The routines and procedures are practiced and set. Knowledge of my students is still in its infancy and what I know about them as writers is limited by these early days when all writing is celebrated and free of expectations. This is done all in an effort to create a risk-free workshop where writers feel safe to try new ideas. The time I’ve reserved to confer with writers has been spent guiding procedures and routines and not conferring. So now what? How can I possibly begin teaching writers I don’t YET know?
This is EXACTLY where I am right now in our writing workshop. If you’ll allow me to write through my befuddled thoughts to find my way, and hopefully help others who may be in a similar place…I hope I am not alone. After 23 years of teaching, with 12 years teaching in a workshop, I was sure I had this down, but each year a new set of individuals enter our rooms. Each comes with their unique strengths and needs, each with their own stories, learning styles, writing processes (yet to be discovered) and individual life experiences. Each one changing even the most worn teacher playbook.
Workshop is Messy
Workshop is messy on any given day, but workshops between procedural lessons and lessons to lift and support writers are the messiest. The only constant I can count on is uncertainty. I watch my young writers at work. I watch as one writer divides paper into to four sections, drawing lines in each section before numbering the sections 1-4, then filling the created pages with volumes of words and supportive illustrations. The next writer places two fingers after each word to ensure he leaves a space between his words. The next writer draws what appear to be random connected lines in varying colors, but as I watch the work, I see the care used to place the next line in just the right place and to fill all white space. This writer has a plan, there are no random lines here. Across the room another writer lays upside down across a chair. I begin walking in the student’s direction, the student jumps up, as if startled and quickly interjects, “I am thinking”. In a cozy spot in the corner of the room a writer sits diligently copying text straight from a book. As she sees me walking around the room she jumps up and races toward me heartwarmingly sharing she has only one more page and the book will be done! As I begin to direct this writer back to her space where we can gently discuss the importance of writing your own message I spot another writer who lacks spaces between words, or has written one 24 letter word with an illustration that looks like playing tetherball.
I step back to take this all in and think who needs me the most right now, where can I make the biggest impact? In this second of thought, 3 boys race to the 1 boys bathroom pass and then LOUDLY debate who was there first. I turn toward the commotion and see the clock which demands we line up for lunch and I can’t be late… I have duty!
As I type this the gift of reflection writing demands is serving me well, I am finding a vision for my next steps-
First Thing’s First
Ignore the bathroom debates, the “Where’s the paper,” the line at the stapler, and the students still looking for a space to work 5 minutes into the workshop. They CAN and WILL work this out. We have practiced these situations. They will find a friend to support them or they will solve it all by themselves, but either way they don’t need me. They have to learn to be problem solvers if conferring is going to stand a chance in our workshop!
Look for the writers. I can’t confer with a writer who isn’t writing, so look for a writer. I will go to writers, talk to them, get to know them as a person, then a writer. I will review the heart map in the front of the folder, ask them to share their mini me. Listen for passion in their interest, what’s a passing interest and what’s hot right now? I will listen to the student, really listen.
Get to Know the Writers
Consider students’ language. Do they share information easily? Do they speak in complete sentences? Do they share in stories or words? Are they excited about talking with me? Am I interrupting their work? Am I working hard to get the conversation going? What is it that stands out about this student? Make notes. I will get to as many writers as I can. Spend as little or as much time as seems appropriate for the conversation.
Get to Know the Writing
Look at current writing. Do they have text and illustrations or just one? Do they write stories? Do the stories start and finish on one page, or do they go past several pages? Do the illustrations support the story? How does the writer feel about writing? Do they generate ideas?
Plan for the Writers
Sit down after school and look at my notes and student writing as a class. What similarities do I see? What needs are the greatest? From these similarities pick a focus lesson. Before I begin the lesson I will tell my young writers what I’ve noticed in their writing and that I’ve designed the lesson to help them in their writing. Of course this is all positive and in effort to let the writers know I am indeed here to support them. Plan ahead of time who I will ask what type of questions to help the student find the support they need the most.
Consider what I know about the writers. Who do I anticipate taking the lesson and applying it right away? Who will need additional support? Will this support come from subsequent days of lessons, or will I need to sit beside them in workshop to support them? Is there a small group of writers who may need a small guided writing group? By considering the layers of support within the workshop and the work of the students in our writing community, I will “push past the mud in my brain” (thank you 5-year-old M for such a great analogy) and support writers at various levels and in ways that reaches the writer in need.
The Constant: The Mess
The mess of writing promises to always be present in any workshop. I would love to know how you “push through the mud in your brain” when the messiness of workshop leaves you bogged down in the mud, unable to push past the mud.