Not All Writers Are the Same! Ideas for Differentiating in the Writing Workshop (Part 1)

A general hush settled over the room.  “Okay,” started our band director rubbing his temples, “Now I’d like to just hear just the percussion section.”  Resting my alto saxophone across my lap, I turned to look over my right shoulder at the drummers and bell players in our symphonic band.  Standing in the middle was my brother Sean.  Suddenly, I heard a voice in my left ear: “How are you and your brother sooo different?” I heard my friend ask. It was a fair question.  There stood my brother, long hair, homespun clothes…while I sat with my cropped hair and my new Izod shirt.  But the differences went far beyond physical…the fact was, my brother and I were different in many, many ways.  In the band, for example, our jobs were quite dissimilar.  Even though we were both working on becoming better musicians, the time we spent during rehearsals looked quite different.  What if we thought of our writing workshop time in a similar way?

Many of us are huge fans of diversity.  In fact, many (or even most) of us might even agree that it is diversity that helps make our communities and country vibrant and uniquely wonderful.  Yet, it seems celebrating differences can become difficult for teachers of writing.  I can even remember myself in the classroom thinking something along the lines of, “if only these kids just came in with the same skills!”  Or even, “I wish these kids would just all write well!” Or maybe, “What are they teaching these kids in the previous grades?!”

Yet the reality is that kids– even two kids from the same family (like my brother and me)- are different!  Consider that by expecting differences, we become stronger teachers.  We prepare differently.  And, I would posit, our stance toward teaching and learning changes for the better.

Many of you know wonderful teacher, amazing author, fabulous staff developer (and my colleague!), Kate Roberts. Let me just say that Kate is one of those people I am extremely grateful to know and have worked with in the past.  She truly is a gift to this world.  Last year, at a workshop at the TC Reunion in New York City, Kate shared some of her recent ruminations on differentiation within the writing (and reading) workshop.  With her permission, I would like to share some of her ideas here that may help all of us celebrate and plan for the diversity of learners in our classrooms:

3 Ideas for Differentiation

  1. Keep lessons short– One of the defining features of writing workshop is the belief that sustained writing time makes a huge difference.  And yet, sometimes in our drive to teach kids more stuff about writing, we eat into their writing time by talking more, thereby extending our minilessons or inquiries.  Kate encourages us to be aware of over-talking.  Don’t try to pack it ‘all’ into the minilesson- that’s not differentiation!  And besides, after about ten minutes many or most of the kids are not listening anyway.  In our recent #TWTBlog chat, author Ralph Fletcher said, “If we talk too much, we deflate the natural urge to write.”  It may come as a surprise, but in concurring with Kate, I recommend lowering our expectations about the work of the day.  It just isn’t going to move the majority of our writers. By keeping our whole-class instruction short, we allow more time for conferring and small group work, which is where we can better differentiate our instruction.
  2. Establish a “Mission Structure”- In her session, Kate shared with us her love of action/adventure movies. She is a huge fan! Who knew?! In most action movies, Kate has noticed that the main character is generally working on at least two “missions” – a “main mission” and a “side mission.”  For example, the main character’s main mission might be to save the world (cue the superhero orchestral refrain).  But there is typically a side mission, too; like, say, saving another important character (cue the love song).  She suggests adopting this metaphor for writing workshop.  What if we encouraged all writers to think about operating on two levels and always having two jobs to do:  a main mission (i.e., the work of the unit) + a side mission (i.e., an individual goal)?  The main mission, of course, would tie directly to the work of each individual unit and minilessons.  For example, it might be a mission to become a stronger, more nuanced arguer.  Or perhaps a more sophisticated story-teller.  The side mission, however, while it might be in line with the whole-class lesson, it may not.  After all,this is writing workshop!  Students may be working on an individual goal (side mission) they’ve set for themselves (and/or with you) around volume & stamina; or perhaps they’re working on a personal goal around structure or development.  The big point is to consider providing students a conceptual way of being in class, with there always being two “missions” each writer is working on.
  3. Rely on a system to support the “Mission Structure”- Thirdly, in line with the action/adventure metaphor, Kate suggests relying on a system to help support students in bringing the metaphor into real life action.  For example,  where do writers practice their main mission and side mission? And when? To answer the first question (where?), Kate offers the idea that writers can set up physical places in their notebooks to practice both their main mission and side mission(s)- like different sections, perhaps.  Or maybe during the drafting or revising phase, we might ask students to highlight where they worked on their main mission and where they worked on their side mission.  In terms of when to practice each mission, teachers might consider sub-dividing independent writing time, allotting some time for each mission.  In middle school, for example, many of us deal with a frightfully small amount of literacy time.  So for those teachers, consider daily or weekly structures.  For example, during a day we might dedicate perhaps the first ten minutes of independent writing time to the main mission, then using a mid-workshop interruption, we might coach writers to do some side mission work.  Another possibility would be dividing a week into main mission work and side mission work.  On side mission days, perhaps there is no minilesson; instead, teachers could choose to just work with small groups on their side missions.

As we happily plunge headlong into a new school year, let us consider that just like in a symphonic band, there will be a variety of strengths and talents that walk through our doors.  Some writers will bring a command of conventions, others will not.  Some writers will know what we mean by “show, don’t tell,” others will need heavy scaffolding and coaching.  Some writers will be strong with providing “text evidence,” others will need many opportunities to even grasp the concept.  They will all be there (or already are!). Count on it. Planning for diversity will likely make us less crazy and help set our writers up for success.  One way to help all writers will be to consider talking less during lessons, and setting kids up to think about two missions.  This is differentiation, as we will be setting students on trajectories more matched to who they are and where they need to go!

* Thank you to Kate Roberts for the inspiration for this post.