The Writing Workshop in Elementary Classrooms
“How many of you have made bread? Or, tasted homemade bread?” Five of my twenty seven new fourth graders raised their hands. “Well, get ready,” I explained. “Today we’ll begin making bread!” This is how I launched writing workshop each year in my elementary classroom.
I introduced students to my bread making workshop. I had set up a long table and covered it with butcher paper. As students gathered around, they could see all the different stages of bread making: from left to right on the table, I had a bowl with water and a yeast packet ready to be mixed, a bowl with yeast water bubbling, a blob of dough, a larger glob of dough rising, a floured board with a large ball of dough, and a greased loaf pan. I explained each stage in the process of creating bread that is tasty and pleasing, our ultimate goal. Throughout my explanation, I stopped and asked the students to share their thinking about what I did and said. I asked them to jot down their noticings and their questions while thinking with a buddy. At the end of the bread making process, I asked if they would like to taste some homemade bread? “YES!” was the resounding reply. (I had taken some homemade dough to the cafeteria earlier in the day to bake.)
However, before we actually ate the fresh, warm bread, I made a connection between breadmaking and writing workshop. “Instead of bread in a bread making workshop,” I asked the class, “What if we were in a writing workshop? You would see a classroom filled with learners actively writing. We might be at different stages of writing, for example planning or drafting, writing, revising, or editing. We might be working on different genres like narratives, autobiographies, argument writing, poetry, nonfiction writing, reports or more. Bread making starts with basic ingredients – a bowl, water, and yeast. The water needs to be warm, not hot, and the yeast needs to be fresh, not outdated. That’s just like starting to write. You need something to write with, it can to be a sharp pencil, favorite pen, or favorite electronic device. You will want to choose an area that suits you. You will want to choose a topic that interests you, also.
“Back to the bread making process, you get to determine what kind of bread you are going to make. White bread? Wheat? Soft? Crusty? With seeds? No seeds? Once you decide, you can always change or revise it a bit.
“Similarly with writing, you have choices most of the time. If you are going to write about your name, you might discuss why you like your name – why you don’t like your name. Where did it come from, or who are you named after in your family? If you could change your name, what would it be and why? See, we can all write about the same topic – our names but will have different stories depending upon which question we each choose to answer. Just like we could each make bread, but different varieties, shapes ans flavors.
“So tomorrow, when we begin writing, we are going to write about our names. I’ll share some of my writing with you, and then you’ll get to write. We’re going to learn a ton together.”
TIP: I have launched writing workshop at many different grade levels by inviting students to write about their names. This always proves to be an engaging and relevant topic for practicing writing and building community.
In Children Want to Write by Tom Newkirk and Penny Kittle (2013) Donald Graves is quoted saying, “when writers write every day, they begin to compose even when they are not composing.” (p. 58). When students have time to write each day, this leads to greater fluency and proficiency. Authors John Hattie and Malcolm Gladwell maintain that there is a direct correlation between the amount of time we spend in pursuit of a goal or skill and our individual growth. In order for students to grow as writers, and to build stamina, it important for them to have a large amount of time to practice.
As teachers, we can share our enthusiasm for writing and get learners writing from the first day of school. In a writing workshop, the teacher creates the structure and allows students plenty of choice in order to promote engagement. The three segments of a writing workshop are: the mini- or crafting lesson; work time, which includes writing (learners) and conferring (teacher); and sharing. An effective writing workshop environment invites learners to do the work of writers rather than listen to their teacher talking.
The Writing Workshop usually begins with a mini-lesson or crafting lesson (eight to fifteen minutes) in which the teacher models her own thinking and writing. I usually invite the learners to leave the mini-lesson area after they each share their writing topic and thinking. If they do not have a topic yet, I ask them to stay and think with me to decide on something they want to write. I ask the students to choose a place in the room where they are comfortable writing. I ensure that there is plenty of paper and writing tools for each writer. We begin with ten minutes of writing on the first day and increase the amount each day throughout the year. Eventually, forty minutes of writing and conferring daily is ideal.
While the learners are writing, I confer with students in order to differentiate instruction to the needs of each. Sometimes, I confer with just one writer, and at other times, I confer with a small group, depending upon the needs. There are several excellent books to help you hone your conferring expertise; my favorite is Conferring (2008) by Patrick Allen.
Sharing writing occurs throughout the workshop, between students and their teacher, as well as among students. When I am conferring with writers, I often will ask a specific writer if he or she would like to share his or her writing during share time. I make a note to ensure that each writer has an opportunity to share their writing within one or two weeks. We typically end the workshop with two or three students sharing their writing with the whole class (or sometimes in small groups to provide the opportunity for every student to share in a brief time).
Writing workshop requires proactive teaching. With grade level state standards and curricula in mind, teachers select mini lessons topics for tomorrow based on what they see learners doing today. What we listen for as we confer is the essence of what our students need.
There isn’t one right way to organize your spices in the kitchen or the furniture in your home. There isn’t a single right way to plan and create a writing workshop. Author Ralph Fletcher suggests planning the year of writing workshop in seasons with beginnings, reflections, and closures. You will find your own path with trial and reflection. The ambiguity of writing workshop creates energy for me that ignites my quest for learning, doing, and writing. I wish you the best on your journey.