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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.

Comments (8)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

brahim elouafi's picture
brahim elouafi
teacher of English at a high school Morocco

Hi jennifer,
thanks for this sketchy account on writing workshop.But my thirst is not yet quenched.So i would be grateful if you could possibly help me get Yrbanski's "Using the writing workshop approach in the high school English classroom".I am really interested in helping my schoolers develpo this "messy " skill which is writing.
Floods of thanks

Science Dude 20.10's picture

Writing fluency is an admirable goal, but it should not supercede writing for record. Students need many avenues for writing, but it is too often true that the language arts version of writing is about depth of feeling and not depth of thought. Students rarely get the opportunity to reason through ideas, and writing is a great avenue for that kind of deep thought and critical thinking. But, if it is more journal writing and not substance, then I say down with it. I am a high school science teacher who has a hard time getting students to write substantial research papers. I am by no means expecting graduate level work, but they do need to know thesis statments, how to formulate an argument, how to incorporate evidence, how to expound on that evidence, how to incorporate the opposing view point, how to research a point of view different than one's own, etc.! The list of things that they cannot do, because they are not taught, coached, led, is in part because they are not expected to. Employers do not want journalers, they want briefs and quarterlies, and research on new ideas.

Nancy Kampfe's picture

Science teachers are most capable of teaching their students how to write the kind of paper they want their students to write. To expect the language arts teacher to teach students how to write a science paper is expecting someone else to prepare your students for science class. That's what literacy is: every discipline has its own kind of literacy and it is the responsibility of that discipline to teach students how to master it.

Hudson Don's picture
Hudson Don
Prematurely retired high school English teacher because of blindness (legal

The shop teacher walked into my room before classes began and threw a stack of Blue Books on my desk and said, "What the hell is going on here?Look at this crap. I thought you said you were teaching writing."
Threatened, of course, startled I fumbled for something to say.
"What's wrong? I choked out.
"This", he barked and pulled a Blue Book from the stack. "I went and looked at last semester's grades. This kid got an 'A' in your class. How the hell is that possible? I stopped counting misspelled words after 30. And look the whole answer is one paragraph. That's not possible. What are you doing, giving away grades?"
"No" I said defensively. "It looks like you gave an essay exam in shop class, yes? I ignored the questionable ethics of looking at my grades posted in a student's permanent record."
"Yes, so what? Can't I give a writing assignment in shop class?"
"Of course you can. That's not what I was trying to say."
"Then what?"
"I think it's a fantastic idea to give a written test in shop class. I believe putting into language, especially written, is the best way to show what you know and think."
"Well, from the looks of these Blue Books they don't know a damn thing and can't think their way through wet toilet paper."
"What was the test about? I asked.
"Safety rules in the shop!"
"Good Idea. No one can argue with that. I'd want to know what they are and certainly the kids need to know. How did you give the test?"
"What'd ya' mean how did I give the test? Like everyone else. There were 4 questions and they had to pick 2 to answer. They had the 90 minute final exam period to do it."
"Did the kids know they were getting a written test?"
"Ya!"
Did they know on what?"
"Well, I did some reviewing but I didn't say what was on the test. Why?"
"Why didn't you tell the kids the topics and even better why didn't you give the kids the questions the day before?"
"God! Because they'd cheat."
"Cheat. What do you mean? Do you expect them to know shop safety rules or not?"
"Yes, of course"!
"And you wanted this test to show you they knew the rules?"
"Yeah!"
"OK. Let me tell you a couple things I do in my classes that might help. Almost nothing you write, grocery lists, letters, post cards, emails, messages, novels, whatever, starts at the beginning. If it's important and you genuinely intend to use it - it's almost impossible to start at the beginning."
"What the hell are you talking about? You start writing and that's the beginning!"
"That's not what I teach the kids. As you write you discover things you want or need to say. And you see there are different spots to say it. What we call it is a "rough draft".
"OK so what's a rough draft? Why should I care? I want them to answer the question."
"Yes, and you should. No matter how well you know the topic - once you get started things come up, facts you've forgotten, a different way to explain something, a new way to understand something. If you care about your writing at all, you can't stop reinventing it. That's why you need a rough draft. Actually you need several rough drafts. But let's just think about your essay question. And you,Paul, graduated from college. You know what I mean here"
"Yeah. I remember that happening."
"Do you want the kids to know the safety rules?"
"Yes."
"And do you want them to write a coherent, accurate account of the rules?"
"Yes, absolutely."
"Then let me make a couple suggestions. First give the kids the questions a day ahead of time. Give them a chance to see the questions and think about them. That's one form of a rough draft."
"I can't do that! They will cheat."
"OK. How about giving the test over two days?"
"Two days. why?"
"So they can have some time to think about them. You could collect the papers and questions at the end of the class and return them the nest day."
"Yeah, I suppose that's possible. But final exams schedules are made for one period."
"OK. How about this? Divide the period in half - two 45 minute segments. Give each kid two blue books. Tell them to use the first segment, 45 minutes, to outline, or plan, or write, or make lists of facts or detail. Tell them spelling, grammar, and punctuation are not important in the first book. Just get organized somehow. At the end of the first period tell them to use the second book to write the final draft. In this draft, spelling,grammar, and punctuation does count. Also you want to see facts, sentences, and paragraphs. You want to see the safety rules of the shop and why they are needed"
"I don't know-"
"Well give it a try. What have you got to lose?"
A few weeks later the shop teacher came into my room early in the morning and threw down a pile of Blue Books on my desk."
"Take a look at these" he said with a smile. "They have sentences, and paragraphs, and facts and they make sense. Spelling is better but not good. But I am thinking of letting them use dictionaries. I guess you know something after all. What other things do you think I can do to get better writing out of them?"
The shop teacher and I went on to work together for several years.
If your writing workshop is valid don't be afraid to be called out. In fact, use it as an opportunity to get other content area teachers on board.

Bob Alexander's picture
Bob Alexander
Consultant for the Pennsylvania Training and Technical Assistance Network

It is the responsibility of all content teachers to instruct and reinforce the skills you mention here--"...but they do need to know thesis statments, how to formulate an argument, how to incorporate evidence, how to expound on that evidence, how to incorporate the opposing view point, how to research a point of view different than one's own, etc.! The list of things that they cannot do, because they are not taught, coached, led, is in part because they are not expected to."

Hudson Don's picture
Hudson Don
Prematurely retired high school English teacher because of blindness (legal

I do not disagree that thesis statement, writing compellingly, understanding and using rhetoric, composing a point of view, and using tolerance and restraint with opposing view points is important and necessary.
The question is "how is that accomplished?" Especially in emerging content areas (technical writing), business writing, and academic writing the above skills and techniques are assumed and demanded. How does a student, let's say in high school or even college, acquire command of the above skills. Historically, all the other content areas expect the English teacher to provide the instruction and mastery. But that didn't happened very often. English teachers told students to start with an outline and then use that as the guide to writing the assigned project. I wonder how many people will admit to writing the paper first and then writing the outline afterwards? Outlines are useless to about half of all people because their brain is not wired to get sense out of outlines. And so the purpose and effort of that work is wasted which is more than frustrating. It is forcing those people to be "anti'-literate". A very bad habit to get into
How do people learn to do that kind of work and master that kind of thinking? One of the most effective and therefore successful techniques is the writing workshop. A good writing workshop recognizes and accepts individual differences. It constantly modifies and adapts to individual styles and individual competencies. A good writing workshop embraces the understanding that writing is not an individual. solitary process. Good writing is never done in isolation.
In a good writing workshop a project (academic paper perhaps) would be read aloud by the author to another author/s for several kinds of feedback. This activity will be repeated several time. It's called a "work in progress".
Bob you wrote, "It is the responsibility of all content teachers to instruct and reinforce the skills..." How many content area teachers know the skills we are talking about are learned individually but through group interaction? To be more blunt, have they read Lev Vygotsky (Mind in Society)? Have you ever assigned a paper to be written for your class and made it a requirement that the paper be read aloud to you (and or other class members) in process? Isn't that instructing and reinforcing skills? Would you agree that a teacher should never be surprised by a student's writing because the teacher will have heard and read the paper in progress? I have asked this same question of a lot of teachers in my career and their answer is overwhelmingly "NO"! And that "no" is often followed by the direction, "that's your job, you're the English teacher." Bob, how are those teachers, "teaching and reinforcing the skills" we are talking about? If we want a student to write in a technical or academic style, then we have to have that student practice writing in those styles using a process compatible with the acquisition of those style skills.Learning to write by the Karate Kid method -wax on wax off, and now you can win the All Valley Tournament as well as write a powerful term paper - does not work and it never did work. It makes for a good movie but not an accurate picture of what writing process is and how it is developed.
The misperception of how writing happens and how it is made acceptable is widespread. If content area teachers expect students to write in their content area then those teachers should be writing and sharing their writing with their students. Instead of useless in-service time, content area teachers shop be attending writing workshops and attending the summer institutes of the National Writing Project. Once the writing process is understood and accepted by content area teachers, the more quickly skillful writing like you are talking about Bob will appear.

Robin Hargrove's picture

I completely agree that each discipline has its own type of writing and that it cannot be the responsibility of the English teacher to teach students how to write a research paper for Science. That is why I believe taking the time to model for students is crucial. Don't insult your students by making them guess at what you want from them. We are teachers, it is not the students responsibility to guess what they are supposed to be learning or guess that they are supposed to be able to do as a result of being part of our classroom communities. Teach, model, examine mentor texts, share, conference, discuss and the students will learn.

Tina's picture
Tina
Grade 10 and 11 Developmental English teacher

In the past, I have teamed up with a biology teacher in writing a research paper based on an animal. In English class, I focused on teaching how to write the paper and site the information used during research. The biology teacher focused on the "science" part of the paper. We each individually assessed the papers - I graded on the writing and reseach process and she graded on how accurate the content was. We always told the students that they may receive very different grades on each paper because each teacher had different criteria in their assessments. Is it possible for you to work together with a teacher in a different content area when working on large assignments that cover multiple curriculums? If so, what are the benefits for the students as well as the teachers?

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