Why Independent Work Time Matters

In the spring of 2019, sitting with a small group of 6th grade writers, I shared a video of Jack Ma, speaking on the future of education. 

“Education is a big, big challenge now… the things we teach our kids are the things of the past 200 years… “ expressed Jack Ma, in the video. 

The look on Lily’s face said it all, but the urgent plea in her voice connected somewhere deep inside my teacher soul. “Does anybody know this?… People need to know this!” she called out, suddenly realizing the significance of the message. 

The writing we have been practicing for the past three years was connected to much bigger things in our world. That was clear to her. 

 “People do know, Lily.” I tried to comfort, but I felt sure my words were not enough. How could I keep this urgency alive in Lily, in all my students? How could I prevent Lily and others from losing hope? How could I begin to remind her consistently of the important reasons we write? 

The video allowed us to reflect on learning, purpose, and the urgency of growing our abilities to write, our language arts. When we focus our classroom time on growing skills that machines cannot accomplish, we are gifting better humans to the world.

Why Independent Work Time Matters 

In a writing workshop, we teach skills that go beyond the walls of the classroom. Lifelong abilities are cultivated and continue growing, long after students leave the classroom. We work to grow good humans by teaching them to pay attention to the world, purposefully giving each learner the necessary freedoms to put into practice the learning, experimenting, and exploration in order to grow. The writing workshop framework is time centered around this belief. Independent work time is focused on the student, their learning, and dedicated to “el desarrollo” or the unfolding of a writer capable of critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. In this space, students learn to manage themselves. Here is where we grow the humans who have the skills needed in our world.

The writing workshop framework:

The independent writing time in a writing workshop is critical. Cultivating purposeful time, rich with language, literacy, and freedom to grow creates lifelong impact on individual students. During this time, students experience organic opportunities for critical thinking, communicating, collaborating, and creating. 

According to the National Education Association, “Four specific skills are most important for preparing students to succeed in the 21st Century: critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity.” These four lifelong skills require the development of independent abilities, outside of mandated structures, formulas, or manipulations. 

The development of 21st Century skills requires deep intellectual work, work that is designed and cultivated within thriving reading and writing workshops. 

Deep within thriving writing workshops, we will find:

Critical thinking has long been a valued skill in society. Today, every student—not just the academically advanced— needs it. While critical thinking and problem solving used to be the domain of gifted students, now it’s a critical domain for every student.

How do we invite critical thinking? 

Model critical thinking aloud. One way this can be accomplished is by modeling thinking during a read aloud. As teachers model the vulnerability of speaking up, sharing opinions, and showing authentic emotions, they create safe zones that encourage students to join the conversation. When students have opportunities to join critical thinking conversations, they learn to think before sharing honest thoughts, respectful disagreement, and communication of opposing ideas. 

Expressing thoughts clearly, crisply articulating opinions, communicating coherent instructions, motivating others through powerful speech—these skills have always been valued in the workplace and in public life. But in the 21st century, these skills have been transformed and are even more important today.

How do we invite communication? 

Allow students to talk… often. Model for students how to communicate with body language, tone of voice, and the careful selection of language for specific purposes and audiences. Students who talk in the classroom learn the necessity of articulating with authentic voice, language, and clarity, and then they can transfer those skills into their writing. This is especially important for students learning an additional language, as they can also practice the nuances, meaning, and impact of tone and intention. 

We write to communicate–and for many other reasons. When students understand that communication is a necessary skill, they will begin to use it in context and without a teacher prompt.

Collaboration is essential in our classrooms because it is inherent in the nature of how work is accomplished in our civic and workforce lives. Fifty years ago, much work was accomplished by individuals working alone, but not today. Much of all significant work is accomplished in teams, and in many cases, global teams.

How do we invite collaboration? 

Create opportunities for students to work together in the classroom, but do not make collaboration the sole method of work. It is as important to collaborate as it is for students to accomplish on their own, especially for those quiet introverts or students affected by trauma. The benefits of working with others, in safe and supportive environments, can lead to the practice of problem solving, helping others, and creativity. Students who practice collaboration discover their own strengths and weaknesses, as well as those of others. Students can self-select partnerships, or the teacher can help arrange small groups of 3-4 students.

In the past, Americans perceived creativity and innovation as secondary in our national curriculum. Today, creativity and innovation are key drivers in the global economy.

How do we invite creativity and innovation? 

Put away the worksheets and invite students into the problem-solving and freedom of creating something from nothing. Worksheets or packets do not craft 21st  Century skills. Students who are free from assigned worksheets or the manipulation of fear will grow the courage to take on the blank page. 

When we give students enough trust, time, and freedom to live as writers, they learn to manage themselves independently, develop authentic 21st Century skills, and tap into deeper learning. In these critical places of deeper learning, students find strong beginnings for voice, agency, identity, and self-efficacy, among other crucial pieces to developing humans. 

Where there is purpose, we will find thriving and fearless learning. We will cultivate students ready to take on much more in the classroom and beyond.  

How do you help students understand the impact their writing can make in the world?

KEOS 89.1 FM, April 2019

Lily continues writing, blogging, and growing her 21st Century skills, in our quickly changing world. Since leaving the 4th grade, she returns each year to join our after school writing club, Hour of Blog. Now in the 7th grade, Lily has developed a strong identity, agency for learning, and a not-too-shy voice in the world. Powered by all of the beautiful things that writing grows in a human being, she has given me hope for the future.