The Good-Enough Writing Workshop

A few years ago, I was sitting in a school board meeting. We were in the midst of discussing an issue that was academic and personnel-related in nature. Someone said, “Good enough is sometimes good enough.” I responded sharply. I asserted that we cannot settle for anything less than everyone’s personal best when we’re in the business of educating children.

It’s been a handful of years since I’ve engaged in that “good enough” exchange. I’ve reflected on it often. Part of me has, at times, regretted the strong response I had to the statement “good enough.” At the time, the words “good enough” hit me as though the person was saying mediocrity was okay. While I still believe everyone needs to put their time and energy into educating children, I’ve come to realize that sometimes good enough can be good enough.

So what’s changed?

Earlier this year, I read Avram Alpert’s essay, “The Good-Enough Life,” in The New York Times. Toward the end of the opinion essay, Alpert asserts:

Being good enough is not easy. It takes a tremendous amount of work to smile purely while waiting, exhausted, in a grocery line. Or to be good enough to loved ones to both support them and allow them to experience frustration. And it remains to be seen if we as a society can establish a good-enough relation to one another, where individuals and nations do not strive for their unique greatness, but rather work together to create the conditions of decency necessary for all.

Achieving this will also require us to develop a good enough relation to our natural world, one in which we recognize both the abundance and the limitations of the planet we share with infinite other life forms, each seeking its own path toward good-enoughness. If we do manage any of these things, it will not be because we have achieved greatness, but because we have recognized that none of them are achievable until greatness itself is forgotten.

What constitutes greatness when it comes to the teaching of writing? I’ve been at this work for 15 years and I think there are a few hallmarks of a great elementary school writing workshop.

  • Ample time is allocated every school day for writing workshop. The largest chunk of the workshop time is devoted to independent writing, which is when students are working independently while the teacher is conferring and meeting with small groups of writers.
  • Choice is woven into all aspects of writing workshop.
  • The teachers and students are part of a writing community where every person in the room is a writer.
  • Students engage in peer conferences and provide each other with meaningful feedback.
  • Mentor texts, mini-charts, and other tools are available for students to access and use independently.
  • Grammar instruction is embedded authentically into the writing workshop.

There’s probably more, but those few things seem like a tall order, right? Well, it is. And, quite frankly, I don’t think greatness, by these measures, is  attainable in the first couple of years teaching writing workshop.

If you’re newer to this work, then don’t try to be great this year. (You will burn out if you are on a quest to do everything perfectly!) As Alpert asserts, forget trying to be great since greatness cannot be achieved until it’s forgotten. Instead, be good enough. Work toward honing your minilessons so they’re short and explicit in one strategy at a time. Work toward providing your students with as much individualized and differentiated instruction as possible. Work toward becoming a teacher who writes. In other words, focus on the fundamentals and get really good at running a writing workshop that’s joyful. If you do these things, your students will flourish.

Besides, as someone in a school board meeting once said, “Good enough is sometimes good enough.”