Maximizing Writing Time Blog Series · small group · writing workshop

Minimizing Transition Time: Maximizing Writing Time Blog Series

My daughters laugh at me when we work out because I can’t stand how much time gets wasted in between various intervals, sequences, and repetitions. 

“Don’t wear yourself out, Mom,” they say. “There’s going to be plenty!”

We’ve been doing a lot of videoed workouts, and my practice involves filling the minutes of demonstration with my own exercises. (I’m a visual learner so the verbal explanation of what’s to come does very little for me… but that’s a different post.)

“I’ve got to maximize my minutes,” I explain to the girls. If I’m giving away an hour of my day to a video class, then I want to make sure I get the most possible out of it. 

Just as I want to get the most out of my workout minutes, I also want students to get the most out of their instructional minutes, especially now because instructional minutes feel more like a hot commodity. It’s easy to drive me crazy with countdowns that facilitate and inspire behavioral issues or repeated requests to be quiet or many minutes of making sure all writers have materials ready to go or waiting for someone to sharpen their pencil that they don’t need for the minilesson or responding to requests to use the restrooms. Writing workshops, when broken down, have several transitions, including beginning the minilesson, beginning independent writing, breaking for mid-workshop interruptions and shares, let alone moving in and out of conferences and small group work. 

All that being said, here are a few tips and ideas for maximizing writing time by minimizing the time it takes to transition throughout a writing workshop. 

  1. Take the time to teach or re-teach transitions

As part of my exercise routine, I have learned to have my sneakers untied and ready so that when I finish and unclip from the bike, I can be ready to go fast. My mat and weights are ready, and I have a pretty good awareness of when the instructor will switch up the workout venue. Just as I’ve learned how to prepare myself throughout a home workout, students can learn to prepare themselves throughout a predictable writing workshop.

One of my favorite ways to teach transitions is as an inquiry. The guiding question can be something along the lines of: What makes a great transition? 

Transitions also lend themselves to a direct instruction with modeling and explanation. There are opportunities to reset throughout the year and create a short but powerful lesson with a teaching point along the lines of: Today I’m going to teach/remind you of what your responsibilities are during a transition so that you can make the most of your independent writing time. 

  1. Change the invitation to ask questions

Many teachers pride themselves on their ability to invite and respond to questions, and they should. Questions are vital for learning. However, questions also have the potential for holding ready-to-work students hostage. At the end of a minilesson, many teachers ask, “What questions are there?” or “Any questions?” or some other iteration of that phrase. Sometimes there is a student who has a question that benefits classmates, but many times questions are individual and are only relevant to the asker. Once the questions begin, chaos has the potential to follow as students become bored and wiggly with responses that have no bearing on them. A simple phrase change can go something like this: “If anyone has a question, I’ll answer it now. Otherwise, you can get to work.” 

If there is a question with a response that benefits the group, it’s completely possible to interrupt whatever they’ve started, repeat the question, and provide the response. I might even argue that this process honors the question-asker and reinforces the practice of meaningful question asking. 

  1. Begin a minilesson with a story

While there are several opportunities for transitions within a writing workshop, minilessons contain at least two of them since students are beginning the workshop and then getting ready to begin their independent writing time. One of my favorite transitions is the one right at the beginning during what many workshop teachers call the connection. 

Sometimes connections are reminders of a previous lesson or learning experience, but sometimes they are short stories that somehow relate to the teaching point. The more you can personalize the story, the more interesting it has the power to become. You can begin the lesson with a soft voice and a story, and it’s amazing to me how quickly most students quiet down so they can hear the story. Here are some examples I’ve used recently:

Teaching PointStory I’ve told as a connection
Writers organize their information into sectionsMost of you know that my daughter Julia hurt her knee, so last night Iwas folding her laundry for her, and I could NOT believe how many socks my daughter Julia has. I was working hard to match them all and also keep her shirts separate from her sweatshirts, separate from her shorts… it’s sort of like writing information pieces!
Writers use transition words to help readers follow along with what they’re writing. Over the summer, my family and I took a hike. The time before that, we’d gotten REALLY lost and ended up so far from the car that we called an Uber, so this time, I was very bossy with everyone that we follow the little paint marks on a trail and NOT veer from the one color we decided on at the beginning. Just like those trail markers helped us as hikers, writers have words that help readers! 
Here is a video of me explaining and showing how to use a story for a transition.

There are a couple of important benefits about a story-based connection that are in addition to creating a smoother transition. One is that if a student misses the story, it’s not crucial to the overall lesson. As long as that student is quiet and listening by the time you state the teaching point, they have the potential to learn something from your instruction. Another important benefit is that even when you’re not teaching narrative writing, students are hearing you tell stories– small moments from your life that matter in some way. 

  1. Leveraging small group work 

Last fall, the coauthors and I worked on a blog series with a focus on small group work. Small groups are effective for teaching skills, and they are also effective for teaching behaviors. 

Many times, it’s a few students who struggle with effective transitions, and they make the rest of the class look like the whole group struggles. When I step back and engage in some kidwatching, I can pinpoint the culprits. Then, I can bring them together as a small group, leading off with a statement along the lines of: “I’m noticing that getting to work/paying attention/ having your materials out and ready to go is a challenge for you. I’ve pulled you together so that we can come up with some strategies for making these times go better for you.”

During that small group lesson, I might help them create a personal checklist or I might have charts on hand that they can refer to. Maybe we designate a specific pen, maybe we clean out a folder or two… Whatever we do, we’ve begun the conversation around the expectation for productivity during independent writing time, and we can revisit that as needed. 

When it comes to working out, there are definitely times when I appreciate the break I get during the transition times, and I’m sure that students, maybe even unintentionally, have figured out that longer transitions lead to shorter working time. Yet time on task is critical to move forward on goals, no matter what the goals are. Maximizing time– in exercise or writing– leads to progress.

Giveaway Info: 

  • This giveaway is for a copy of Above and Beyond the Writing Workshop by Shelley Harwayne. Many thanks to Stenhouse Publishers for donating a copy for one reader.
  • For a chance to win this copy of Above and Beyond the Writing Workshop, please leave a comment about this post by Friday, January  28th at 11:59 a.m. EST. Stacey Shubitz will use a random number generator to pick the winner, whose name she will announce in a post recapping this blog series on January 30th. Eligible to be shipped to the USA and Canada.
    • Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so Stacey can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win.
  • If you are the winner of the book, Stacey will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – MAXIMIZING WRITING TIME. Please respond to Stacey’s e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.

10 thoughts on “Minimizing Transition Time: Maximizing Writing Time Blog Series

  1. Melanie, I love how you exemplify how teaching writing can be our most authentic teaching opportunities! I share your columns with my students (preservice elementary teachers) in the hope that they will become thoughtful, intentional, and fulfilled writing teachers like you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Melanie, I appreciate the idea of engaging in an inquiry about what makes great transitions with the students. Having students notice, name and reflect on that often invisible element of workshop is a powerful way to engage students in a portion of the day that often brings many challenges and frustration.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I love the ideas you shared! Wow! Kids can definitely derail a lesson with questions. I love your ideas to get kids writing quickly with the least amount of interruptions. I would love a copy of the book! Thanks so much!


  4. I too think kids have learned that longer transitions lead to shorter work times, which is all the more reason to shorten transition times. I like the idea of telling a story for the connection so no instruction time is lost as students arrive to the meeting area.


Comments are closed.