Recently, I was asked several questions about why certain aspects of writing workshop weren’t working for some teachers. As I thought about the issues they were facing, I realized all of my responses were going to revolve around time. The teachers in this school were not teaching writing daily and when they were teaching it, it was only in 30-minute incriments. As a result, nothing I could’ve said would’ve changed the outcomes of their minilesson delivery, their writing conferences, or their small-group lessons if they couldn’t allocate more time for writing each week.
About a week after this encounter, I saw this tweet from teacher-author Rebekah O’Dell:
Time is always a precious commodity in elementary schools. Making time for a daily writing workshop, which provides ample time for students to write (and teachers to confer with students), means something else has to be cut. Sometimes, it means tigtening up routines during the school day in an effort to “find minutes.” But, in my experience as a literacy consultant, that it often means letting go projects or thematic units that have been unique to a grade level in a school for years. Often I hear, “we’ve always done this project.” However, if letting go of a special project can free up 30 minutes of time every day for three weeks, that’s 450 minutes back for writing instruction.
Why does more time matter?
In the A Guide to the Common Core Writing Workshop: Intermediate Grades, Lucy Calkins asserts:
Writing needs to be taught like any other basic skill, with explicit instruction and ample opportunity to practice. Almost every day, every student in grades K-5 needs between fifty and sixty minutes for writing instruction and writing.(Calkins, 2013, 19-20)
For years, writing time has gotten squeezed in some schools. Students’ writing volume is sacrificed when writing time gets cut. In addition, time to differentiate instruction — in 1:1 conferences and small groups — gets reduced when there isn’t enough time allocated for a daily writing workshop.
I’ve taught in schools where I’ve had both 45 minutes and 60 minutes to teach writing each day. Here’s how that time breaks down:
|60-Minute Workshop||45-Minute Workshop|
|Minilesson||10 minutes||10 minutes|
|Independent Writing (conferring, small groups, and partner work)||40 minutes||30 minutes|
|Share||10 minutes||5 minutes|
Anything less than 45 minutes means independent writing time gets squeezed or the share/reflection time gets eradicated. These are crucial parts of every writing workshop and cutting them for the sake of “squeezing-in writing” is unfair to kids — and to you as a teacher.
When I was a classroom teacher, I found it challenging to meet the needs of my students anytime my schedule got compacted and I had less than 40 minutes of time for writing workshop. Therefore, as a consultant, I’ve chosen to work with districts who have made a commitment to teach teaching writing four to five times a week for at least 45-minutes/day. I feel as though it’s hard for me to ask teachers I consult with to teach writing in a time constraint that would be less than what I could handle personally on a daily basis.
What should I do if I don’t work in a school that’s prioritized the teaching of writing?
When I present at conferences, often I meet teachers who tell me that they wish they had more time for writing since they only get 30 – 40 minutes two to three days a week. Here’s what I ask teachers who are in schools that haven’t prioritized the teaching of writing.
- Is there something you or your administration is grasping tightly to that can be let go?
- Is there transition time during the school day that can be tightened to “steal some minutes?”
- Would your administrator be willing to rework your classroom schedule to make time for writing?
Many times, teachers feel a level of discomfort with their answers to the first two questions, but together we can find things to consider letting go of or ways to juggle time from another part of the day. I’ve found there’s often reluctance to approaching an administrator about reworking schedules. However, every time a teacher has taken my prodding to work with their administrator to find time, they’ve followed up with me a few weeks later to let me know that they were able to (a) find more time for writing by moving writing to a different part of the day or (b) were told they’d be involved in reworking the grade-level schedule for the following school year. (NOTE: Many teachers have found greater success when approaching their administrator with a grade level colleague and/or their instructional coach.)
As the 2020-21 school year draws to a close, I encourage you to think about ways to carve out more time for writing in what is always a packed schedule. If your writing workshop has felt squeezed, then now is the time to chat with your grade level colleagues about “killing your darlings” (i.e., eradicating those projects or units you enjoy that your students could live without as part of your grade level’s curriculum). Once you’ve problem-solved, schedule a time to meet with your principal to get their blessing to create a large enough space for daily writing time in advance of the 2021-22 school year. Working together now should help you find ways to have a more impactful writing workshop next year.
I am a literacy consultant who has spent the past dozen years working with teachers to improve the teaching of writing in their classrooms. While I work with teachers and students in grades K-6, I'm a former fourth and fifth-grade teacher so I have a passion for working with upper elementary students.
I'm the author of Craft Moves (Stenhouse Publishers, 2016) and the co-author of Jump Into Writing (Zaner-Bloser, 2021), Welcome to Writing Workshop (Stenhouse Publishers, 2019), and Day By Day (Stenhouse, 2010).