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Writing Workshop is Hard Work

parent university notebooks
Notebooks and pens ready to go for parents at Parent University.

In the book, The Writing Workshop: Working Through the Hard Parts (And They’re All Hard Parts), Katie Wood Ray (with Lester Laminack) shares much wisdom, but one of my favorite quotes is this: “…Having a writing workshop is such complex, hard work that the best writing teachers I know sometimes spend their whole careers never feeling like they’ve got quite a handle on it- feeling like it’s just slightly out of their control…I think that may be how it’s supposed to feel.” What a relief to know that even Katie Wood Ray thinks that writing workshop can sometimes leave a teacher with more questions than answers.

Last Thursday, I endeavored to explain writing workshop to parents at my district’s Parent University.  I slightly modified The Parent’s Guide to Writing Workshop that I shared here in early September.  My goals included inviting parents to write, reflect on the process, and introduce them to the philosophy and terminology of writing workshop.  I prepared notebooks for them, inspired by Dana’s post on Family Literacy Night.  I also included a QR code to the presentation on the notebooks and the slide presentation. After a brief introduction, I read an excerpt from What a Writer Needs, by Ralph Fletcher.  The story I read was the one Ralph shared about his first grade teacher, Mrs. Damon, and how she branded him as having a sloppy personality because of his penmanship.  I invited the parents to write about an early experience they had with writing, modeled after a lesson frequently shared at the Long Island Writing Project’s Summer Invitational.  Part of the lesson involves reflecting on your process- what did you think and do from the moment you knew you had to write? I shared with them that knowing and understanding the process that writers go through is so crucial, and teachers and parents who write, too, will have a better sense of what the students are experiencing.

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Click on the picture to see the presentation.

This part of the presentation went well, as parents were game for the writing and even shared their pieces.  I had 40 minutes for the entire presentation, and I spent the rest of the time trying to explain the philosophy behind creating a community of writers, how a workshop looks and runs, the words and phrases you might hear (minilesson, mentor text, writer’s notebook, etc.)  When I got to spelling and conventions, this was where I felt it went awry.  I could tell that the parents were looking for more concrete ways to help their child to be a better speller while drafting, or to help their student write a more effective thesis sentence, or how to help their child to write a better paragraph.  I didn’t deliver that, partly because it wasn’t what I had planned for the session and partly because I’m not sure I have those answers.  I drove home from Parent University feeling unsettled- like despite my best efforts, I struck out. There had been a gap in what the parents expected and what I delivered, and I felt badly that I let them down.

What’s a teacher to do when she feels unsure and needs feedback? For me, it’s my PLN to the rescue.  I shared my experiences and my feelings with my literacy Voxer friends and the TWT Learning from Classmates Voxer book club.  I also shared with my friends at the Long Island Writing Project.  Everyone was so encouraging and reassuring but also gave me great ideas for ways I could make the experience more practical and concrete for parents next time. Here are some of the ideas:

  • Bring samples of student writing from different genres so parents can see what these pieces look like, across the different stages of the writing process.
  • Provide a checklist of what is expected for a specific genre of writing.
  • Emphasize that we are teaching the writer and not the specific piece of writing- process over product.
  • Deconstruct a piece of writing so parents can see the components.
  • Bring copies of the interactive spelling dictionary that students can use as a resource and personalize for words they need to learn.
  • Actually teach a minilesson so they can see how it looks.
  • Share anchor charts with parents so they understand the strategies being taught.
  • Have students keep a running list of minilessons taught in their notebook as a reference and then share that with the parents.
  • Ask parents at the start of the workshop what they are hoping to get out of the experience.

Parent University took place in the evening, but earlier that day, I had one of my best writing workshop moments of the year.  Teaching about repeating lines after reading Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, I did a quick, on the fly model in front of the class, using a repeating line.

My quick demonstration of a repeating line. Click on the picture to see an interactive version via SeeSaw.

As I was conferring with a student, another student came up to me with her paper.  Scanning her words, my heart leapt with joy! She tried the repeating line and hit it out of the ballpark.  In our Voxer book club for Learning from Classmates, the conversations are around using student work as mentor text.  This was the perfect moment to share how a student took the minilesson and made it her own, forever owning the craft move of repeating line. A few days later, another student used a repeating line in her blog post, crediting the other student for the idea.  (A writing teacher’s dream come true.)

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My student created her own repeating line and used it to connect the different parts of her day. Click on the picture to see an interactive version in SeeSaw.

If there had been more time before Parent University, I would have shared this example via SeeSaw to show the power of models, mentors, choice, expectations, and independence.  Maybe the parents would have felt more confident with the writing process if they had seen this example of writer’s workshop in action.

I wish I knew all the answers for how to help each student grow as a writer.  The truth is, being a student IS hard work, being a teacher IS hard work and writing workshop IS hard work, too.  There are no easy answers, quick fixes, silver bullets or magical formulas to make a person a strong writer. There are, however, better ways to deconstruct the process for parents and provide more detailed examples and resources. I am truly grateful to all the wise and encouraging teachers and coaches who helped me process my presentation to the parents. If I have the opportunity to do it again, thanks to their help, I know I’ll do better.

Please join the conversation! What would you be sure to include in a presentation to parents on writing workshop?

13 thoughts on “Writing Workshop is Hard Work

  1. Such an honest and reflective post! Thank you for sharing all your hard work and reflection. You have offered your readers (and yes your parents) so many take aways. I am confident your parents left knowing more than you realize, not to mention all that you have learned in the process.


  2. Now that I’ve had even more time to think about your experience with the parents at Parent University, following our discussion at the LIWP last Saturday as well, I think you attempted to share the whole process in one exposure and that was difficult. Because it may have been hard for them to “see” the process or conceptualize it, they ended up focusing instead on what is familiar to them…spelling, paragraphs, topic sentences, etc. A lot of people don’t understand that we are trying to inculcate the skills and habits of a real writer, not just a robot writer, in our students through writing workshop. Perhaps you could continue to “share” the good things that are happening in your writing workshop just as you shared with us on TWT. It will take many exposures to the idea for them to finally “get it.” After all, many teachers still don’t get it either and don’t feel it’s worth the effort.


  3. Great post Kathleen! You are an asset to all you know you and a blessing to your students and their parents. Thank you so much for putting this together in such a thought out way.


  4. You are very humble and far too hard on yourself. I’m willing to bet that every parent thought you hit it out of the ballpark. And most importantly…you’ve made the rest of see that we aren’t the only ones who feel inadequate at times. You’re the best.


  5. This was such a wonderful, important post. It IS really difficult to communicate the value of workshop to parents who are entirely unfamiliar with it. We run into this problem constantly in high school! Thanks for opening a conversation about how we can better explain this to parents!


  6. Love this post, Kathleen. I’m sorry you felt uneasy after your presentation, but I don’t think you struck out. Whatever we focus on is what our students focus on – the same is true of parents. You highlighted the important parts of writing workshop – choice, mentors, etc. – and that sends a message. They may still have questions and you can always address those, but I think the overview gave was spot on. It’s a learning curve for parents, and you’re off to a great start.


  7. I think we’ve all had that feeling of defeat… That even though we did so many things right, we focus on the ONE thing we could’ve done better. That’s what makes you a great teacher– the constant drive to do things just a little better the next time. After all, this is what we expect from our students, but it can be very hard to live up to! I appreciate the practical tips for presenting the WW to parents. Thanks to this post, I will be using a few of those during parent teacher conferences in a few weeks. THANK YOU!


  8. Great post. It is important for us as teachers to be always reflective. Otherwise, we would never grow. I have been doing this for quite some time. I started using writing workshop more than 20 years ago. I still feel like a novice. Because each group of students is different. Writing workshop by design is differentiated education which, I believe, is the best way to teach writing. But it is fluid, changing, always evolving by nature.
    Thanks for sharing all of your thoughts here and being that kind of teacher. You will never feel like you’ve got it all right. I’m glad you are celebrating the good, too.


  9. Sometimes the best part of a PLN is knowing you are not alone in the struggle. I enjoyed hearing you discuss this experience on Voxer, and I loved reading your blog even more. Your transparency, vulnerability, and honesty are refreshing. Thank you for sharing what you do with the world.


  10. I agree! I feel like every year I am just on the verge of making it work. This year I am struggling with the length of the spectrum of achievement in my class (SO low and SO high all in one group.) I love that you had a chance to walk parents through the process.


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