“Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen.”
My recovery process to fall back in love with writing took almost 20 years. Actually, to be perfectly honest, I’m probably more at the like-on-my-way-to-love stage of the journey. My relationship with writing took a downhill turn around 6th grade. I was pretty sure my teachers were planning inventive ways to torment us with various book reports and research papers. On top of that, I was a perfectionist. So, I was rarely happy with anything I wrote. Or, on the other hand, I would turn in something that I thought was destined to be honored with the Nobel Prize for Literature and instead receive it back with a failing grade on it…or even worse…a B!
Now, I hold those who identify themselves as writers in the highest regard. After all, they invented some of my favorite people. As a teacher of writing, I hope to steer my students in the direction of using writing as a form of self-expression and away from viewing it as a creative instrument of torture.
So, for the past couple of weeks, I began introducing Writer’s Workshop. Here are some highlights so far.
Establishing our Purpose
I began by asking the students “Why do you think we have Writer’s Workshop?” I cringed a little when the main responses were along the lines of “To get better at handwriting” or “To get better at spelling.” (I also don’t totally blame them, as I was guilty myself of lecturing the children about proper penmanship this very week). These children already viewed writing as a mechanical process, devoid of true reason or soul. I wrote this idea down as “To improve.” Then I added a few more of my own, expounding on each, in turn. “To communicate. To practice. To tell our stories. To find our voice.” I told the children that Writer’s Workshop would sometimes be a time for us to practice different kinds of writing (essays, procedural, persuasive, expository), but it would also be a very personal time for them to explore their own creativity and find ways to express themselves through their writing. I told them that each of them has their own unique perspective and story to tell and writing can be their tool for doing so.
Establishing our Process
Writer’s Workshop is a mix of teacher-guided modeling & practicing and self-guided work. We begin with a mini-lesson. The topics of these lessons vary, from grammar & mechanics to gathering ideas & organizing them. The intention of the lesson is to introduce or review a skill that the students can directly apply to the writing they will do on their own that day or that week.
We went over the 5-step writing process. 1.pre-writing 2. drafting 3. revising. 4. editing 5. publishing. We will practice these together, but since much of Writer’s Workshop is at each individual’s pace, they will likely be at different steps at different times.
One exercise we started with is called a quickwrite. For this exercise, the only rule is that the pen or pencil must be moving and writing for the full time that the timer is going. We started with 5 minutes. Students could write about anything they wanted. If there were no thoughts flowing, they were instructed to write about that. I have nothing to say. I don’t know what you write. My hand hurts. etc. I expected some tears or whines. Instead, I heard things like “That was the first time I ever had fun writing!” “Can I work on my quickwrite some more?” The only groans I heard were when the timer went off. They wanted to keep going.
Eventually, we will practice the skills involved in revising or editing a peer’s work, but for now we are focusing on making writing a very positive experience. I introduced two different ways to share our writing with a partner. The first way is based on Habit #5: Seek First to Understand, Then Be Understood and practices the art of active listening. Partner A reads his or her writing to Partner B. Partner B just listens. Then B mirrors back to A what he/she heard. I explained to the students that this exercise is not about quizzing Partner B on how much he/she can remember. It’s about showing A that we’re listening and validating what A shared with us. I call this type of sharing mirroring, and I’ve also explained to the students that it is a great practice to use in conversation or discussion, as well.
The other way we practice sharing is called “A compliment and a comment.” Some teachers call it “A star and a wish.” This is where Partner B listens to Partner A read his/her writing. Then B gives A a specific compliment and a specific comment. We talked about the importance of being specific. We want to be encouraging and positive, even if we’re telling our peers how he/she can improve. I felt validated in this practice when I heard a friend talking about her experience working for Apple recently. She said that one of the principles Apple employees hold high is giving specific and intentional feedback, and they always make sure that the intention is positive. I can already see how practicing this skill now is preparing students for their futures and showing them how to have positive work relationships.
I’ve very excited about the start we’ve made with Writer’s Workshop, and there’s so much more I want to do with it. As we get more practice under our belts, I’ll start to share some of the results with you. I already told the students that one option they will have for the publishing stage is posting their writing to this blog. I hope when that happens you will join me in celebrating their accomplishments and giving them specific encouragements to spur them onward in their writing journeys.