I’ll admit that I was terrified to teach writing in a workshop format. Even after I successfully and happily conducted reading workshop with my classes, it took me another eight years to give writing workshop a try. There are some common problems that you might encounter, but in the end, writing workshop isn’t that difficult.
How to Go About It
Here are eight things you’ll need—some physical objects and some ideas and attitudes.
1. Freewriting prompts or other prewriting activities. Instructing students to just start writing a draft is a great way to end your experience with writing workshop very quickly. Instead, spend more time than you think you’ll need on prewriting. Get students going in a low-pressure way with freewriting prompts, research, brainstorming, or analyzing evidence or a primary source.
2. A clipboard or other method of keeping track of student progress daily. Walking around the room and checking in with students is a great way to keep a writing workshop on track. Checking specific process points off as students work is also much easier than dealing with multiple drafts and revisions at the end of the workshop. I also found it useful to write down students’ topics, in case I forgot. Create a process checklist and update as you go.
3. A willingness to stop micromanaging every part of the day. This was such a tough one for me. What if students start talking, and then they start talking more loudly, and then they break out the chips and party decorations and I have lost complete control of the room... The truth is that conducting a great writing workshop means letting go a little. Sometimes writers need breaks. It’s really difficult for teens to stay productive for an entire hour, so I had to work on being OK with not controlling every minute.
4. The ability to share documents in the moment. When I started, I’d have formal due dates for drafts, collect a huge stack of papers, and slowly work through them one by one. Eventually I switched to reading drafts as we went, during class time. This is easiest with Google Docs or another electronic means of sharing, but you can do it with paper copies too—computers are not a necessity. I could skim a draft in three minutes and let a student know if their main idea wasn’t clear or if the third paragraph needed more description. It made for some very busy classes, but it also cleared my desk of a giant stack of papers. Having that clipboard to keep track of whose drafts I’d read played a key role here.
5. Strategies to push students who resist revision. So many students are used to typing that last word and exclaiming, “Done!” But finishing the first draft is only a small part of the process of writing. Especially when kids are used to getting by with the bare minimum, it’s not easy to get them to go back to work that they see as already finished. Having specific suggestions for revision makes that process easier.
6. Examples of great writing. Save student work and look for published articles, essays, opinion pieces, poems—anything and everything you can find, so that when you need examples of smooth transitions, or conclusions that don’t say “in conclusion,” or grabbers that don’t ask cheesy rhetorical questions, you’ll have lots to choose from. For me, this was also a great excuse to read newspapers and magazines—you never know when you’ll find your next example.
7. Lots and lots of excitement for students’ ideas and experiences and voices. I’ve found that reluctant writers often feel like no one really cares about their experiences or ideas, so having lots of genuine excitement for students’ stories is important. Ultimately, their writing gave me a glimpse into what mattered to them, so it wasn’t hard to get excited about reading an essay about the school musical or the Brazilian wandering spider.
8. At least three more class days than you think you’ll need. Just about every teacher I’ve ever met feels a pressure to get through lots of material. But sometimes writing workshop just takes time. Some students might stare at their screen for three days and then write two pages in one burst, some might spend 20 minutes discussing the third sentence of their second paragraph in a peer conference, and some might need to describe every detail of the night before an event before they can actually get to writing about the real topic of their essay. Writing takes time, so make sure to leave plenty of space in your writing workshop schedule.
When I think back to my experiences with teaching writing workshop, I can remember students’ pieces and the excitement they felt when they figured out what their topic was or how to end their essay or the perfect word to describe the emotion they felt on the day in question. For me, the best reason to attempt writing workshop isn’t that it will help students become better writers—which it will—it’s that it will help them know themselves better.