When Writers Drive The Workshop: Review and Giveaway

“Student-centered.”

It’s a phrase that rolls right off the tongue, educational jargon frequently used in philosophy of education statements and interview responses. But what does it REALLY mean to have a student-centered approach to teaching? Since reading Paul Solarz’s book Learn Like a Pirate, I’ve been pushing myself to create a classroom community where students can be teachers and leaders, too. I’ve given up my teacher desk, turning it into a student supply center. I’ve taught students how to be the facilitators for our classroom meetings.  I’ve incorporated digital tools into my instruction, such as blogging and using digital reading walls in lieu of traditional logs. I’m reading up on flexible seating and am inspired by Deb Frazier’s posts on how her first grade students are able to choose the tools and space that will help them the most as a learner. More than just saying the words “student-centered”, I am slowly working to change my teaching practice to put students, not the curriculum, front and center.

 When Writers Drive the Workshop: Honoring Young Voices and Bold Choices, by Brian Kisselrecently published in 2017 by Stenhouse Publishers, is a book that puts students at the center of writing workshop- active learners and decision makers who set goals for themselves, ask for the feedback they need, and influence what gets taught and when. On the back of the book, Kissel asks, “What happens when students, not planned teaching points, lead writing conferences? What happens when students, not tests, determine what they have learned through reflection and self-evaluation?” These questions and others are explored in this book about letting students “drive” the writing workshop. The metaphor of driving weaves through the book- detours, conditions, destinations, and diversions thematically connect the ideas of students in the driver’s seat during the writing workshop journey.

Brian Kissel is an educator with over twenty years of experience, beginning his career as an elementary school teacher. He is currently a professor of literacy and elementary education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. In the Acknowledgements, Kissel writes that his friend and mentor, Jane Hansen, advised him to “keep one foot firmly rooted in real classrooms” as he began his work in higher education. Kissel took that advice and spends one or two days each week teaching in a K-5 classroom. I was really struck by that idea, circling it and coming back to it. Staying connected to the classroom and actually teaching young children each week was something I really respected as a current classroom teacher and reader of this book.

The Foreword of the book is written by Aimee Buckner, another educator and author whom I greatly respect. (If you haven’t read her books on notebooks, including Notebook Know-How, Nonfiction Notebooks and Notebook Connections, they are well worth the read!) Aimee writes, “In a time in which we are inundated with resources to teach writing, this book stands out. Like a gentle wave, it pulls us back to remember what teaching in writer’s workshop should be and pushes us forward to do the work well.” What does matter when it comes to teaching student writers? What should the teaching be like in writer’s workshop? These are important questions to consider.  Books like When Writers Drive the Workshop remind us of the power of writing and the need for responsive teaching. It’s about creating agency and independence for our student writers, as well as a belief that writing matters and has a place in your life, your whole life through.

If you don’t have a solid understanding of what matters in writing workshop, it can be easy to let the “stuff” drive the workshop. Kissel warns, “Today I’m worried. I’m worried because I know too many classrooms where mini-lessons begin with ‘seed’ stories that germinate from laminated watermelons, predetermined conferences that always start with a compliment and end with a next step, and if it’s included at all, author’s chair or sharing time entirely driven by the teacher to reinforce a point he or she made during the minilesson…When did prepackaged programs and Pinterest replace children as the driving force of instruction? When did everything start to look the same?” (6).

Kissel further states, “To teach children, you must know them. To know them, they must reveal. To reveal, they must feel safe and secure. To feel safe and secure, they need agency. To have agency, they must have choices. When they choose their writing topics, children’s lives unfold onto their page. We are educated by the young voices and bold choices of our K-5 writers” (6). This is a shift for many- to think of yourself as a fellow writer in the room instead of the expert with all the knowledge. Yes, as teachers, we have knowledge to share and impart to our students, but we also have much to learn from our young writers if we stay open to that possibility.

The book is structured into 5 chapters with an Epilogue (powerful story) and Appendix that offers many helpful resources discussed within the book. Each chapter includes Guiding Beliefs, Digital Diversions (ways to integrate technology), Frequently Asked Questions, and a Travelogue with closing thoughts and ideas on the topic.

The opening anecdote in this chapter shows the danger when teachers stick to a prepared conferring script instead of responding with real emotion to the writer in front of you. Different types of conferences are described and students can ask for the type of conference they need. Ideas are shared on recording conference notes, including digital ways. Kissel makes a strong case for the need to record our notes from each conference. He says, “Writers need responders who remember- and documentation provides much needed memory space. We lose track of our writers’ voices and their decision-making choices when we fail to document our conversations. Writers go unnoticed when we don’t remember whether we met with them; they go unvoiced when we fail to meet with them weekly…Documentation helps guide our instructional decision making. Students’ voices resonate and are reflected in our instruction when we record snippets of what they say”(22-23). Kissel also shared a description of what he keeps in his conferring notebook, an idea we’ve also explored here on Two Writing Teachers.

Brian Kissel asks, “What do we learn when we confer with children?” After discussing some of the important things we learn about them as writers, he adds, “But in the midst of conferring, I think we learn even more important information about our writers…We learn about the great joys and the horrible moments that define a life” (34). When our students drive the conversation, we learn more about who they are as people, their struggles, their proud moments- we see the whole child in front of us. I love how Kissel brings this point into the book- writing, especially, includes this very human component to our teaching.

When I taught kindergarten, I often closed my workshop time with an Author’s Chair. Since I’ve moved to third grade, I haven’t utilized this strategy. Kissel has me rethinking that, and rethinking the Author’s Chair purpose and procedures. In this chapter, Kissel shares how an Author’s Chair gives the student writer a way to ask for the type of feedback he/she needs. Writers decide what type of feedback to ask the class for and the teacher can gain instructional ideas from what the writers shares and how the class responds.

Kissel writes, “Like many teachers, I did not always see the value of the author’s chair in my own classroom, so if time was limited, the author’s chair got the old heave-ho. But now I see the author’s chair as something bigger than just an author sharing writing. Author’s chair deepens other characteristics within our students that can expand across the curriculum and beyond the classroom walls. It gives permission for learners to take risks, be courageous, accept constructive feedback, offer support, think critically, reflect, and make connections- all qualities we want students to carry from their classroom lives to their out of classroom lives.” (54-55).

Kissel discusses how reflection can and should be part of the “assessment landscape” (59). He states, “Our students spend hours completing assessments created for them but don’t spend one second speaking for themselves. Shouldn’t they have a say in all this? And shouldn’t their voice be the loudest?”(59).  Daily, monthly, and yearly reflections are the focus of this chapter, including portfolio assessments.  Reflections is described as a critical component in writing workshop. Kissel writes, “Writers suffer when their learning lacks reflection. It’s crucial that we teachers make reflection a routine part of the day. Reflection for young writers is about examination for revelation. When writers reflect, they examine their writing lives and note strengths of acknowledge shortcomings. When writers reflect, they change behaviors because of their insights…When writers drive the workshop, their reflections create a more fully formed portrait of who they are as learners” (76-77).

I found this chapter to be really important and full of lightbulb moments. When teaching students a new genre, teachers need to consider what the writers’ needs are (based on conference and author’s chair notes), the state standards, the elements of a genre, and writers’ discoveries about mentor authors in the genre (82).  A point I appreciated was, “If we want students to approach writing from an inquiry stance, then we must inquire ourselves when we plan instruction” (85). One way to do that is to look to see what student writers are doing in order to find student “co-teachers.” This called to mind Learning From Classmates, by Lisa Eickholdt, and her work helping teachers see that student writing can and should be used to teach. Kissel also makes the point, “Strong writers are well-read readers. Strong writing teachers are well-read readers of children’s literature”(92) (The Nerdy Book Club is a great place to start if you want to be more up-to-date on the latest and greatest in children’s literature.) Teacher-created mentor texts are also emphasized. Kissel writes, “Our teacher-created texts serve multiple purposes. At the surface level, they provide models for our young writers who need examples to help them see possibilities. At a deeper level, they immerse teachers in our own writing process. Can we really teach writing effectively if we never engage in writing ourselves?…If we want students to drive the writer’s workshop, we must be in tune with the real feelings and struggles our young writers experience- and we do this by creating our own texts” (97).  Different types of mini-lessons are shared and discussions of when each lesson might be needed are also included.

In this final chapter, Kissel describes conditions that encourage good writing from students, based on Donald Graves’ research. He asks the reader to think of the conditions and pause to ponder, “In what ways can I foster conditions so my classroom is more writer driven than teacher driven?” (114). Conditions include time, choice, response, demonstration, expectation, room structure, and evaluation. When talking about demonstration, Kissel discusses why it is important for teachers to demonstrate writing habits by being writers themselves. He says, “We teacher provide the best demonstration for writing by being writers ourselves. When we carry daybooks, write frequently, reflect on our writing, and write for authentic audiences, we become the insiders our students need us to be. I would lose credibility and authenticity if I talked about what it means to be a writer yet never picked up a pencil and wrote myself” (127).  Another point he makes that rang true: “Writers need to live so they have something to write about” (128).

My Thoughts

When Writers Drive the Workshop is a book with heart. Brian Kissel writes with passion, voice, humility, conviction, and wisdom. The stories he shares from the student writers he worked with are stories that will stay with you, reminding you why doing this work matters so much. It’s practical, with ideas you can implement right away and a philosophy to guide your decisions. There are many visuals, charts, and helpful forms as well. More than just student-centered, this book shows what is possible when student writers drive the writing workshop.

Giveaway Information:

  • This giveaway is for a copy of When Writers Drive the Workshop: Honoring Young Voices and Bold Choices. Many thanks to Stenhouse Publishers for donating a copy for one reader.
  • For a chance to win this copy of When Writers Drive the Workshop, please leave a comment about this post by Friday, June 9th at 11:59 p.m. EDT. I’ll use a random number generator to pick the winner, whose name I will announce at the bottom of this post, by Monday, June 12th.
  • Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so I can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win. (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.)
  • If you are the winner of the book, I will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – WHEN WRITERS DRIVE THE WORKSHOP. Please respond to my e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. Unfortunately, a new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.