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Who’s Doing the Work?: Letting Students Guide the Process in a Writing Workshop

By Jennifer Bekel
 | Sep 12, 2018

student-guided-writing-workshopWriting workshops are a common daily feature in many classrooms, including my own. However, the work used to feel robotic. Writing time was not enjoyable, students did not see themselves as authors, and their craft was not improving. The workshop was not working.

To reinvigorate our writing workshop, I studied Katie Wood Ray’s text, The Writing Workshop: Working Through the Hard Parts (And They’re All Hard Parts) (National Council for Teachers of English). After simple adjustments and a willingness to let students lead and guide learning, our writing workshop began to work for all involved.

Immersion in examples

Modeling, allowing students to observe the writing process, is an important component of writing workshop. Although I modeled and cowrote with them, the students were not trying new techniques or growing in their writing. Ray is a proponent of mentor texts— quality examples of writing that spark students’ ideas about the craft and technique used to create the texts. Moving from only teacher modeling to the inclusion of great mentor texts was one of the first essential adjustments I made to my writing workshop.

During writing time, we studied rich mentor texts and discussed the authors’ choices. Leveled texts were also shared with students to allow them to make more decisions about their writing. The availability of independent-level texts after the minilesson allowed students to study text structure and gain ideas based on personal interest and choice during independent work. Additionally, we examined samples of past student work so students could further understand quality writing at their grade level.

After being surrounded by texts, the students were quicker to engage during writing workshop time. There were fewer conversations that began with “I don’t know what to write about,” and students explored new techniques in their writing.

Writers don’t always write

Recognizing not all instructional time in writing workshop needs to be spent writing is another essential adjustment to teaching. Rather than walking students through an artificial writing process, they should be given the freedom to decide what work needs to be accomplished in their writing.

Ray describes how students learn what authors do and how to use their time accordingly. My students know during writing workshop they can look at mentor texts for ideas, finish a draft, or start something new. This empowerment improves student productivity due to the motivation students gain from making their own choices. Time on task is maximized because students need not wait for others to finish to advance to the next step.

The students realize the value of their time during writing; although they may not be doing the same task as their peers, they all recognize they are working as authors.

Let’s customize it

One day during a writing conference, a student who was struggling with the mechanics of writing noticed yet another letter written incorrectly. I encouraged him to fix it. His hopeful response was, “Can’t we customize it?” This led me to another insight and adjustment to writing workshop: allowing students and their work as authors to determine the sequence of lessons and conferences.

Instead of assigning topics or tasks for the week and following scripted lesson plans, writing instruction is designed on the basis of students' previous weekly work and where they can be guided as writers. At the end of each week, students are asked to choose and submit their best writing sample. These pieces are graded using a district-created rubric. Recognizing the need to customize, I look for trends across the writing samples. Significant areas of need, such as adding details or using transition words, become the focus of whole-group minilessons. With every lesson based on student needs, the immediate relevancy increases engagement.

After noting where whole group instruction needs to occur, I make piles with all the papers, using the rubric to decide who needs support in areas such as word choice, conventions, organization, and so forth. Armed with a conference plan for the following week, I can meet with each student and provide targeted instruction and customized learning.

Using this adjustment has yielded improved student rubric scores, indicating quantitatively improved writing. Further, students are more engaged during writing because the instruction is relevant to their current interests and work.

Students are the experts

A final adjustment in writing workshop is letting students be the experts in the room by providing sharing time and guiding questions to elicit partner feedback. In this way, students ask and answer questions about the elements of their work. The authenticity of these questions gives students ideas and inspires potential revisions.

Further, students frequently take the role of expert writers throughout the workshop. One student, trying to think through an idea, began asking me a question. Before I could offer any suggestions, another student who was diligently illustrating her book said, “I can help with that!” Empowered to coach each other during writing time, students’ workshop productivity increases because of the immediate availability of help from their peers.

Take action

Implementing these adjustments in the classroom and moving to authentic, student-driven writing has improved student engagement and quality of work. As we began making these changes, one student was explaining the book series she was creating. After explaining her action plan and how she might make changes based on feedback, she said, “Then they’ll go into the world!”

Her comment epitomizes the climate this approach to writing workshop has created. The students no longer think of writing as the completion of projects assigned by the teacher; they are invested in their work and believe in themselves as authors. Students are doing the writing work.

Jennifer Bekel, an ILA member since 2009, has a master’s degree in education and interdisciplinary studies and a master’s in reading. She is currently a third-grade classroom teacher and EL coordinator for the North Scott Community School District in Iowa. The writing practices described in this article were originally implemented in her first-grade classroom.

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