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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.

127 thoughts on “When Writers Drive The Workshop: Review and Giveaway Leave a comment

  1. Brian Kisdel reminds us that perspective, ours and our students ‘, is everything. When we use our writers ‘ perspective as our lens, we can see their path more clearly.

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  2. Thank you so much for the fabulous comments and response to this post. I hope so many of you read When Writers Drive the Workshop this summer and it leads to great conversations about making our workshop more student-driven. Congratulations to Andrea Willadsen who is the winner of the book!

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  3. Thank you for your detailed synopsis of this book! What a great resource – not only does it highlight the importance of building relationships with our student writers FIRST, but it also shares both the HOW and the WHY of allowing students to take ownership of the writing workshop.

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    • My school’s goal next year is to refine our Writer’s Workshop. This book is the perfect resource for our goal. I’m adding it to my summer reading stack!!

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  4. You have told my story! I read Learn Like a Pirate and my whole teaching philosophy changed. I am not student led and my students are large and in charge! I also ditched my student desks and teacher desks and replaced them with sofas, high top tables, round tables, and comfy chairs. Finally, I made the switch to 7th grade this year and we are in the process of rewriting our curriculum. We have decided to utilize writing and reading workshop in the middle school! This book would be perfect and extremely helpful. I can’t wait to read it!

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  5. I am a teacher in a Pittsburgh school district and think this article is very valuable. It’s what I plan to do this summer as part of my recharge and refocus reflection. Thank you! Ali

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  6. Thank you, Kathleen, for the very thorough review! Makes me want to add the book to my TBR stack! I am always working to make my classroom more student-driven, as well. My fingers are crossed that I will win the giveaway! : )

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  7. Thank you for this. One of my goals next year is to get students to be more independent and create realistic, understandable goals for themselves.

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  8. Yes, yes, yes! It is high time that we (and by we, I mean I) get back to what matters most in any workshop — the children. Writers read and writers write. Enough with the backward design and choosing the “sharer” by observing who is doing what I asked them to do. I cannot wait to read this book and get inspired!

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  9. Yes, yes, yes! It is high time that we (and by we, I mean I) get back to what matters most in any workshop — the children. Writers read and writers write. Enough with the backward design and choosing the “sharer” by observing who is doing what I asked them to do. I cannot wait to read this book and get inspired!

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  10. I am really looking forward to purchasing this book, as I gleaned many transformative strategies from Learn Like a Pirate as well! Thank you for your thorough review.

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  11. Thank you for telling us about another great book! Looks so good!

    “but we also have much to learn from our young writers” So true!

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      • Hi Jill,
        I don’t think I can write “Amen” enough for this comment! Love your line: “You can’t direct or laminate workshop!” So true. We teach different children, with different interests and different stories. Our conversations should be different. Our classrooms should look different. There’s so much beauty in the difference!
        –Brian

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  12. Lots of truth to the core of this book- the heart of workshop is that it looks different in every room with each different group of students. You can’t direct or laminate workshop!

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  13. We did Self-Directed Writers last summer as a book study, and this sounds like it would be a great complement to that book!

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    • Karen–you DEFINITELY have the time and courage to do this! This is how I know…I followed teachers who made the time and found the courage. Also, I’m just a tweet away. If you ever need thoughts/feedback, Tweet me: @btkissel. 🙂
      –Brian

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  14. This book sounds wonderful. The question is whether I have the time and the courage to implement a truly student driven workshop.

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  15. Enjoyed reading this post. I would love to read this book! Students need to have a voice and feel ownership of their classroom.

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  16. I love books that make me rethink some of my teaching decisions. Thank you for sharing your thinking as you read Brian Kissels’s book. Such a powerful way to help others learn and reflect,

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    • Hi Cindy,
      Oh….don’t you just love Jane Hansen? She was my dissertation advisor when I got my PhD and continues to be the most important person in my professional life. So much of what she taught me weaves throughout this book. 🙂
      –Brian

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  17. I can’t wait to read Kissel’s book as i share the same beliefs about children and writing. In fact, Jane Hansen and Donald Graves were my professors at UNH years ago. In recent years, I have been a Literacy Specialist in a district that uses scallions units of study. And I have tried to infuse my work with teachers with everything Kissel is talking sabout which grows out of the Writing Heritage of Don Murray and Don Graves and Jane Hansen and Tom Newkirk. I am still sharing drafts of my picture book manuscripts, writing journal pages and essays with kids one class, one lesson at a time.

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  18. This seems like an amazing book. If I don’t win, I look forward to purchasing it. I am a first year teacher, 4th grade, and I have been reflective all year. I have so much to learn! Thank you for your blog.

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  19. Wow! Reading through the chapter summaries got me excited about planning for next year! I’m in the process of revamping my curriculum and will have to read this book. Thanks for the heads up!

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  20. When students have a voice and a choice they are more self aware and empowered. I would love to read this book as our school continues to move forward with learning and practicing writer’s workshop and conferring.

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    • Hi Julie,
      What a thoughtful, honest comment! Indeed, it can feel intimidating at times. But whenever I feel scared I just focus on the writer. I know that when I listen and respond authentically to what I hear, I feel less alone because the writer and I are learning TOGETHER. 🙂
      –Brian

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  21. “When did prepackaged programs and Pinterest replace children as the driving force of instruction?” This line so resonated with me. Teaching writing can be intimidating because to do it authentically, it can’t be scripted. It does require vulnerability, and the focus must be on the learners. I can’t wait to read this book!

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    • Hi Gay!
      I love that you’re the 6th grade writing mentor. I was a literacy coach for 4th and 5th graders during a year we were solely focusing on writing. It was a transformative learning experience for me to work with all those young writers!
      -Brian

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  22. As the writing mentor for 6th grade, this book sounds absolutely critical to read. Looking forward to getting new ideas and inspiration!

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  23. Your review of this book has me very excited to read it. I have always used the term “off-roading” when I veer away from the prescribed trajectory of teaching points because I see my class needs something else. And conferring notes always inform those decisions!

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  24. Ah the “laminated seed watermelons”!
    Yes, the workshop approach from 2007 needs refreshing updates. I hope I’m lucky enough to win this book! Interested to dive in..

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    • Hi Mary from Madison,
      I have an Aunt Mary from Madison, WI. Are you from the same Madison. If so, she owns Fat Jacks BBQ restaurant. Do you know that restaurant? 🙂 Yummy food! Tell her I’m sorry for being so terrible when she babysat me at age 8. haha
      –Brian

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  25. This seems like a challenging and worthy read. In a time of reviewing curriculum and challenging ourselves to put students’ needs first, this sounds like a voice we all need to pause and reflect on our current practices.

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  26. This sounds like just the book I need for next year. I am switching from teaching math only to teaching writing to three classes of fifth graders. My reading specialist is already making me laminated watermelons that I don’t want to use. I want my students to find their own voices and themselves as they write.

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  27. This looks great! I agree WW needs to be student led. Mini-lessons are great but cannot be the focus. I’ve seen a lot of teachers afraid of giving students the freedom WW offers. Once the fear is let go, writers emerge!

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  28. I’ll be going into third grade, and my school has never had the third graders writing much. I really want to change that this year! I am not yet sure where to begin, but I am also excited!

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  29. These words really jumped out to me, “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.” So important!

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    • Yes…In the book I talk about having a conference with a graduate student who was responding to a piece of my writing about the death of my grandmother. The student was so busy going through the prescribed conference list she learned in her school district that she forgot to first respond to me as an authentic human being. At that moment I learned that we first need to have real, authentic moments with our writers when they are brave enough to share their lives with us.
      –Brian

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  30. What struck me most about this post was the powerful statement about conferring. I have struggled this year to follow a prescribed format just as Kissel said. It limited me, and at times, frustrated me. While I knew it was important to keep track of my conversations with my students, a scripted format didn’t allow me to let the conference flow from student needs. I look forward to reading this book over the summer and sharing Kissel’s insights with my colleagues.

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  31. I am inspired! I love Writer’s Workshop and I am always looking for new ideas to make my kindergarten friends stronger writers! Yahoo!

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  32. Love these ideas! Would love to win the book for free! I’m always looking for support to back up my lessons on allowing the writer to be in control of his/her writing!

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  33. I’m so excited about adding this book to my reading list this summer! I feel like I’ve lost my way a little bit in my writing workshop and I think this book is just the thing to get me back on track! Thank you for doing such an in-depth look at it.

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  34. I am wondering about middle school as well. I believe agency is even more needed for our older writers. Thanks for this blog…I will be coming back to it again and again.

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  35. I agree with this idea. Writing should be personal. With that being said, who better to let us know what is needed than the aspiring author.

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  36. Some great ideas here. I need some advice re the workshop. Thanks for the thorough review. My interest indefinitely piqued.

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  37. Is there value in this for Middle School? Or what would you suggest? I’d like to do more of this in my class next year.

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  38. This looks like an amazing book. This quote will stick with me all day: “In what ways can I foster conditions so my classroom is more writer driven than teacher driven?”

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  39. I love idea of students leading the writing process. Student writing must include the student’s voice and word choice. Teacher can guide, but when students lead it is magical. It also motivates other students.

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  40. I am looking forward to reading a book in which we focus on the writer not the program! (And taking it back to principles laid out to Donald Graves.)

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  41. I’m especially interested in reading the chapter about reflection. I find my teaching is lacking when my reflection time is squeezed out of my schedule by meetings and other obligations not directly related to the teaching and learning. It is the same for learners of all ages; our reflection upon our practice (work) moves us forward into new work.

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  42. Conferencing is the biggest struggle in my workshop and this seems like a great tool to help me grow in this area. I’m afraid mine look like the canned conferences you mentioned!

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  43. Totally agree!!! My students have told me many times that they should be writing about what they want and what they know because prompts and guided mini lessons make them feel stuck and they don’t know what to write about the topic. Giving students the choice and the drivers seat creates a sense of ownership.

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  44. This book sounds like a must read this summer. It looks like it would give me ways to improve upon what I am doing now.

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  45. This sounds like a wonderful summer read to head into September with a fresh mindset for our students. Thanks for the opportunity to win.

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  46. I would love to read this book this summer and use the strategies this coming school year. Thanks for such a wonderful review of the chapters.

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  47. Love that his ideas fur the book come directly from classrooms he works in. Sounds like a great read. Would love a chance to win, but I’ll probably wind up ordering it if I don’t! 🙂 Great review. Thanks!

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  48. Thanks for the thorough review of this important book! The window for making habits is open in our school now, as the teachers I coach will be entering the second year of writing workshop next year. Mini-lessons are rough, conferring feels awkward, and sharing is hit-and-miss. I would love to read Brian’s book in order learn strategies I might use to “steer” teachers towards listening to their students, not just go through prescribed steps. Fingers crossed for winning one!

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  49. Yes this is what we need! The kids need to be the drivers of the writing workshop! And I totally agree with teachers being writers themselves. I learned a lot of myself as a writer and my process by participating in the March SOL challenge and now I’m writing more than I ever have and miss it when I don’t make the time.

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  50. I had to laugh when I read the part about seeds coming from laminated watermelons. It is true that so often everything looks the same. This book sounds like a wonderful resource to reinforce the most important factor in a writing workshop – the writer.

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