In the beginning of the year I had so many hopes, but one of my biggest was writing workshop. I had laid out plans of pre-writing activities, drafting, peer edits, polishing, and publishing. Since our school has access to chromebooks, I had imagined this all taking place on Google Docs to ease commenting, editing, submitting, and finally grading. I mapped out our first writing assignment, scheduled time for students to work independently and in groups, and had even incorporated mini grammar lessons for each writing workshop day. What could go wrong, right? This plan was flawless!
As none of my fellow teachers had led writing workshop before, I was left to the throws of the internet to find helpful resources. My colleagues came to me for advice, which was both encouraging and frightening. It affirmed my belief that writing workshop can help reaffirm the concepts taught in the classroom along with useful life skills such as cooperation, trust, constructive feedback, use of google applications, organization, and time management. On the flip side, however, I had never taught writing workshop before – after all I had never taught ANYTHING before – and so I was just going off of what I knew to be successful in my own education. I did have some research to back up my methods, but I was mainly going off of what I had experienced myself.
When planning my students’ writing workshop, I remembered my own experiences – the collaborative “book” publications from my 5th grade years full of family anthologies, the hands on writing and editing from my 7th grade years full of colorful poetry, the essay writing from high school full of literal cutting and pasting, the thesis writing from college (Faulkner, you still hold a dear place in my heart…) full of more cutting and pasting and highlighting and editing and peer corrections. This education was full of everything that writing is meant to be – individual yet collaborative, hands on yet intellectual, draft upon draft upon draft, and finally sharing. I pored over these memories to determine what made them successful for me and my classmates and determined that there were many factors at play:
- Hands on – students, especially in middle school, need a hands on approach to learning. They need to be able to get up, move around, feel, hear, and manipulate their learning. Yes, writing involves pencil and paper, but why can’t it also involve scissors and glue? Why can’t we occasionally break out the crayons and markers for pre-writing and brainstorming? This allows all students to access their best ideas in a way that makes sense to them.
- Collaborative – middle school students crave peer interaction. Writing – all writing – needs to be personal expression; we as educators are grading personal expression. But students want to hear the validation from their peers. They want to make sure that their ideas are in sync with their neighbors. They want to hear what their neighbors have to say. They want to help their neighbors. It is our job to facilitate this interaction so that the collaboration stage is useful for all students and maintains the personal expression without straying into group expression.
- Published – publication can take many forms within the middle school classroom, but ultimately students crave a final, polished product. Middle school students want to see their work come together, just as we all do. A simple collection of individually written poems put together within a self-created book can be published. Conversely, local print shops publish student work in hard bound covers for a long-lasting memory.
So, with all of these ideas, what went wrong? I believe that a perfect storm crashed in upon my writing workshop. Focusing on my 6th graders, I notice that time management was a huge challenge. I began our first workshop by handing out a time line with weekly instructions. We reviewed this timeline together, and then students were to get writing. Each week we reviewed the day’s task and what that task looked like. My students, however, either rushed through each step or lagged severely behind. They did not see the importance of each step and could not wait to work on the computers (note – my students were unable to type their documents on the computer until after their 1st peer edit). They were convinced that their friends had seen every grammatical error possible and therefore did not have to complete the proofreading step. They spent more time chatting about after school activities during peer review than draft edits.
In theory, this process should work perfectly, so what went wrong? I believe that one problem is that I didn’t give my students another chance. After this first failed attempt, I let the writing workshop go by the wayside. We had too many other standards to teach and this had flopped, after all. But as I mentioned before, writing is where it all comes together, so shouldn’t this have been the one thing that stayed? My initial plan was to teach grammar through writing, and why didn’t I stick to that plan? I hate that I siloed my instruction, but as I began planning each day, week, month, unit, it was just easier to lose the writing workshop. Writing workshop, after all, was harder. Harder to plan, harder to prepare, harder to create procedures, harder to teach. But within this list of “harders” is the reality that writing workshop is important.
Looking forward, I plan to rekindle the writing workshop with a few minor tweaks. I had required every student last year to have a Writing Workshop Notebook. These notebooks were to stay in the room and be used only for writing workshop. We used them a grand total of once. I am still working on what we will do for next year – currently I am pondering the idea of an interactive notebook for all things English, and writing workshop projects will be housed in folders within the classroom. These folders will solve a couple of problems. One – students will not forget writing materials in their lockers or at home. Two – parents will not be required to buy materials that we may or may not use throughout the year. This will allow students to cut, paste, glue, color writings (see above) without the fear of ruining their precious Writing Workshop Notebook. Three – these folders will be seen as a brainstorming area, with all final products living on Google Docs or other various formats.
I have toyed with the timeline, and I am pondering shorter projects. I believe that writing workshop can and should be a collaborative time, but should also be a personal time for writing and expression. Many of my students pleaded for more free choice projects and fiction writing. I would love to offer these projects next year, and may do so within the interim between required writings. My hope is that these projects student led, while I will provide guidance, are mostly driven by student interest. This will allow students to write what they like and will keep us practicing our workshop procedures.
I would also like to incorporate an author’s chair next year so that students can share what they have written. This will be an addition to the publish step. Students will be able to give and receive feedback. They will also be able to hear other projects that their peers have accomplished.