independent writing projects · soft starts · writer identity

A Soft Start To Writing Workshop

Kids don’t walk through our doors as empty vessels, waiting to be filled. Even the newest, youngest additions to school bring with them a suitcase of imprinted memories, budding schemas, and a strong sense of self-worth.

One of our jobs responsibilities in these beginning, formative weeks together is to unpack each of these suitcases.

Inside, we’ll find stories. We’ll uncover identities, self-efficacy, and mindsets — each of which will propel the successes and challenges ahead.

Before we can begin threading together the content that will weave a curriculum, we must extend an invitation and patiently nudge and wait, nudge and wait, nudge and wait.

Yes, there is an invitation to write, too, and it is delivered with care, stamped FRAGILE.

The invitation to write begins on the very first day and it will return the day after that…and the day after that…and the day after that. It will return every day until it is RSVP’d Yes by every writer, every single one.

Because before the writing comes a writer.

Before engaging in meaningful, purposeful, true writing, children need to see themselves as writers who can.

Before jumping into content, before placing a child on a progression or marking up a rubric, before telling kids what and how and why they will write, give yourself permission to set it all aside.

For it is in these early weeks that we have the potential to nurture new writing identities, to strengthen or revise notions kids have made about their capabilities as writers.

In Developing Your Child’s Healthy Self-Identity, Dr. Jim Taylor writes:

“Self-identity is one of the trickier aspects of a child’s healthy development because you can’t ‘do’ things to your children to give them their self-identity. Rather, you can only create an environment that allows their self-identity to emerge naturally.”

We can address kids as Writers or Authors with hopes that they will begin to internalize it, but it will take much more. It will mean fostering an environment — a safe, inviting, messy, inclusive, imperfect, lively environment  — and that’s what these first weeks together are all about.

An Invitation to Write

Begin With a Soft Start

Nobody seems to know where soft starts came from - but the name makes sense.

More and more educators are tossing worksheets and robotic routines for more self-selected, self-driven soft starts to the day. Few of us would like to jump out of bed and immediately begin working, and neither would kids. Creating this space, this fifteen minutes of flexible time where kids can be alone or be together, or create or research, or read or write, is an investment in the learning potential of the day to come.

Consider the first few weeks, the first fifteen days, perhaps, a soft start to writing workshop. The majority of kids haven’t written for months (or ever, for our littles!). You’ve probably had several weeks to imagine, mull over, play and tinker with the space that has become your classroom before kids arrived. Let this be the time that kids imagine, mull over, play and tinker with the space that will become writing workshop before content begins.

This does not mean delaying writing workshop. Writing workshop will begin on day one with my kindergartners. But our learning will be centered on what it means to be a writer, on strategies for writing — not on the qualities and strategies of writing (Think low-stakes, greenbelt writing a la Ralph Fletcher).

In the following quote, I encourage you to interchange “day” with [year] and “inquiry” with [writing]:


Find an Entry Point

In Engaging Young Writers, Matt Glover describes essential entry points for influencing motivation and energy for writers:

  1. Essential Entry Points: meaning (meaningful things to think and write), choice (in topic and kind of book), and purpose (reason for writing the book)
  2. Invitational Entry Points: through a conversation, interaction, or a unit of study
  3. Story Entry Points: invented stories from play, from movies, from picture books
  4. Experience Entry Points: writing about their lives
  5. Interest Entry Points: writing about a topic of interest

Given these entry points, it is pivotal that writers have a choice in genre during the first weeks (as well as blank and open-ended writing paper). You may recall Paolo, whom I wrote about in a poetry reflection last spring. It wasn’t until he began writing poems that Paolo identified as a writer and subsequently fell in love with writing. If I had discovered that early on, I could have helped Paolo to have a better experience with other genres.

“For many children, choice equals control, and since we want children to develop strong images of themselves as writers, we want them to have as much control over the writing process as is beneficial,” (Glover, Engaging Young Writers p. 32).

Read to Write

My brilliant and inspiring colleague, Kristi Mraz, taught me, “Some kids accept the invitation into the world of literacy through reading and others accept the invitation through writing.”

Before some kids can muster up the courage to bring pen to paper, they need to hold books — many, many books. When studying what it means to be a writer, we can introduce kids to a carefully selected array of mentor authors. In my experience with this, kids quickly find the inspiration they need to begin writing a book of their own. By giving kids permission to keep books with them as they write, we are cultivating the notion that writers read to become better writers. We are making visible the symbiotic relationship between reading and writing.

Kids aren’t the only ones who deserve and benefit from a soft start. Educators endure several massive shifts in routines throughout the year. As the roller coaster begins its ascent, ground yourself in your beliefs. While growing habits and routines with kids, solidify habits and routines for yourself. Write. Read. Write alongside your kids. Read alongside your kids. Talk, laugh, play, be curious together.

Maximize this precious time, not by bookending the year with curriculum, but by adding to the suitcase that kids will carry with them for the rest of the year.

To Imagine, Mull, Play and Tinker With

Forming Identity

Engaging Young Writers, Preschool-Grade 1 by Matt Glover

Kristi Mraz on Being the Change, Heinemann Blog

Being the Change, Sarah K. Ahmed

Developing Your Child’s Healthy Self-identity, Dr. Jim Taylor, Huffington Post

Development of a Sense of Self, By J.E. Ormrod — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall

Soft Starts

The Curious Classroom, Harvey Smokey Danielson

Please Stop the Morning Work, by Kelsey Corter

Write at the Start: No More Morning Worksheets, by Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski

Why I love soft starts and what I hope for soft closings, by Tara Smith

Independent Writing Projects

Joy Write, by Ralph Fletcher

How to Reinvigorate Writing Workshop With Joy Through Independent Writing Projects, by Kelsey Corter

Independent Writing One Teacher—Thirty-Two Needs, Topics, and Plans by M. Colleen Cruz

Process-Based Skills Across Genres Chart, by Kelsey Corter

Reading and Writing Connections

Reading Like a Writer, Step-By-Step: Teaching Writing with Mentor Texts, by Beth Moore

Summer Reading & Writing Connections: Keep Learning Going Throughout the Summer, by Beth Moore

Reading Fuels Writing, by Stacey Shubitz

Writers Read Better, M. Colleen Cruz

4 thoughts on “A Soft Start To Writing Workshop

  1. I read The Curious Classroom this summer. Very inspirational and will change how I do school this year. The quotes you pulled are awesome.


  2. We must allow students to share stories orally with a partner, with a small group, and with the whole group. We must read books together, talk about books, use the books as mentor texts. We are building relationships in our classroom. We must use the first six weeks of school to build a community of learners.


  3. Thank you for sharing this unique lens for starting writer’s workshop.
    This vivid line really spoke to me: “Even the newest, youngest additions to school bring with them a suitcase of imprinted memories, budding schemas, and a strong sense of self-worth.” I look forward to meeting my new writers and applying the morning soft start pedagogy to writer’s workshop. I think you are on to something wonderful!


    1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment! It’s so special for me to hear the quote that resonated with you. Your group will be lucky to have you and the soft start you provide will make a lasting difference in their time with you!


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