to type up your first draft and begin revising, log onto your school Google account.  Go into your Writing Workshop classroom, find your assignment (ex. memoir), open and rename your document, type your piece and return it.

4. Read and follow through with  the comments left by Mrs.Smith – revise, edit, peer edit, polish your work.

5. Meet with your writing partner to share your work, get some feedback, and figure out where you need to improve your writing. Make your final edits. Proofread your work!

6. Turn in your writing for assessment in Google Classroom.

7.  Be prepared for the writing celebration: your finished piece + your ability to listen to other writers.

8.  Is this piece worthy of your digital portfolio? Confer with Mrs.Smith to decide whether to include it.

9.  Add your writing to the class display and get ready to celebrate!

writing bins

Working folder bins – students are still drafting at this stage.

Finally, I need to make sure I am setting crystal clear expectations and fostering independence at the same time.  Creating a space in which students are respectful of each other’s need for quiet time to write, read one’s work with a writing partner, and confer with me, can be tricky in middle school where kids love to socialize, and where “wasting class time” is often considered an art form.  The clearer you are about expectations at the beginning of the year, and the more firmly you reinforce those expectations, the better your chances are of having a smoothly running writing workshop.  One way I do this is to spend some time during the first week of school doing a think aloud – “What interrupts writing for you?”  We create a T chart of problems and brainstorm solutions, which generally begins like this:

What interrupts writing for you? What can you do to keep going?
I’m stuck – I need a conference to know what to do Check your writing sketch in your writer’s notebook – is there an idea there that you can use?

Check the resource table – is there a mentor text that can give you a nudge?

Can you mark the spot and keep going until it’s your turn for a conference?

Is your writing partner free? Maybe this is a good time to read aloud your work and get some peer input?

Once the chart has been created, it remains on display for student reference – a quick guide to help students try to work through their writing issues independently, and a deterrent to their favorite middle school past times: socializing and wasting time.

Creating the space for an authentic writer’s notebook:

It’s a sad fact that our middle school “Lost and Found” bins seem to collect so many writer’s notebooks in particular.  Whenever I leaf through these, I invariably discover that they are used mainly for note taking, with a few sketchy entries and a few responses to prompts.  In elementary school, writer’s notebooks are introduced with much fanfare and joy, decorated with such celebration, and remain at the center of daily writing work.  Something of this joy and purpose seems to get lost in middle school, just when most kids feel ready to explore deeper ideas and experiment with their writing voices.  From the very first day of writing workshop, the notebook stays at the center of our writing lives in Room 202 in the following ways:

  • as a demonstration tool for me to share my own notebook and my writing life – through entries, sketching out writing ideas, improving on words and passages in a piece I may be working on.
  • as a place to jot down mini lessons and craft moves for reference.
  • as a place to paste in mentor texts which can be unpacked for closer study and reference when students are working through their own compositions.
  • as a place to gather the seeds of writing ideas.
  • as a place to experiment with new forms of writing.
  • as a place to unload – a safe place to scribble thoughts about events and/or people you are trying to puzzle through.

Our writing is inextricably linked to our writer’s notebooks, and I believe that planning for this should begin from the very first writing workshop day.

Organizing mentor texts and making them available for students:

Every writing teacher has a collection of carefully culled mentor texts – picture books, poems, samples of student and teacher writing from past years, and excerpts from books, essays, and articles.  Mentor texts are an essential tool to explain a craft move or demonstrate what it looks like.  I find that it is really helpful to organize these by genre, and make them available to students independent of when they are conferencing with me.

When we are in the midst of a genre study, I create a “Writing Resources!” space in a quiet corner of our classroom.  Here, students can find:

-baskets of  picturebooks color coded by sticky notes to indicate a highlighted craft move

– baskets of laminated mini-charts doing more of the same

minicharts

– a basket of laminated: “Have you tried this move?” – a series of suggestions about how to include metaphors, flashbacks, meaningful dialogue, etc. to transform flat pieces into writing that is vivid and interesting.

A resource table creates a space for scaffolded independence.  It lets students know that even though the teacher may be busy conferring with a classmate, there are a number of steps he or she can try out while waiting, or even in place of meeting with you…just yet.  I’ve found that a carefully assembled resource table is the answer to a writing teacher’s #1 problem at conferring time – there is only one of you.  Now, there is an alternative.

And, let’s not forget, a place for celebration:

From the very beginning of the year, my kids know that every writing cycle ends with a big celebration: a time to share work and delight in our finished writing pieces.   In middle school, we often ask our kids to simply “turn it in”, which is a missed opportunity, I feel, to acknowledge all the effort that goes into taking a writing seed from draft, through revision, to publication.  Carving aside time for this at the end of every writing unit is so worthwhile.  Since we don’t have the time for every single one of my 26 or so sixth graders to share their memoirs, etc. with the whole class, we either share with our table groups, through gallery walks, or partner swaps. And always, there is some sort of delicious treat to add to the festivities.

writing celebration chart

Celebrating student writing also means finding a space to display their writing.  This is often a big challenge in middle school ,where we share classroom space and/or move from one classroom to another.  My colleague Jen came up with a brilliant solution: since there was no space to display her students’ writing inside the classroom, she went outside the room – soon, the corridor walls and staircase wells were bright with displays of her students’ work, and they could see them and celebrate as they went about the building and their day.

So, there in a nutshell, are some of my beginning of the year  steps to ensure that we have a rich and productive writing workshop year.  What are some of the steps you take to make the most of your middle school writing workshop.  Please share your ideas and suggestions in the comments below.

Let’s chat on Monday, August 10th at 8:30 p.m. EDT, when the eight of us host a Twitter Chat about classroom environments.  Just search and tag #TWTBlog to participate.

Let’s chat on Monday, August 10th at 8:30 p.m. EDT, when the eight of us host a Twitter Chat about classroom environments. Just search and tag #TWTBlog to participate.