A Learner-Driven Classroom & Writing Workshop

I looked out at writers sprawled across the floor. Some with iPads, others with lap desks and writing folders, all heads down and deep in thought. A slight turn to the right and I spotted a writing conference. Two writers standing at the counter, one with an iPad and the other with a journal. My name is called from the door by a teacher as she enters the room. I quickly walked toward her to minimize the interruption when I realized the writers were undisturbed. She and I chatted for a second about a schedule change, As she left the room she tapped on a student-made sign posted outside the door, “We learn every day, and we will stay forever.” “This says a lot about the community in your room,” she said as she walked away.

I glance across the classroom for the writer I plan to confer with and see her over on the desktop computer. I pull over a stool and sit down beside her. She greets me with a smile and says, “I am writing this story for my daddy, he wants to know about what I do at school. He’s coming home this week! Can I print this when I am finished? I want to draw my own illustrations. I only used Pixie to help me make my writing look better so daddy can read it. He doesn’t know how to read my writing yet.” I smile back and assure her we will print her story.

My next conference, seated at our dining room table, eagerly shares, “I am making a book of poetry like Amy LV. I like writing poetry. I feel like I am really inside it.” without looking up from her page. We complete our conference, but I don’t leave, not yet. I pause to reflect on the writers in our community. Each writer is engaged and working in a personal way. I think back to the opening of our year and our first writing workshop (on the first day of school) and ask myself, “How did we get here? Can I guide another group of writers to this place next year?” It’s hard to celebrate the “Wow!” moments without feeling overwhelmed by the frightening task of starting over next year.

Making the Shift:
Moving to a learner-driven classroom has changed my role in the classroom and writing workshop. As a teacher in a learner-driven classroom, I have stepped back to observe the learner. I note the preferences, strategies, and tools the learners use. I seek new and different opportunities to support and strengthen the work of the learners. I keep the curriculum in the back of my mind and the children and their work in the front of my mind as I watch for opportunities to guide learners toward goals, genres, conventions and the demands of the curriculum in natural ways. When necessary, I point out circumstances to bring topics to light and guide learning through thoughtful observation.

In the Beginning:
On the first day of writing workshop, I gave little direction. “Today, we are going to have our first day of writing workshop. In writing workshop, we write. Happy writing!” Then, I stood back and watched. Where do the kids go? What tools do they grab? Do they ask permission to use tools? Do they start right away? Do they confer with other writers? Do they write, illustrate, or both? Do they generate topics? Do they wait for me to tell them the genre, the topic, how long to make the piece, or how to organize their writing? What questions do they ask? What do they need to be able to solve these questions independently?

I wait for the writers to show me what they need to compose their message, show evidence of learning, and to be independent. Then it’s my responsibility to provide the tools and to guide them to new opportunities. Writers who have the ability to write in a personal way are engaged, invested, and motivated because they are in charge of their learning.

I use the various tools in my minilessons and show the tool’s capabilities and limitations to the writers and allow them to explore and critique the tools. Writers make sense of the tools and choose the tool most appropriate to their needs. New tools come and go daily. Teaching the writer to explore and critically evaluate choices is one of the most powerful skills we can impart.

The learners leave our minilesson with a focus on work and creating a message that is clear to the reader and purposeful. My directions don’t include paper type, writing utensil, length, app, device, or organizational formats. These are the choices the owner of the work makes. During conferences, I push the learner to explain and evaluate their options in tools and purpose in communicating the message of their writing. My questions sound something like this, “What do you want your reader to know and how are you supporting your them?”

The Outcome:
Motivated and engaged writers scatter about the room composing and writing with a purpose in a personal way for an audience at the front of their minds. Like snowflakes, no two writers are the same, and each message is personal and done in a personalized way.

How are you turning the learning over to your students? What changes have you noticed in student motivation? How has your role been adapted? What have been your challenges and how have you solved them?