Back to Basics: Writing Centers

img_0099As a literacy coach a lot of my work involves checking in with kids and teachers on their personal goals for writing workshop. Popular topics this year include: small group work, conferring, building and using conferring toolkits (especially microprogressions), and using mentor texts.

But sometimes I get so swept up in the current topics and goals that I forget to look around and remember the basics. Once in a while I have an aha moment where I look up, look around and realize that something really important has fallen by the wayside. These things happen. It usually happens slowly, quietly, over time, without anyone really noticing. One day there are strategy charts everywhere–the next there are none. One day every teacher I work with keeps amazing conferring notes, then, seemingly overnight, poof! Gone. Usually it takes a visit from a trusted mentor to help me see the things I’ve been missing.

A few weeks ago I made one of those “discoveries” on my own as I slowly began to realize that writing centers had fallen off my radar. I hadn’t really been looking for them in a while, and when I did go looking, I was surprised and inspired by what I found. I found some really innovative ideas, and was reminded of how important it is to set up a writing center that students can access independently, all on their own.

As you head into this week, remember to keep your head up and check on the basics. Here are five things you might look for and notice about writing centers:

  1. Many teachers are offering LOTS of choices of paper types for kids to choose from, and kids are loving it. Different amounts of space between lines, prestapled booklets with various numbers of pages, and even different colors of paper are enticing kids to write more.
  2. I’ve noticed a new trend in pen choices–gel pens seem to be all the rage in some classrooms. Apparently, if you time it well, you can purchase them on sale at big office stores, and they last a long time. Kids love the colors, and anything that makes writing more engaging is a good thing in my book. My personal all time favorite pens for writing workshop, though, will always be Flair Pens.
  3. In addition to writing folders and/or notebooks, a lot of teachers are offering students a personal “office space,” which is really just a piece of cardboard that can be used as a divider to block out distractions (and sort of mark “territory” at a shared table). These used to bother me–in my own experience I found them to be just as distracting as whatever kids were trying to block out–but I’ve come around on them now that I’ve seen many kids benefit from the personal space it creates.
  4. I’ve notice many more third, fourth, and fifth grade teachers using folders in place of notebooks. Students can use all kinds of paper choices and keep it all in the folder, and can move “entries” around easily. The folders with brads down the middle are handy for providing personalized tools, mentor texts, and charts for each kid.
  5. Last, but not least, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the biggest change in writing centers: laptops and devices. Most of the schools I work in begin using laptops for writing workshop partway through third grade (once kids have had enough keyboarding to be somewhat fluent). They still do lots of work in the notebook/folder, but then switch to the laptop when it comes time to draft. While the laptops aren’t exactly part of the writing center (not usually, anyway) I have learned some tricks to managing the laptops — such as calling kids in small groups to get their laptop and set it at their writing spot BEFORE the minilesson starts, so that they are ready to go when the time comes.


Photo: This lovely writing center was spotted in the classroom of Helen-Anne Cafferty at Jericho Elementary School, Jericho, Vermont.