Routines and Structures of Writing Workshop: Nurturing Independence from the Start

If you are six years old, or seven, or twelve, or thirteen, (or forty), it’s a challenge to focus on doing your best writing if you’re constantly wondering what will happen next. Your mind is constantly distracted by thinking–Who will you be sitting next to? When will anybody ever read the thing you are writing? How much time will you have to work on this?

Predictability and consistency make it possible for students to stop worrying about what might happen next, so they can concentrate on more important things–like what to write about today and how to bring their stories to life. Consistency also allows students to operate independently in writing workshop, rather than waiting for the teacher to oversee every step.

In this post, I’ll describe how four parts of writing workshop can foster independence: Minilessons, Independent Writing Time, Partner Time, and the Reflection/Closing.

Independence During the Minilessons

Many teachers find it helpful to teach students explicitly how minilessons go — and eventually older students can even learn how to independently teach each other minilessons during partner time.

When students know what to expect during the minilesson, they become less dependent on teacher reminders on how to come to the meeting area, how to turn and talk, how to stay focused, or how to transition to independent writing. All of the routines involved in the minilesson stay the same, so student can do things on their own, without needed new directions every day.

Independent Writing Time

There is a poem, by Eve Merriam, that I often hold in mind when thinking about writing workshop. 

There go the grownups

To the store.

Subway rush,

To the office,

Traffic crush;

Hurry, scurry,

Worry, flurry.

No wonder

Grownups

Don’t grow up

Any more.

It takes a lot 

Of  slow

To grow.

If your students are new to writing workshop, they may be unaccustomed to having a stretch of time to fill with independent writing, and you might find that in the beginning, they seem to run out of steam after five or ten minutes. This is where consistency and routine can support you. If you continue to provide time each day, students have the opportunity to build their stamina and independence. Try setting a timer on Day 1 for a small amount of time you know your students will be successful with – perhaps five minutes. Then you can grow their stamina, just adding a few minutes at a time, day after day until you’ve reached your goal of thirty or forty minutes of sustained independent writing time.

Independence During Partner Work

Established partnerships allows students to help each other, rather than waiting on an adult to come around. Partners make it possible for students to support each other and keep each other going.

There’s no need to wait to get writing partners going. There are no “prerequisites” to being a writing partner, no such thing as “not ready.” Kids can start out by simply sharing and talking with whomever they already sit next to, and later you can assign formal, longer-lasting partnerships.

Consistency is key. Think about how nervous you feel sometimes about sharing your writing–especially if it is somebody you don’t know very well. Keeping students with the same partner for a period of time helps them develop a working relationship and some trust so that they can think less about “who is this person” and more about “how can I improve my writing.”

During your conferring, you might teach the partnerships one thing to do at a time, eventually building up a list of things they know how to do together without needing adult assistance. With younger kids, you might start by simply teaching them how to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with just one piece of writing in the middle. (I always encourage both writers to physically touch the page, so that they are both focused on that piece of work). They can learn to take turns reading. Teach them to read clearly and expressively and ask each other to speak up or reread when necessary. Then you might move on to teaching them how to give explicit compliments or suggestions, or you might teach particular questions to ask each other, such as “What are you really trying to show?” or “What’s the most important part of your story?”

Eventually all the partnerships will have a whole repertoire of things they can choose to do together, rather than waiting to be told what to do. This helps them to operate with complete independence, rather than simply following directions.

Reflection Time to Foster Independence

The last few minutes of writing workshop are the perfect opportunity to share, reflect, or self-assess, and set fresh goals for work on a frequent, routine basis. Self-assessment and reflection foster ownership and independence.

Sometimes, an “Author’s Chair” can prompt a student or whole class to become very reflective, using the writing was shared as a springboard for great conversations about the strengths and next steps of not only the one piece of writing, but for everybody’s writing.

You might also simply pose a question about writing and give students space to have a whole class conversation to brainstorm ideas and strategies.

Or perhaps, students bring their writing to the meeting area, and you could guide them to use a checklist or anchor chart to reread and reflect on their work to identify which strategies they’ve relied on most, and which strategies they might try next.

In all these examples, students are looking to each other, rather than the teacher alone, for feedback and ideas to support their independent writing. When students can generate their own feedback, they are truly independent learners.

On Monday, August 12, my colleagues and I will host a Twitter chat on the topic of nurturing independence right from the start of the school year. We hope you’ll join us. In the meantime, consider this questions, which will be included in the chat:

Some say consistency & predictability are at the heart of fostering trust & independence. What are your best tricks for being consistent in the structures of minilessons, conferring, small group work, & share sessions?

Giveaway Information:

  • This giveaway is for a copy of No More “I’m Done!” (Link to: https://www.stenhouse.com/content/no-more-im-done) and No More “How Long Does It Have to Be?”(Link to https://www.stenhouse.com/content/no-more-%E2%80%9Chow-long-does-it-have-be%E2%80%9D) by Jennifer Jacobson. Thanks to Stenhouse Publishers (Link to: https://www.stenhouse.com) for donating a copy of each of these books — one book for a primary educator and one book for a secondary educator. (You must have a U.S. mailing address to win a print copy of this book.)
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