Blog Series: Fundamentals of Writing Workshop
Growing up as a young person, I devoted a great deal of time to playing sports. Now, I didn’t participate in a lot of different sports — I played primarily soccer, with short stints in both basketball and tennis — but these sports I chose to participate in consumed a great deal of time and energy. Now that my children are old enough to begin playing sports, I have begun to wonder whether or not they might show some interest. And if they do, will it be worth the time and energy I hear other parents reporting they spend? All the transporting kids to and from practices, games, tournaments, etc. – will I be willing to do all that? And why? Not being part of organized sports myself now for years, I have begun to wonder: why would I want my kids playing sports?
To answer that question, this week I began a homegrown “Sports Camp” for my two oldest daughters. To be honest, I am winging it a bit; but so far I have learned a lot about why I may want to encourage my daughters to consider participating in organized sports. And a few reasons have surfaced: learning from failure; the value of practice; teamwork; resilience; the benefits of hard work. These are a few reasons I have re-discovered so far as to why I may encourage my daughters to consider joining organized sports. In a short amount of time, I have been able to get back in touch with some of the ‘why’ of sports. And that is important. Because much more so than the ‘how’ or the ‘what’, the ‘why’ provides us with purpose, passion, and principles that undergird and fuel efforts we devote to any endeavor.
This week, the co-authors at Two Writing Teachers would like to provide our audience with some extended definition to a few of the most fundamental structures and instructional components of writing workshop. For those of you who have been implementing a writing workshop for years, while we hope you’ll find this revisiting of the fundamentals to be affirming, we also wonder if perhaps by reacquainting yourself to the essential parts of workshop from the point of view of our co-authors you might be reinvigorated – even inspired! – to breathe new life into your teaching this year. And for those of you new to writing workshop, we are hoping to support you with a blog series that will offer some helpful content to either help get you started or inspire your initial efforts.
But before we begin, we thought it important to revisit the question: Why writing workshop? There are many other approaches, programs, methods, etc. for the teaching of writing… so why implement a writing workshop?
Important Needs for Writers
Donald Graves, sometimes referred to as the “grandfather of workshop” and/or the “father of process writing” once said writers need essentially three things: time, choice, and response. These three items, all integral components of the writing workshop, are essential if children are to grow as writers.
Time – In writing workshop, writing time is plentiful and frequent. Graves recommends children write frequently, at least four times per week. If writing time is not abundant and frequent enough, kids are unlikely to achieve two main goals of quality writing instruction: they will neither improve, nor will they learn to love (or even like) writing. Thus, writing workshop provides the time needed for both of these important intentions to become possible.
Adequate provision of time is necessary, as it allows kids the opportunity to practice and work hard, both important to becoming a writer. It is also provides the teacher access to his or her learners. In writing workshop, the whole class instruction is kept short so that teachers have time to confer with individual writers, partnerships, and/or small groups. Young writers need access to their teacher. They need their teacher to listen to their questions and ideas, facilitate problem-solving, and support their budding independence. Without adequate time for these interactions, an important connection between speaking and writing is lost.
It is a known fact that real writers write what they know. Thus, at the heart of success in writing is choice. As Two Writing Teachers co-author Melanie Meehan and Stacey Shubitz, in a pre-published piece, wrote (2017),
“[Since] writing workshop is an approach to teaching writing that simulates a real author’s writing process, empowering students to make decisions about how they communicate their thinking and express their voices [is essential]. Routines exist so writing workshop runs smoothly, but at the same time, writing workshop is freeing for students because they have choices.”
Choice also sends an implicit message to writers: “Your ideas are worth writing about.” This goes a long way in helping students produce higher quality writing. But even more importantly, allowing student writers choice in topic serves to support their writerly identity. For the goal of writing workshop is not to produce strong writing, it is to produce strong writers. Allowing students choice also teaches them that the best stimulus for writing doesn’t come from the outside (from a teacher, for example), but rather from inside each writer.
One way that writing workshop qualitatively sets itself apart from other methods and programs is that it slows down the process enough so that response and feedback are possible during the process, not just at the end of it. Many of us probably remember being student writers that turned in papers, only to wait sometimes two weeks before receiving any feedback (and typically only from the teacher)! For me, this feedback was typically a paragraph scrawled in red ink across the title or final page, with maybe a few (or several) edit marks, all made by my teacher. Research has shown this is just not an effective way to provide learners the feedback they need to improve and/or develop affinity for a new skill.
In writing workshop, response and feedback are provided similarly to the way a coach gives feedback to his athletes — while they are playing. By pulling up next to writers who are in the act of writing, either one by one or perhaps table groups, teachers are able to insert themselves into the real-time process of writing. They can then offer students real-time feedback, which the writer can then work to implement right then and there. By shortening the amount of time between learning something and applying it, writing workshop teachers are able to have a dramatic impact in a very short amount of time.
In addition to teacher feedback, writing workshop allows for response from peers and an authentic audience. As Melanie and Stacey (2017) write,
“Writing workshop creates ways for writers to have an authentic audience. Within the workshop itself, there is a built-in time for students to share their work-in-progress with their peers. Students see the impact their work has on others by way of the reactions that happens when others respond to their work.”
Another important component of writing instruction recommended by Graves is the development of a community of writers. At the beginning of and across the school year, teachers strive to build a sense of community within their classroom walls. Because of the commitment to choice that exists in writing workshop, it offers students and teachers opportunities to share experiences, values, special moments, and fears in a way no other subject does. It is important to value and celebrate the diverse experiences of the learners in our classrooms (Bishop, 1990), and writing workshop gives voice to all learners by honoring their stories and experiences. This attention and celebration of children’s lives, coupled with the importance of their stories, spills over into other parts of the curriculum, empowering students as learners who are willing to take risks and set goals.
Conditions of Learning
In addition to Graves’ work, other philosophical underpinnings of writing workshop come from University of Wollongong (Australia) Professor Brian Cambourne. During his research in the 1980s, Dr. Cambourne pioneered important research related to the acquisition of language. He eventually identified some conditions necessary for humans to learn language, which have now been long recognized as extremely important in literacy instruction. In fact, these conditions hold relevance for the learning of any new skill! These seven conditions, known widely as the “Seven Conditions of Learning,” undergird the writing workshop and its research-driven composition.
Condition 1: Immersion
I remember traveling as a foreign exchange student to France when I was still in college. I had been studying French for five years in both high school and college and was excited to finally visit the country in which this beautiful language was spoken. For some reason, I assumed I would be placed with a bilingual family, one that spoke both English and French. Boy, was I wrong! My host family spoke only French! Thus, began my immersion process. Although this was challenging, it did support my further learning of the French language, as I was completely saturated in the language I was trying to learn.
In order for to learn how to write, student writers must be surrounded by the language they are expected to learn. Writing workshop teachers typically employ the language of writers, using common terms (which Beth and Stacey wrote about here and here) and language to support the novice writers in his or her class. Immersing students in the language of writing supports student growth.
Condition 2: Demonstration
I wrote about this in a post titled, “Showing Not Telling” a while back, working to make the point that learners need to be able to observe actions in order to make meaning. As a literacy consultant, I’ll often point out to teachers that telling is not teaching. We, as writing workshop teachers, actually demonstrate how writers write. When we show kids, step by step, what a writing skill or strategy looks like in a clear and explicit way, they learn. They learn by actually seeing it (versus being told about it). Without the opportunity to actually observe the process, many young writers can feel marginalized, feeling that writing is something that is created in a place to which they do not have access. By demonstrating for them, we bring the process out into a common space where everyone is allowed and invited.
Condition 3: Expectations
Most athletic coaches hold high expectations for their players. Athletes receive both implicit and explicit messages that not only are they expected to learn something, but they are capable as well. I remember making the varsity basketball team in eighth grade. Although I was far from the most talented and capable player on the team, my coach always repeated the phrase, “You can do this. And if you don’t do it the first time, tell yourself, ‘I’ll get it next time.’”
Strong writing teachers are no different. We are coaches, too. Although writing workshop teachers work to establish a tone of co-practitioner in the classroom, we also work to communicate clear and positive expectations that our young writers are able to learn specific ways they can become stronger writers. One theory of writing workshop my mentor Mary Ehrenworth always teaches is: “Writing is a craft that we can get better at doing.” Within this statement lives the learning condition of expectations.
Condition 4: Responsibility
As a budding jazz pianist, one of my great teachers taught me that although jazz improvisation is an art of creation, there is a framework inside which players make independent choices. Writing is quite similar! Writing workshop teachers work to teach students how to make their own choices as writers. This is, indeed, another important way writing workshop is different from other approaches; essentially, we teach toward independence. For real writers make decisions as to what to try and when to try it. Implicit in this statement is the aforementioned need for choice and teaching students to be accountable for their own choices.
Condition 5: Approximation
A friend once told me, “Everything is hard until it’s easy.” Lately I have been watching my youngest daughter, now 17 months old, begin to speak. She already has quite a few words! But there are a few that she does not quite have yet. For example, for the word ‘water’ she says, ‘Wah wah.” She is approximating. And the good news about that is she is trying and (most likely) learning!
When truly learning anything, trying and failing is necessary. Otherwise, we are just showing what we already know how to do. Learners make attempts and learn from mistakes. When teachers expect and allow for this, it helps to build confidence. Writing workshop teachers recognize what each individual writer is able to do and build on that. This is in stark contrast to focusing on what kids can’t do, often called a ‘lens of deficit.’ Rather, workshop teachers work to view kids through a ‘lens of strengths,’ a much more productive and fruitful way to interact with and teach students.
Condition 6: Practice (Employment)
We get better at what we do frequently. Learners need many opportunities to practice with new skills and knowledge, not just a few. Harkening back to my early days learning to play jazz piano, I remember spending hours practicing scales, arpeggios, and songs, playing them over and over again. Without the opportunity to practice, I would never have improved.
Writing is no different. It is a skill learned in use. We learn to write by… well, writing! So in writing workshop, a premium is placed upon independent writing time. In fact, writing time is valued much higher than teacher talk time. By having long, sustained periods for writing, the writing workshop allows young writers the kind of practice time needed to become stronger and develop more affinity for the craft.
Condition 7: Response
Although this condition has been discussed above, it is worth adding that much of the more recent research supporting the writing workshop model was developed by John Hattie. According to Hattie, feedback has been shown to have a dramatic effect on achievement. Through the feedback process, whether it be writing conferences or small groups, writing workshop teachers are able to make the path toward student writing goals both concrete and visible. And this is something Hattie discovered to be required in order for learners to achieve- there needs to be a concrete and visible path.
Gradual Release of Responsibility
It was Pearson & Gallagher (1983) who coined the phrase “gradual release of responsibility”, describing a dynamic in the classroom in which teachers shift from modeling a skill (“I do”), to creating situations in which the skill is tried jointly (“We do”), to allowing independent employment and eventual application by learners (“You do”). At the heart of the writing workshop is the minilesson, a short and focused manifestation of the gradual release of responsibility. The minilesson format provides an opportunity for students to view a demonstration of an explicit or isolated strategy, then try it out themselves, usually with a partner. This is critical for the retention of a new skill. Following the whole class minilesson, students transition to independent writing time, which offers students time to grapple with their topics, hone their processes, and work toward meeting their goals. During this independent writing time, workshop teachers assess and target skills and strategies that meet differentiated needs, planning small group instruction and conferences that address more personal learning progressions.
My daughters may never join organized sports. And that’s okay, as I am aware that my big job as a parent is to help guide and support them in becoming the people they already are on the inside. But getting in touch with the ‘why’ of sports has been so helpful. When I am in touch with the purpose of why I am asking my kids to try something, I feel more authentic. With purpose comes power.
The co-authors at Two Writing Teachers and I are excited to help support you this week with what we believe could be a helpful series on the teaching of writing. We also hope to renew your spirit of purpose as you contemplate your upcoming school year.
- This giveaway is for a copy of Renew! Become a Better — and More Authentic — Writing Teacher. Many thanks to Stenhouse Publishers for donating a copy for one reader. (If the winner has a U.S. address, you may choose a paper or eBook. If the winner has an international mailing address, then you will receive an eBook.)
- For a chance to win this copy of Renew! Become a Better — and More Authentic — Writing Teacher, please leave a comment about this or any blog post in this blog series by Monday, August 7th at 5:00 p.m. EDT. Beth Moore will use a random number generator to pick the winner’s commenter number. His/her name will be announced in the ICYMI blog post for this series on Tuesday, August 8th.
- Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so Beth can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win. From there, our contact at Stenhouse will ship your book out to you. (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, Beth will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – RENEW BOOK. Please respond to her 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.