I love a good agenda. When I attend a meeting, be it a pre-preschool meeting for my son or a conference day for teachers, I want to know what to expect. Knowing what’s coming next and how far along we are in the session gives me a great deal of comfort (and, I admit, helps appease my constant desire to feel in control). Conversely, not having an agenda or a sense of when a meeting will end fills me with great anxiety. I don’t think I’m the only one to feel this way. I think most kids and adults alike find comfort in predictability and structure.
One of the many beautiful aspects of writing workshops is just that, its predictable structure. Each day, the same thing happens. There is a minilesson where students and teacher meet in a meeting area. Then, there is an independent writing time where students write and the teacher confers. Then, there is time at the end for students to share their work with each other. We teachers know the workshop’s structure by heart. Over time, through observation and repetition, hopefully students come to know the workshop’s structure as well as we do. But what if rather than wait for students to catch on, we let them know right from the start what to expect? Starting the year by filling them in on the daily structure for writing workshop, the agenda of sorts, will help to build their independence and confidence quickly.
To take this one step further, you can teach your students what you will do and what you expect of them during each part of the workshop. You can even include bits of age-appropriate rationale to explain why the structure of each part is important. As an added bonus, teaching this as a minilesson can have a powerful impact and is really, really easy to plan.
As a connection for this minilesson, you might call up an image of an artists’ workshop. Here’s an example: “My brother is a painter. His paintings are abstract, filled with wild colors and scattered patterns. To look at his paintings, you might think the way he works is also wild and scattered. But my brother is actually very organized. In his studio, his paints are lined up perfectly, his paint brushes are all categorized by size, and his space is very clean. He says he has to keep things easy to find and predictable so that he doesn’t have to waste time trying to find things in the midst of his creative process.
My brother’s story made me think of writing workshop. In writing workshop, a lot of things are predictable so that we don’t have to spend precious time trying to figure them out. Today I want to teach (or remind) you how writing workshop typically goes, so that we won’t have to waste a single moment not knowing what to do.”
Then, teach students about each part of the writing workshop in ways that are appropriate for your age group. You certainly don’t have to give them the level of detail provided in, say, a teacher’s guide, but many students will benefit from knowing the basic parts of each part.
When teaching students about the minilesson, you might explain that you’ll give them a tip or two to help their writing, then you’ll show them how to do it, then you’ll give them a chance to practice. Their job is to listen carefully and think about how they might use the tip or strategy in their own writing. You might tell them that you plan to keep to minilessons short, about 10 minutes long, to give them plenty of time for writing. As long as they promise to do their best to pay attention to the strategy or tip you give them during the minilesson, you promise give them plenty of time to write.
For older writers, you could share the names of each part of the minilesson, as well as your expectations for them during each part. For younger writers, this level of detail is unnecessary. You could keep your explanation general, teaching them during the minilesson, you will teach them about a way they might make their writing better, then you’ll give them a chance to practice. Their job is to listen carefully, and then to give what they learned a try.
Then, explain to your students that they will get a certain number of minutes to write each day (really talk this part up, as having plenty of time to write is a gift to students). Their job during this part will be work on making their writing better, and to keep going on their own, even if things get tough. Promise them you’ll be meeting with them to help them as they write, but let them know that sometimes they have to be patient because you can’t meet with everyone all at once. Stress that unless there is an emergency, it’s not okay to interrupt a conference.
Finally, let them know that they’ll have time to share some of their work at the end of the workshop, either with a partner, a small group, or with the whole class.
During the active engagement portion of this minilesson, you might give students a chance to practice transitioning from the meeting area to their writing spots and back. Time them, then invite them to transition again to see if they can beat their first time. Explain that in writing workshop, every minute is precious, so moving back and forth between the meeting area and writing spots quickly is crucial.
End the minilesson by letting students know that as long as they are in a writing workshop class, they’ll know exactly what to expect. You might even harken back to the story from the connection, and explain that structure and predictability are important for any creative endeavor.
Here’s a chart that you might keep posted for a while, until you are certain that students have the parts of a writing workshop and the reasons for them in their bones.
Wishing you a great launch into a year of writing workshop.
Anna is a staff developer, literacy coach, and writer, based in New York City. She taught internationally in places such as Sydney, Australia; San Pedro Sula, Honduras, and Auckland, New Zealand in addition to New York before becoming a staff developer for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University (TCRWP). She has been an adjunct instructor in the Literacy Specialist Program at Teachers College, and teaches at TCRWP where she helps participants bring strong literacy instruction into their classrooms. Anna recently co-wrote Bringing History to Life with Lucy Calkins, part of the 2013 series Units of Study in Opinion, Information, and Narrative Writing (Heinemann). She has been a researcher for Lucy Calkins, contributing especially to Pathways to the Common Core (Heinemann, 2012) and Navigating Nonfiction (Heinemann, 2010).