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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The Writing Workshop: A Valuable Tool for Differentiation and Formative Assessment (Guest Blog)

Editor's Note: Author, Jennifer Sharpe, is Director of Secondary Education for Nash-Rocky Mount Schools and Associate Director/K-12 Liaison for the Tar River Writing Project (TRWP) at East Carolina University.

Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen.
- Willa Cather

Coaching through the Fear

Students often come to a writing task with infinite stories to tell and examples to share, but equally infinite fear of not writing "correctly." It is this fear that prevents them from exploring with language and finding their own voice in their writing. It is this fear that we English teachers must help students negotiate in order not only to write, but also to compose with sophistication, style, and ease.

Writing instruction is just like teaching any other skill; it takes practice, false starts, mistakes, collaboration, adjustment, coaching, and more practice that finally leads to speed, endurance, and agility. We know coaching is an effective practice for learning; writing workshop applies the coaching model to writing instruction with the writer's notebook (daybook) being at the heart of the student's writing life. The writer's notebook is a place to generate ideas, explore thinking, and play with language. It is a safe space where writing can be incomplete without the judgment of the red pen (or green, or purple, or pink as the case may be). Often when working through an idea or reflecting on their understanding, students need that space to be right or wrong or to write through confusion to understanding. The writer's notebook is an integral part of the writer's daily life.

The Writing Workshop Encourages Differentiation

The writer's workshop advocates a fundamental framework: we should think of students as writers who read and compose daily. The model encourages flexibility and differentiation in product, processes, content, and environment.

Differentiation also occurs during the writing conference. Studying mentor texts together, playing and practicing with language, sharing and discussing, and revising are all elements of coaching, and are opportunities for the teacher to provide encouragement and praise. Students may already have mastered the content, but we have to help them think out loud on paper with their own voices.

Formative Assessment

The elements of writing workshop are all means of formative assessment where we are supporting the development of the writer, not simply delivering content. When we model our own writing, we are sharing our processes and showing that we value the writing we are asking our students to do. Before conducting mini-lessons, we have already informally assessed and determined the need to review a particular feature or convention of writing. When we use mentor texts, we are helping students to expand their repertoire of language structures. When we share and respond to writing--peer-to-peer in small writing groups, peer-to-peer in partner response, or teacher-to-student in individual writing conferences--we are assessing and immediately using that assessment to improve writing for a particular content, purpose, and audience. As a result, we time-crunched teachers need not take home stacks and stacks of papers to grade. Meanwhile, students generate stacks and stacks of writing that supports the development of content ideas and writing "muscles."

Often, teachers do not adopt the workshop model because of two questions: 1) how do you teach grammar in writing workshop, and 2) how do you manage a writing workshop class? The answer to both will depend on your students' needs. The framework allows many possibilities for differentiation. After the teacher assesses needs, for example, a mini-lesson on a given grammatical principle might be the only grammar instruction needed outside of the writing conference. Classroom management will be easier once a routine is established and students become motivated to write in their writer's notebooks. They will come to see themselves as a community of writers.

Transform your students' English/Language Arts learning experiences by inviting students to act like, think like, and become writers. The writing workshop offers an umbrella under which differentiated instruction, formative assessment, and composition theory coincide in pedagogy designed to develop students' critical literacy. The approach aligns with Vygotsky's claim, "What a child can do today with assistance, she will be able to do by herself tomorrow."

Author, Jennifer Sharpe, is Director of Secondary Education for Nash-Rocky Mount Schools and Associate Director/K-12 Liaison for the Tar River Writing Project (TRWP) at East Carolina University.

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