engagement · writing workshop

Engagement and the Writing Workshop

I had the opportunity to hear Cornelius Minor speak at the CCIRA Conference earlier in February, and I cannot stop thinking about it. He defined engagement in a way that is both conceptual and oh, so precise. 

I may have stopped breathing as my brain short circuited in response.

Here’s a paraphrase of the line of thinking from Cornelius: 

Learning is iterative. The first time a learner attempts something new, we should expect that learner to fail. We learn through repeated attempts, through the refinements we make to our understanding and process(es) as we reflect and try again (and again). 

If a learner is successful on their first try, it means that they already knew how to do it; it was not a new skill/process. 

So. . . why would anyone expect learners to be successful on their first try? It is that mistaken expectation that is the problem, not the learner. 

“Expecting a kid to get it on the first try is unreasonable and inhumane.”

Cornelius Minor

With that framing in mind, engagement, according to Cornelius, is that moment immediately following a learner’s first attempt/failure and their second attempt. “This is when a student decides whether or not they will try again.” Engagement is what differentiates the learner choosing to continue to try from the learner giving up. 

“Engagement is the ability to do a difficult thing in public and fail. . . and to have the emotional, intellectual, and social tools to try again.”

Cornelius Minor

(How beautiful is that?! Simple, clear, and exactly right.)

If that moment between failed attempt #1 and the initiation of attempt #2 is a speech bubble over a learner’s head, it is what is written in that speech bubble that defines engagement.

Cornelius then asked a critical question (paraphrased): How do I fill my classroom with the emotional energy, social energy, and intellectual energy that learners need to be able to make the decision to try again (and again and again)? 

That should be our focus as educators. 

Sit with that for just a minute, and you’ll be where I’ve been percolating this last little while.

Because to me, that is workshop. 

Cornelius put words to a deep understanding for me. An understanding I could not have articulated as clearly as he did. Workshop is an environment that invites (and ultimately teaches) learners to try again. To opt in. To be confronted with that choice of engagement again and again and to say yes. 

In a writing workshop, units of study are launched with the explicit intention of writers creating multiple pieces, because, of course, it would be unrealistic to expect writers to learn and demonstrate a set of new skills with just one attempt. How much better can a writer expect to get at crafting persuasive writing with one opportunity a year to practice those learning targets? 

In a workshop, there is both the iteration of crafting multiple pieces (i.e. choosing multiple topics, organizing multiple sets of facts/details, crafting multiple endings that challenge the reader to act) as well as the iterative nature of revision within those individual pieces. Revision is a practice that celebrates the iterative nature of learning (and writing): Look how much better I can get at this by continuing to circle back to it, making intentional changes!

When I think about the aversion many young writers feel toward revision, I can trace the root of the issue to exactly what Cornelius is talking about. For a learner who has internalized the mistaken expectation that their goal is to demonstrate proficiency on their first try, the need to revise is not a predictable, welcome step in the process; the need to revise means they have failed. 

Workshop is a place where writers learn to correct this misconception, especially if a wide range of strategies (and purposes) for revision are explored. Every time I comb (and re-comb and re-comb) through the draft of this blog post, for example, I make improvements that are evidence of my engagement. (Thank goodness for my impending posting deadline, or I might continue this process indefinitely.)

Conferring is an instructional practice that reinforces the power of coaching into learning-in-progress. This is the time to catch a writer in the moment they are trying (or have just tried) something new. They’re ready to reflect on how it’s working, to consider a new strategy, to set a goal, and to give it another go. Feedback is offered in time for a writer to apply it and notice the impact. That side-by-side, writer-to-writer support makes it more likely for a writer to demonstrate engagement by deciding—on purpose—to keep trying. 

There are so many opportunities within writing workshop to celebrate growth, for writers to notice and name what they are figuring out. What didn’t work is as informative as what did work. Learners are taught and given opportunities to take ownership, to act with agency, to take risks. 

When I consider Cornelius’s question about the intellectual, social, and emotional energy that learners need in order to choose to keep trying, I know my stance as a workshop teacher will prepare me to explore possibilities. That is not to say I am anything other than waiting with breath that is bated for him to speak or write more on this topic. I will read and listen to every word—Cornelius is a genius, and I’m buying what he’s selling. The examples he shared in the session for what it sounds like to feed that emotional, social, and intellectual energy excited me as a learner and as a facilitator of learning.

Cornelius’s definition of engagement affirms my belief that I am workshop down to my bones. Workshop structure, workshop instructional strategies, and an inquiry stance teach so much more than content—for learners of all ages. 

2 thoughts on “Engagement and the Writing Workshop

  1. Thank you for sharing this beautiful definition of engagement! It is such a tangible way to describe and understand what it means to be engaged. Not only does this fit with the goals of workshop, but it also clearly aligns to the social-emotional learning that is at the forefront of education today.

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