A Game Plan for Writing Workshop Transitions

Have you ever visited a colleague’s classroom or watched a video of a lesson and wondered, “How are those kids so perfect? How do they seem to know exactly what to do, the moment the teacher suggests it?”

Just like in sports, practice makes perfect.

A sports coach puts time and effort into devising game plans–plans for how best to use each player’s strengths, personalities, and relationships to develop a winning strategy.

Likewise, as a classroom teacher you will also want to utilize the space, resources, and strengths of your “players” to make the most of your teaching.

I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have worked as a coach and consultant in dozens of schools, adding up to hundreds of amazing classrooms. Time and time again I am reminded of the importance of teaching into consistent routines and expectations. Transitions (when kids are asked to move from one part of the room to another, or to switch from one activity to another) can be tricky – -and within just one writing workshop there might be several of these tricky transitions.

Through much trial and error, (and I do mean a LOT of error), I’ve come to rely on a few tried and true routines as part of my game plan.

FIRST: Each child is strategically assigned to a writing partner. Personalities, dispositions toward writing, language fluency, as well as their strengths and next steps as writers are all taken into account. We often ask students to write us a note with their preferences as well. This partner may be the same partner for reading–but not always.  Each partnership has a designated “Writing Spot” for writing workshop (see below). These writing spots might be at tables, or spread out around the room in comfy spots. Often, the partnerships choose the writing spot to begin, and then we ask them to stick with the same spot each day for consistency. Consistency helps make transitions smoother.

Classroom Map 1

SECOND: I teach kids to set up for writing workshop before the minilesson, every day. I designate one student at each table to be the “Table Captain” and I ask the table captains to take care of handing out all the writing workshop materials for me. Each table has a basket that contains all of the folders or notebooks, post-its, pens, and anything else the table might need for writing. The table captain simply places the basket on the table and we’re ready to go.

Classroom Map 2

THIRD: I invite each table group to the meeting area, usually one table at a time–especially at the start of the school year. In the beginning of the year, I take time to literally demonstrate what it looks like to stand up, tuck in your chair, and walk calmly and quietly to the meeting area. Each group observes each other as they move from their writing spots to the meeting area. As the year goes on, this becomes more and more automatic, and eventually I can simply call the whole group at once.

Each table has designated spots at the meeting area that are next to their writing partners. This makes it possible to flexibly use the strategy of “turn and talk” at any point. They are always near their partner! Having a consistent partner is a huge social support as well as language support for all your students. It also has the added side-effect of making your transitions even smoother since they are always sitting in the same spot at the meeting area.

It goes without saying that the meeting area spots are also strategic–some children are much more successful sitting right up front, while others benefit from the independence and space for movement that being in the back provides. I always try to have the whole group as close to me as possible, for engagement.

Classroom Map 3

FOURTH: With the whole group ready at the meeting area, I also teach a consistent routine for active listening. Long ago, I learned the “Magic Five” and I remind students of it nearly every day.

MAGIC FIVE  FOR ACTIVE LISTENING

  1. Legs Criss-Cross
  2. Eyes Looking
  3. Ears Listening
  4. Hands in Lap
  5. Lips Closed

The consistency of this little routine helps kids (of all ages) calm their bodies so that they are ready for listening.

When the minilesson is over, I send one group off to their writing spots at a time, usually starting from the back so that they need not step over each other. Because they are already seated next to their partners and table-group, they all arrive at their table (or comfy area) at the same time and can get settled into their writing together.

In the beginning of the year, I often demonstrate explicitly what it looks like stand up, walk calmly to a writing spot and get started writing right away, without waiting. As I send each group off, I invite the other students to observe, and especially notice how their classmates get started writing as soon as they are at their tables, without waiting. (Sitting and waiting at their tables not only isn’t necessary, it’s a recipe for becoming disengaged).

Classroom Map 4

Eventually the send-off routine becomes automatic, and soon I can simply say, “Off you go!” and kids know just what to do.

Like a great sports team, your class benefits from a game plan that makes it possible for them to devote all their mental energy to the work at hand. Once they no longer have to worry about who to sit next to, or where to go, they are free to concentrate on their writing.