writing workshop

What Are Their Tools For Independence? Starting With What Matters Most


One of the most important questions I always have in the back of my head when I am working with students is how to ensure that the concept  I am teaching will become a part of the students’ independent repertoire. How can I tell that I am teaching the writer and not just enhancing the one piece of writing in front of us at that one moment in time? Will that writer remember and use that new concept without me there? One on one, I’m a great reviser, editor, and improver of students’ writing, but if that’s all I do for students, then I’m doing a great disservice. My quest is always to provide them repertoire and pathways toward independence.

At the end of the school year, I asked fourth-grade students a question: “What have you used in this classroom that helps you to become independent writers?” At first, most of them looked confused, but then as classmates started moving toward specific spots, they all began to recognize important tools within their room. For several minutes, I kept asking them to move around the room and stand near something that helped them be independent. Sometimes, students went to places where they’d seen their classmates, but sometimes they also discovered new resources they hadn’t thought of before.  I highly recommend this exercise, as it really lets you know whether students have internalized the tools in the classroom as structures to help them gain independence! This students had a teacher whose motto was “anything on the walls of this room has been made by you or for you” so I knew these students would be able to find and stand next to a variety of tools.

Here are some of the “tools” the students identified:

  • The process charts that hang on the wall

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  • The charts in progress on the easel

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  • Their writing notebooks–Ryan explained to me that it had a strategy section where he could take notes on an idea and a “try-it-out” section where he could experiment with different ideas


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  • Books- While they did not use the term “mentor texts” but several students identified books as important tools to gain ideas and inspiration for their own writing.
  • Writing partners- two of the girls linked arms. When I asked them about this, they explained that they are writing partners, and they explained various ways they work together to develop their writing.
  • Classmates- After hearing the girls, another boy stood next to them. “Sometimes it’s not just the partners who help me. It can be anyone in the class,” he said. (Love these two comments–so important that students recognize the importance of each other in their learning process!)
  • Reference books- Sometimes with all our available technology, we overlook the value of dictionaries, thesauruses, and other reference books.


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  • Computers- This is a lucky class because they house a cart of Chromebooks.
  • Offices-“Writing sometimes just needs total focus and these give me my own space,” a student explained.
  • A “distraction-free” corner- I can’t tell you how many students identified this as an important tool for independence. This one surprised me since sometimes this sort of corner may have negative connotations, but it relates to individual offices, as well. How great that these students recognize that while writers depend on each other, they also need solitude and quiet to churn out work!

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  • A conventions checklist chart

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  • A wall of goals

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  • Back cover blurbs- One student called these blurbs a “skeleton for what I’m writing” demonstrating an understanding that writers get ideas from other writers all the time.
  • Our own writing- their teacher keeps their writing in special folders and the students identified previously written stories as important tools

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  • Teacher-written mentor texts- Many children nodded when one girl pulled out an annotated and marked-up essay their teacher had written. “Miss C’s piece shows me some of the strategies we can use in our own writing,” she said.  While no one reading this post will probably be able to read the words, you can all tell the importance of it to this student’s writing life. 

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An important lesson I have done with other classes involves the following teaching point: “Writers have tools they can use in order to be independent. Some of our tools we have in this class are”: This can also be done as an inquiry lesson, asking the class what tools they have and creating a student-generated list. A chart could look something along these lines:

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Writing workshops are most productive when students know how to generate and answer their own questions. The more we can set up systems to help students build independence, the stronger the writing we will see! As we start the school year and we think about building our writing communities, it’s so important to think about the tools for independence that we create for our students within classrooms. When you ask your students to go stand near something that helps you be an independent writer, where will they go?



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Starting with What Matters Most in Writing Workshop

29 thoughts on “What Are Their Tools For Independence? Starting With What Matters Most

  1. I love that your goal is to help these writers become independent. That should be the goal for all our teaching.

    The ‘distraction free corner’ is a wonderful way to nurture the introverts in the classroom. Those quiet students who have SO much to say.


  2. I enjoyed this article. As the school year begins, it’s good to reflect on and prepare ways to nurture independence in our “new” students. I love how the students provided such important feedback for their teacher and all of us reading the article.


  3. I adore the girls who linked arms and said that their writing partner was a source of independence AND the boy who stated that all classmates can be helpful to him as a writer. This shows the power of a writing community!

    To that end, I’m the kind of writer who needs silence. Distractions are not my friend. I think more desks in distraction-free places can help writers who need the time and space to process their thoughts without interruptions.


  4. I so LOVE this idea-it fits with my CLOSE WRITING philosophy perfectly. It might be nice to start the school year asking kids which tools they found most helpful LAST year and making sure they have them available THIS year. GREAT POST, Melanie!


  5. Read this post while thinking about upcoming school year and gained sooo many ideas. Loved the pic of student writing folders! I need to do a better job of displaying charts so kids can keep referring to them. Thanks for great ideas!


  6. This was such a superb post! It really sparked my thinking to consider tools for independence in a new way and goes along with the thinking I’ve been doing since reading DIY Literacy. Beautiful job!


  7. I love the idea of asking students what they hace learned to help them be independent writers. This is something I struggle with each year. This post gave me some ideas that I am going to try this year. Thanks so much!


  8. Everyday I think, this is the best day yet of the series. Today.it’s true. Doing the meta with writers to affirm their independent is the gold medal move of workshop. Like cold water in my face. Brava, for the direction BEFORE a new group of writers and teachers pick up their pens.


  9. “What have you used in this classroom that helps you to become independent writers?” What a powerful question for students to ponder! That is one I will be passing on to teachers. Thank you!


  10. Thanks so much for this post and the valuable information. As we begin writing workshop this year, I am nervous (and excited) about the process. But I realize that I just have to trust the process and forge ahead. Support such as your posts are so appreciated.


  11. Melanie,
    The minute I started reading your post I was envisioning my students and our claasroom. I was thinking about how I could offer more independent spaces to the students. I thought about how I could add our goals to our “mini-mes,” and how I will showcase writing folders rather than “keep them in a tub!” So many insightful ideas to do today to begin making an independent classroom of learners.


  12. This post was a great reminder on how important it is for students to take ownership of their learning and to reflect on how they learn best. This type of activity could easily transfer to other subject areas as well. Thanks for posting the photos with the list of tools!


  13. Fostering independence is what teaching is all about. Thanks for the engaging activity to get kids to identify the ways they are empowered to be writers in charge of their writing in the classroom. I wonder if the conversation might be extended with students to help them identify similar tools that sit outside the four walls.


    1. I think once you nudge them to be aware of the tools they use to learn, they will find them in many different places in and out of the classroom. I’d love to read a follow up post if you find this is true.


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