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How to Reinvigorate Writing Workshop With Joy Through Independent Writing Projects

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Independent-ish

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.)
  • For a chance to win this copy of Day by Day: Refining Writing Workshop Through 180 Days of Reflective Practice, please leave a comment about this or any blog post in this blog series by Sunday, May 7th at 6:00 p.m. EDT. Melanie Meehan 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 Monday, May 7th.
  • Please leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment so Melanie can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win. From there, our contact at Stenhouse will ship the book 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, Melanie will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – DAY BY DAY. Please respond to her e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.

35 thoughts on “How to Reinvigorate Writing Workshop With Joy Through Independent Writing Projects Leave a comment

  1. Thank you for reminding me of the value of independent writing projects. Over the years, I have seen the highest level of engagement with these types of projects. Any suggestions on how to support this on a 6th grade level in terms of mini-lessons, mentor text study, etc? I feel like it is almost a relief to get away from the unit study with its progressions, checklists, grade-level models. I know the genre studies are necessary, but don’t see all the kids fully engaged, even when they have choice of the topic or issue.

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    • I totally agree-it’s a relief to get off course into “free range” writing. I can’t speak with experience for middle school, but if you’re already using the UOS, I would imagine there are similarities in the progressions and checklists between genres. I tend to focus a bit more on the process of writing-whichever area is most needed-or a lacking skill and think about how that skill/process can be practiced across any genre. I keep my mini-lessons unspecific to any kind of writing. I would start with your kids though-ask them what kinds of writing they are interested in trying. They could form clubs-find their own mentor texts. You might not even have mini lessons in these weeks-maybe you have a quick-how to get started in your club-focus lesson then do a lot of coaching. Hope this helps! I would love to hear what you try!

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      • Thank you, Kelsey. In the remaining weeks, I will experiment with your suggestions. In fact, I am already working with my colleague to re-think our approach next year. Most of our mini-lessons can easily fit across genres. Our course has a special focus on grammar, sentence fluency/structure, conventions. We try to teach most of it through the lens of the writing process, i.e. thinking why would a writer think about a phrase or clause.

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  2. I am a huge fan! Thank you so much for all your great ideas! I am a teacher/future literacy coach at a school in Beirut, Lebanon (Currently a grad student at TC). I have always found your posts to be EXTREMELY helpful! Can’t wait to share this with my teachers!

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    • Hi Nour, Thank you for making my day! It’s amazing that you are reading along from Beirut. I would love to hear more about your experience there. I’m so happy to hear my posts are helpful. Thank you again for leaving this kind comment!

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  3. This statement, “the kind of independence that transforms a kid who writes into a kid who is a writer,” rings true with me. We need to keep that vision in mind as we teach or coach. Giving students choice in writing is so important, but teachers feel such a pressure to grade, grade, grade (usually in a finished, published piece). I hope to nudge my teachers to give independent choice throughout the year. Thanks!

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    • I’m so happy to hear that statement stuck out to you-it was the most powerful one to write for me. I need to keep it in mind more often. I find it much easier to focus less on the product and rubrics in our minds or on paper when kids are in independent projects. When our goal is a genre, we go straight for what’s on the page! Thank you!

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  4. Thank you for sharing this K-2 Skills Across Genres chart plus the fitting it all in ideas! I look forward to sharing this with the teachers that I work with!

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    • So happy to hear it was helpful! I really needed to make it for myself also–The progressions are packed with helpful information, but I can get lost in them sometimes. I’d love to hear what you and your teachers try!

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  5. I have a question regarding assessment. I’m a middle school teacher who just launched independent writing projects. Unsurprisingly, I have a number of projects being undertaken: website building, scripts (video & “radio shows”), advertisements, informational slideshows, etc. I’m wondering how to assess all these various projects. Is there an independent writing rubric I can peruse, and modify if needed? Thanks!!

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  6. Some of our class’ best greenbelt writing comes out of the morning soft starts. Organic group writing occurs – comic books, short stories, and plays among others. It’s so important to validate Ss thinking about writing and to allow them to take risks – independently or with a small group of peers. Thanks for the reminders!

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    • That sounds incredible. It’s hard to bring soft starts to an end on days like that, when engagement in purposeful tasks is so high. It’s great to think about how those ideas can transfer to writing workshop.

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  7. Wonderful post, Kelsey! Packed with so many ideas. As a former free-range writing teacher, I feel (and I know my students have) constrained at times just a tad by our new formal curriculum adoption. I have, however, found lots of opportunities for my Kindergarten students to stretch their writing legs a bit throughout the day as you suggest. During Literacy Workshop (as opposed to Writing Workshop), “Work on Writing” appears twice on our weekly checklist for the week. During that time students may choose from a variety of paper and work on anything they like. “Word Work” on the menu is a photographic writing prompt, which writers may create a poem, story, or other type piece of writing. We’ve been having fun with photos from National Geographic’s weekly photo email. Science Notebooks are written in at least once each week. And lastly “Genius Hour,” held four days each week, always includes a writing table that is often packed! My goal for next year is to incorporate work in a Writer’s Notebook. I’d love to hear how other Kindergarten teachers make time for notebook writing when they have a formal writing curriculum that does not allow for it. Thanks!

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    • Thank you so much Christie! Your Literacy Workshop sounds so interesting and packed with opportunities for choice.I’d love to see the word work prompts. I am with you on wanting to incorporate writing notebooks. I started inquiry writing notebooks early in the year and kind of lost momentum for them. Let’s think together on it next year!

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  8. I really like that ideas that are “not too late to start now.” I know that I always struggled at the end of the year with what to do for writing, as we didn’t have enough time for a new unit. Allowing kids to explore the different genres is a simple way to keep the volume and engagement high at the end of the year.

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  9. I am a K-5 Literacy coach – and this post is so well-timed, as “spring fever” is in full bloom!
    I am sharing this with my colleagues, as I do with so many of the posts from this blog!

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  10. As motivation wanes this year, it is clearly time to reintroduce independent writing topics. I begin my school year in this way; Why have I never thought to continue the practice into the spring? Kids crave this!

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  11. Great thoughts! The question, “Can kids think flexibly about a topic they want to write about, considering its power if written in different genres?” is especially thought provoking.

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  12. This is a timely post as we’re looking ahead to the sequence and timing of units for next year. Why do we stuff things full to the gills when we plan instead of leaving some breathing room for this kind of choice. Overplanning takes away choice from kids and teachers. I love the idea of a week between other genre-specific units. I’m also really interested in the soft starts that would make room for a little more choice every day.

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  13. I love the idea that not every writer has to be doing the same thing all the time, therefore developing the writer rather than some preordained project.

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  14. The essence of the writing workshop is so powerfully captured and beautifully communicated here – it’s all about the writers: “Our role is not to change the product, but to help writers effectively bring their vision and voice to paper.” – Just one of many vital reminders!

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