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A Defense of Writing Workshop: Choice, Challenge, Importance

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“We write to discover what we want to say.” -Don Murray

Writing is hard. Here’s something else—writing is hard for me, too. When an idea forms and begins coalescing into a piece of writing, either in my mind or my notebook, I often struggle to find the right opening, the logical flow of my thinking, the beautiful words, the perfect metaphors, and the lyrical closing. I agonize over these pieces and often print unfinished pieces of writing, paste them in my notebook, and write around them, hoping to stimulate better thinking. I consult my own quickwrites and reactions for insight, and many times, I find ideas that make excellent additions to the unfinished piece. After revisiting a piece of writing multiple times and placing it into the hands of people I trust, I am able to get the words in the right order. The pieces I craft grow stronger and my ideas become deeper and more complex. Writing, thinking, reading, and community, it seems, form the foundation for confidence in the life of a writer.

For the past several years, I have followed the thinking of leaders in my field, teachers who want to inspire students to write from deep inside and develop authentic writing voice. Decades ago, Don Graves led a significant research study of elementary-age students, finding that choice, community, and feedback, both from peers and instructors, guided students to develop their most authentic writing. For the time, and honestly even now, it was cutting-edge, a direct result of questions the academic community had about the writing process, especially in regard to students. Nancie Atwell, in her seminal In the Middle, transitioned her traditional middle school classroom to a workshop classroom based on the ideas of Graves and his research team. Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher beautifully articulated the conditions necessary for developing and sustaining writing workshop conditions in 180 Days. Linda Rief stretched Atwell’s ideas and combined them with her own original thinking to develop a workshop classroom with her 8th graders. Her books Seeking Diversity and ReadWriteTeach explore the challenges of a writing workshop with her middle grades students. I stand upon the shoulders of these magnificent educators in my own work with student writers, consulting their books and ideas to gain a deeper understanding of this important work we do with kids. I want to create an authentic environment for my students, so I do my best to create a space for students to choose their own writing topics and use their community (i.e. our classroom) to grow that writing.

Many times, though, students are subjected to a barrage of criticism about their writing, never gaining the confidence necessary to adopt a writerly life. Imagine, though, a classroom where students respond to poems, articles, independent reading, and images across a week; a classroom where kids read mentor texts and study craft moves alongside their teacher; a classroom where students choose the topics they want to explore through writing; a classroom where academic writing is founded upon authentic writing opportunities, and literary responses are meaningful and deliberate; a classroom where risk-taking is valued and failure is seen as a measure of growth; a classroom where the messy work of real writers is preferred above the writing completed for compliance. This is a writing workshop classroom.

My first few years of teaching were filled with attempts to get students to write and think like academics. I even found acronyms to help students remember the layers of good paragraphs, and after a while, drawers in my filing cabinet were filled with graphic organizers and worksheets to help students develop their best writing. Year after year, the writing was dry and lifeless, an arid wasteland of sentences and regurgitated ideas. When I came to understand how a writing workshop could inspire students to write from their hearts, I was thrilled to see many students identifying topics of interest and writing about them joyfully. Additionally, I did not abandon literary analysis. In our writing workshop, students wrote in response to poems, their independent reading, and whole-class texts. Kaylee’s notebook is full of character and idea analysis from her independent reading life, as well as fictional narratives she decided to craft based on books she read and loved. Because of her interest in intertextual relationships, Deanna crafted a memoir in verse, based on ideas she connected in “Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes and the novel Crank by Ellen Hopkins.  A writing workshop did not replace academic writing; instead, it enhanced it.

Interestingly enough, students prefer being told what to write. That takes a sizable chunk of the work out of it—well, for them, at least. In my writing workshop, I expect students to write beside different texts, and then, at a point in a grading period, choose one or several of those pieces and take them to the best draft possible. As the teacher, I do not decide what they write. During writing conferences, I listen to what students have to say about their work and ask them to read their work aloud to me. I want them to hear their writing because usually, when they read it aloud, they hear the mistakes and notice the gaps in the narrative, argumentative, and informational pieces they craft. I also ask them to read their work aloud to a peer editor or their group, using the power of community to strengthen and clarify their work. I tell students that all writers, including me, are in a constant state of revision—we are finished when we have our best work. Altogether, this is challenging for any writer. Jacob told me so one day during writing workshop. “I think I know what I want to write, but I’m not sure,” he said. Together, he and I went through his notebook and Google Drive, looking for seeds of writing that could be taken to a fuller draft. His notebook was full of ideas, ones that could be taken to a complete draft, but part of the challenge of a writing workshop is sifting through different ideas to find a focus. Eventually, he settled upon a story he had written about his sister. “I want to write part of it from the perspective of an object Mr. C,” he said a day later. “Didn’t Shaun Hutchinson do that in Violent Ends? Can I get the book and read that chapter to see how he did it?” As teachers, we want to stand on tables and cheer in moments like these. Because of mentor texts we had studied in class and his own independent reading life, he had seen how authors personify objects for purposes of narration. He read the mentor text (Violent Ends) to move his thinking forward. He later explained that this was one of the more difficult pieces he wrote, but it was one he was most proud of.

Students must be active participants in the writing process to develop strong writing skills. Daily immersion in authentic writing opportunities exercise the writing muscle. I believe that students should be writing about things that matter to them, but part of the challenge of a writing workshop for students is finding the writing that resonates with them. We study a host of mentor texts to stimulate thinking and probe our minds for the ideas that matter to us. Once students start filling their notebooks with writing, they have access to options for full drafts of writing. Below, I list several of the ways I help students exercise their writing muscles, unearthing the things that are meaningful to them.

Quickwrites—According to Linda Rief, quickwrites are bursts of writing where writers craft as quickly as they can for several minutes in response to a text (image, poem, article, etc.). Like everything in a writing workshop, I model the quickwriting process for students, showing them process and examples from inside my own notebook. I highlight good thinking that I unearth through my own writing. We quickwrite as often as we can. Sometimes this is in response to a poem, other times in response to an article, book chapter, or image that I know will move them as thinkers and writers.

Heart Maps—Georgia Heard’s brilliant heart maps are practical and critical for a classroom where writing matters. I ask students to draw an outline of a heart inside their notebooks (mine is on display under the document camera) and begin filling it with things that live inside their hearts. Throughout the year, I encourage students to add to their heart maps, especially if there is a book or a piece of writing that they grew to love. When students are looking for something to write about, I ask them to look at their heart maps for inspiration.

Responses to independent reading—Throughout a week of instruction, students should be responding to both the texts they study (such as poems, articles, mentor texts, etc.) and their independent reading. When I respond to books I am reading, I often find ideas that I want to explore further. I model this for students, demonstrating that a response, such as a question to a character’s actions, can nudge us further in analytical thinking and writing.

Writing beside a text—There is something beautiful about writing beside a text. Laying a poem down beside my notebook and looking at it as I begin crafting my response elevates my writing. My words are woven with those of the author. As a result, my thinking is elevated, too. Throughout the year, students and I cut out pieces of poems that resonate with us, or, perhaps are related to the books we are reading. We paste these in our notebooks and write beside those excerpts. Sometimes the writing we do beside a text becomes a new poem, a new story, or lines we use in other pieces of writing.

Choice and challenge frame the heart of a writing workshop. If we give students time to write and immerse them in a world of beautiful mentor texts, students will have the access they need to adopt a writerly life. I witnessed this on the last day of this past school year. Charlotte, a reticent student, stood beside one of the classroom windows for the last hour of the day, staring at nothing but a brick wall and a stone walkway. In the last fifteen minutes of school, a student rushed over to me.

“Mr. C, Charlotte is crying!”

“Is she ok?” I asked, quite concerned.

“She said she wants to talk to you.”

Charlotte walked over, rubbing her eyes, sobbing uncontrollably.

“What’s wrong, Charlotte?” I asked, as she wrapped her arms around me and continued sobbing.

When she finally gained enough composure to speak, she said: “I am never going to have another teacher like you. You helped me discover that I can write poems and songs and stories. I never thought I would be able to do that. No one else has asked me to do that. Ever. And you did. Now, I feel like I can write anything.”

This is why I teach writing the way I do. There are thousands of other students who are waiting to tell their stories and find their voices. Because Charlotte was allowed to participate in an authentic writing community, she discovered a talent she didn’t know she possessed. Don Murray was right when he said that we write to discover what we want to say. This discovery allows writers to find the writing that is meaningful to them, and although it is challenging to find that meaningful writing, it is well worth the rigor. I have had many students explain that participation in a writing workshop gave them confidence. Writing doesn’t get easier, but as students write and discover more of the things they want to say, they develop confidence in themselves as writers. A former student, Jonathan, told his teacher this past year that he wrote all year in my class, and even after an entire year of writing workshop, the process hadn’t gotten any easier. The process doesn’t ease, but our confidence does increase.

A writing workshop is not an elementary endeavor; instead, it is a challenging task we set before our students and ourselves. Authentic writing requires patience and daily immersion, and in a writing workshop, students have the chance to develop authenticity as writers. There are days when students would much prefer I give them a prompt or story starter, or tell them what I want them to write. I always refuse. They need the struggle. They need to feel the writing process and know it for themselves. They need to participate in the work of real writers. Quickwrites, heart maps, reading responses, and mentor texts are just the beginning of a beautiful workshop framework. Lift your pen with me. Let us change our students’ writing lives with a pledge to authentic writing work.

Writing is hard. But it is worth the challenge.

 

For more ideas about writing workshop and developing authenticity, pick up a copy of Sparks in the Dark by Travis Crowder and Todd Nesloney.

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