In marathon training, it’s important to build a base before you start a training plan. “Base training” is a time when runners prepare their bodies for the weeks of intense training ahead. We don’t run long distances- but we do raise our level of fitness by hitting the gym for strength training or running lots of short runs throughout the week. A runner who jumps right into a marathon training plan without a strong base could burn out or face injury.
In the same way, I believe writers need a base training period before their teacher launches the first unit or genre study in writing workshop. The first few weeks of school set the stage for the whole year, and teachers who get it right reap the benefits for months! Let’s give young writers time to settle in and get used to writing workshop. Your first unit may start a few weeks later, but writers in your classroom will be in tip-top shape and less likely to burn out. In this post, I share suggestions for what writing workshop base training could look like.
At the beginning of the year, I kick off writing workshop with a few weeks of student freedom before beginning the unit expected by my curriculum. There are no assigned topics or genres. Students write comics, narratives, letters, or how-tos. It’s a time to reconnect with their writing identity if they didn’t write over the summer. It’s a time to reset if writing wasn’t their favorite last year. And it’s a time for joy and new beginnings. But, this time is critical. As students spend time energetically creating in these first few weeks, some important things are happening below the surface:
During this free-write time, you will be carefully observing and conferring to learn valuable information about students. Is a kid writing about their dog, something that happened over the summer, or a letter to their grandma? The topics they choose will help you learn more about the children who will spend the year in your classroom. You can also observe the genres students choose. Which genres are kids confident in, and which do they avoid? Which skills should you teach sooner rather than later? Take this time to observe the choices young writers make when there are a wider variety of options.
We likely won’t know the experiences students had with writing before entering our classrooms. A low-stakes, student-driven period can help kids build confidence in writing. It may also be the first time in their lives they’ve had extended time to work on a piece completely of their choosing! I can’t think of a better way to build motivation and engagement before launching our first unit.
There are many aspects of writing workshop to teach before you begin a genre study. During this free-write time, you can create a list of minilessons to familiarize students with this time of the day called writing workshop. Keep it flexible! You’ll likely discover new minilesson topics while observing writers.
Minilesson ideas include, but aren’t limited to:
- What happens during writing workshop?
- What does our writing environment look like, sound like, and feel like?
- Why do writers write?
- Where do writers get ideas?
- What materials are in our writing center?
- How do I talk with my writing partner?
- What do I do if I don’t know how to spell a word?
- What is the writing process?
- What do I do when I’m finished?
Teaching workshop expectations before the first unit ensures you will have solid routines in place when the time comes for content-based lessons.
As I reflect on base training with second graders last year, I remember how much I learned about students, both as writers and as people. I already had notes about each kid that would guide whole-class and small group instruction for the upcoming unit. And even though it was only the fourth week of school, writing workshop already moved like a well-oiled machine. Most importantly, students were excited about writing workshop. The year had just begun, but kids had already created a piece they were proud of that reflected their identity. As a result, students had the confidence to jump into our first genre study.
Writers, like runners, are better prepared for the learning and growing ahead when they start with base training. Just like a marathon coach wouldn’t advise a runner to jump into training too fast, teachers who hope to adequately prepare students for writing workshop begin the year with some form of base training. How might the students in your classroom develop as writers during base training this year?