Cultivating Authentic Work Habits: Starting with What Matters Most in Writing Workshop
I always fancied myself a writer, even as a young child. I imagined myself sitting in my office with French doors, surrounded by bookshelves. I pictured myself clacking away on a typewriter and peering over the rim of my glasses (mind you, I don’t actually wear glasses). After months of toiling away behind my French doors, I would emerge triumphant with a finished manuscript. In the acknowledgments, I would thank my mentors for supporting me and my family for all the sacrifices they made while I wrote. Ah, yes, the writer’s life.
Well, if you are a writer you know this is not how the whole writing business works. Right now, actually, I am sitting at my kitchen table in front of a pile of Legos. My husband is trimming an evergreen bush directly outside the kitchen window, and the hum of the trimmer is not quite loud enough to cover my daughters’ calls of “MOM!” from the backyard. I have not yet finished a manuscript, but I have received two lovely rejection letters from two different publishing companies. Ah, yes, the writer’s life.
Living the life of a writer is not what I had imagined. Yet as I prepare for the upcoming school year, this is the life I want students to experience – the real life of a writer.
When I think about what matters most in writing workshop, I think about the way I work as a writer. I envision myself sitting here at my messy kitchen table, typing and deleting and typing again. I know that when I get stuck – and I will get stuck – I will likely take a break and nibble on a cookie. I may even shut my laptop and come back later. I know I don’t have to finish this draft today, and I know some writing days are better than others. I contrast this vision with the way some students are asked to work during writer’s workshop, and I worry. If we are to develop students who believe they are writers, what matters most is cultivating authentic work habits.
As you plan for your writing workshop this year, think about the ways you work best as a writer. Talk to other writers about their work habits as well. With every assignment or task you offer your students, ask yourself, “Is this something a writer would actually do?”
Here are three ways I believe we can cultivate more authentic work habits in writing workshop:
1. Instead of offering all students a prewriting organizer, chart, or diagram…try letting some students jump right in.
I often see teachers give every student a prewriting organizer. Everyone fills out the Venn diagram or everyone lists three bullet points for their paragraph. Of course, some students will need a scaffold to help them organize their thoughts, but not everyone will need one. Forcing every student to fill out some contrived organizer does nothing to teach them about writing process. There will be some students who are ready to jump in and start writing. Let them.
2. Instead of playing soft music and asking students to write silently…try letting them talk a bit as they write.
I recently attended a writing retreat with eight other writers. We worked in the common area of a beautiful Bed & Breakfast for two days, mostly in silence, but sometimes we talked. We read a sentence aloud for a reaction or asked a grammar question. We made small talk to break the writing stretches into manageable bits. Writing doesn’t always have to be silent.
Of course, some students may prefer silence. I have seen teachers set designated areas of their classroom as “silent zones.” For example, the group of desks in the corner or the spot in front of the classroom door might become talk-free zones.
3. Instead of using end-of-workshop share time to share a piece of student writing… try sharing writing process.
During the writing retreat another writer told me she was working on four pieces of writing simultaneously. Four pieces! She would work on one piece until she felt stuck and then hop to another. I was so intrigued since I was working on only one piece from start to finish. I couldn’t even think about my next topic until I was done with the first. It is only through talking to other writers about how they write that we can begin to envision a different process for ourselves. There is no one way to write, and students can learn a lot from sharing their writing process with one another.
My hope is that the students in our writing workshops can feel what it means to be a writer in a very real way. I hope students will be able to make decisions about their process and come to know themselves as writers. And I believe it all begins with authentic work habits. To me, that is what matters most.
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