How to Reinvigorate Writing Workshop With Joy Through Independent Writing Projects

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Whether it’s a small (yet so big) job like packing up, or a more challenging feat like resolving a conflict, we teach, prompt, provide tools, and prompt some more to nudge our youngest learners toward independence. In the final months of the school year, it’s difficult to not be in awe of what our once very needy writers can do. A glimpse into writing workshop will show kids navigating paper choices, referencing charts, tracking goals, persisting through tricky words, as they write, write, write.

Yes, there is so much independence to be celebrated at this time of year, as we get ready to send writers off into the world.

Perhaps the most important independence of all, though, — the kind of independence that transforms a kid who writes into a kid who is a writer — is the innate ability to see possibilities for writing everywhere, then to make decisions for how to bring the possibilities to life.

When something big happens in their lives, do kids make the memory last forever by recording a narrative? When kids learn how to make something new, do they think, Someone else would want to know how to do this, and craft a how-to book? Hoping to convince a community member, do kids rely on persuasive writing as a tool for making a change? Can kids think flexibly about a topic they want to write about, considering its power if written in different genres?

By now, kids have closely studied and can produce a variety of genres. But topic, in many cases of authentic writing, is chosen before genre. In fact, to a writer, choice of genre is as critical as choice of audience. So, writers need opportunities to choose all three: topics they are passionate about, genres they love, and a meaningful audience, and it is this time spent immersing in independent writing projects that we get to know writers best. Trusted with ownership of genre, kids make remarkable strides, are excited to write, and strengthen their identity as writers.

Hands-off Approach

In Joy Write, Fletcher describes the kind of writing students engage in during independent writing projects as greenbelt writing (Named after ecological greenbelts: a border of undeveloped land to allow for re-establishing of wildlife). When writing workshop gets overly developed by academic genre studies, standards, testing, high-stakes, like developed land, greenbelts become a territory for wildlife, or in this case, wild writers to return and prosper.

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This is not to say we keep out of student endeavors. Rather, we support students in a more hands-off approach. Our role is not to change the product, but to help writers effectively bring their vision and voice to paper.

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This writer was concerned about a crack in the tile of the roof playground. He made copies of his writing project to post around the school.

Teaching Outside the (Genre) Box

As the energy naturally dies down after weeks and weeks spent on a specific genre, independent writing projects reboot, re-energize, and reinvigorate writing workshop with joy. The kindergarten teachers at PS 59 sandwich each genre-specific unit of study with a one to two week window for independent writing projects. In these weeks, it’s easier to focus on the writer (process), not the writing (product), as the stress of writing within the binds of a genre fades away. These windows give writers a chance to process, reflect upon, and celebrate the kinds of writing they know and love, while dabbling in new kinds of writing, such as newspapers, comics, and pop-up books. Kids will be sure to think of kinds of writing that teachers have not!

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Chase was inspired by Mo Willems to create a new Elephant and Piggie book.

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Colin created a lift-the-flap book to show how animals swim underwater.

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Jaxson wrote wrote for an independent research project.

A mini-unit of independent writing projects can be an opportunity for a “mega-practice” of a specific component of the writing process, partnered with quality skills (see chart below). For example, after looking at student work and closely observing writers, I planned a string of mini-lessons on editing while kids engaged with self-selected projects. Small group instruction was grounded in language convention skills, which are needed for success with editing.

At first, planning mini-lessons, conferences, and small-groups for kids who are writing different genres might feel impossible. But a closer look at the specific skills within each genre shows more commonalities than differences. A simple shift from “Writers can label the important parts of the picture in their stories” to “Writers can label the important things in their pictures” makes a skill applicable to any genre.

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Printable K-2 Skills Across Genres Chart

Tools for Independence

Preparing tools ahead of time will help writers be independent with any writing project.

  • Open-ended paper choices. Genre-specific paper is a helpful signal to kids, but can also hinder flexibility, (e.g. “I want to write a How-to book but there is no How-to paper!!”). Instead, we can offer simple choices that can be adapted for many genres: portrait writing paper, landscape writing paper, and blank paper. Staplers, tape, scissors, and glue sticks allow kids to make the changes they need.
  • Favorite mentors from each genre, and new mentors to match the kind of writing students are doing.
  • Pictures or small copies of anchor charts and checklists. (Think: tools, not rules. Though helpful, tools should not inhibit creativity. Stories don’t have to be true. Informational books can be written as a narrative.)

Fitting it all in

In the 1,000+ things we try to fit in our day, and in our year, independent writing projects can feel like one more to-do. But there are many creative ways to make it work, and kids will be begging that you do.

Not too late to start now! On the list to try next year!
End the year with a celebratory writing unit of independent writing projects. Make room for one to two week-long independent writing projects in between each genre study by shortening each unit of study by one week or so. This can simply be done by using a menu of teaching points and being responsive to the ones students truly need.
Start each day with a soft start (or end it with a soft end). Independent writing projects can be a choice at this time.
Set aside daily or weekly time for kids to spend with writing notebooks. Schedule 10-15 minutes of writing choice in a daily writing workshop (Bonus: More time for small groups!).
Create a writing center for choice time, or make it a choice during a 15-minute brain break in between content areas.
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Caption: During share, kindergartners recorded and reflected on the kinds of writing they chose during independent writing time.  With all genres represented, the class decided to open a library at choice time.

Still Curious?

Text for the Giveaway– Day by Day: Refining Writing Workshop Through 180 Days of Reflective Practice

day-by-day

  • This giveaway is for a copy of Day by Day: Refining Writing Workshop Through 180 Days of Reflective Practice. Thanks to Stenhouse Publishers for donating a copy for one reader. (You must have a U.S. mailing address to win a print copy of this book. If you have an international address, then Stenhouse will send you an eBook of Day by Day.)
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