Begin the writing workshop year by writing on “Day One”

When my son came home from his first day of middle school, I was full of anticipation: what did he learn? how did it go?  But all he would say was, “The teachers talked really fast and threw a bunch of papers at us…I think I need a nap.”  That first day of middle school does indeed go by in a blur: locker assignments and woes, figuring out how to get from one end of the building to another in four minutes of passing time, collecting forms and notices, and learning about classroom expectations and policies (a different one for each teacher). There is so much that needs to be done in that one day!  Adding to all these to-dos are the usual middle school worries about friends, your outfit, and who to sit with at lunch.  

For the past few years, our middle school has opened with a half day; and, with even less time to work with, I’ve had to pick and choose among those first day activities.  One that I set aside for day #2 was close to my heart – writing.  I justified the decision by telling myself that it would not matter so much because we had so little time, my kids would feel rushed, etc.  But, deep down, I felt guilty (and I really missed the experience).  Then, during last week’s #TWTBlog Twitter chat, Chris Lehman shared this:

Screen Shot 2015-08-13 at 9.31.12 AMTalk about guilt!  So, this year, I’m reaching back into habits of old and carving out time to write during that first day.  Here are some things I will keep in mind:

What I learned from my kids when we did write the first day:

It was so instructive to watch their faces as I explained what we were about to do – some looked eager, some nervous, some disgusted, and some just bored.  With a quick sweep of the classroom, I had an instant snapshot of the writers I would have as the year began.  Although there was so much still to learn about each and every one of them, I felt I had a tiny jump start; I could be better ready for day #2.

Because we wrote on the first day, every student had a notebook and was prepared to write on the second day – the expectations of writing and volunteering to share that writing were already in place.

Reading over the collected work gave me  insights into my new student writers, they were a quick sketch of some of the tasks we would face, from punctuation issues to language use and syntax. I was able to jot down some initial ideas about each writer, which felt like a jump start to more tailored and effective writing conferences as well.

Some how-to’s:

  • Some students may have their writer’s notebooks on hand, but most will not. Rather than beginning the year by making many students feel unprepared, simply hand out paper (cool stationary and a brand new pencil is always a nice touch ).
  • Keep the explanation brief and the invitation open ended: “Let’s start our writing year by writing! Here’s some cool paper and your very own Room 202 pencil. Let’s write!”  I want my kids to know that writing workshop is all about, to quote Lucy Calkins at this year’s summer institute: “Taking an ordinary moment of life and viewing it with significance.”  I want my kids to feel a sense of joy, purpose, and reverence for the act of looking through the moments of their lives or the shifting of their thoughts and finding significance in both.  To give them independence at the very start  signals the idea that writing workshop is about taking ownership. So, no prompts.
  • Write with them.  I bring my writer’s notebook to school every day, and make reference to it and read from it right from the beginning. I live a writer’s life, and sharing the habits of that model, I believe, is just as important as all the finely tuned and heavily researched mini lessons I will be trotting out during the year.  On that first day, they are watching me more closely than they possibly ever will, I need to show them that I practice what I preach.
  • Share aloud and invite students to do the same.  Even if there is only time for a line or two, the topic, or a particular stretch of dialogue, it’s so important for kids to know that we expect to read our work aloud, listen with respect, and offer constructive feedback.  All writers write for an audience, and our kids need to feel that their most powerful ally in the writing year ahead is the classroom community.
  • Set aside the time.  I have a feeling that I will be passing out some “Day 1” forms on “Day 2”, but I know that an intentional effort to make the time to write will be worth it.  The truth is, our kids are often stressed and bewildered on that first day, many of them appreciate a moment to just gather their thoughts…and quietly write.  
  • Resist the temptation to put these aside for the weekend, read and use these pieces to sketch notes about each writer before the next day of writing workshop.
  • Remember what I felt I’d missed out on when we didn’t write.  Here, again, I turn to Lucy Calkins: “Teaching writing is about listening with faith and anticipation…”.   I begin each writing workshop year brimming with faith and anticipation – faith that our mutual hard work will produce beautiful work, anticipation that my students will learn to live writer’s lives, too.

So, thanks Chris Lehman for that gentle reminder to begin the writing year by writing!  Please share your ideas for that first workshop day in the comments below.