In today’s episode of The Spark Creativity Teacher Podcast, you’re going to hear from Amanda Werner, experienced workshop teacher, blogger at Amanda Write Now, and host of The Workshop Teacher Podcast.
So today we’re talking about a topic that you focus on a lot in your classroom and in your writing, and that’s writing workshop. Let’s start with the basic question. What is writing workshop and how does it work in the secondary classroom?
It’s really pretty simple! For writing workshop, you structure your classroom into three parts.
Part I: The minilesson
Part II: The writing and work time (with a list of choices for what to work on)
Part III: Closure (a chance to share writing or set goals for the future)
The trick is to manage the work time really tightly so that it’s productive and kids know what to do and how to deal with the issues that come up. We’ll talk more about that in a minute.
Why do you think writing workshop is a powerful way to teach writing?
“It’s SO authentic,” says Amanda. Workshop doesn’t feel like just an assignment, it’s more like real life. Students have an audience for what they’re doing, so it’s not just about pleasing the teacher.
In workshop, a community of writers is working together, developing and growing together. “I actually have students that are stronger writers than I am… they just blow me away,” says Amanda. Workshop allows you to treat your student writers with a real respect for their work and have high expectations for them.
Let’s talk about the first part of workshop, the mini lesson. Can you go into more depth about what the mini lesson looks like, and what types of topics you cover?
The ten minute direct instruction mini lesson has it’s own special structure within the workshop. Amanda attended Lucy Calkin’s Reading and Writing Project Institute and was trained in how to do these mini lessons there.
It’s very important that students don’t ask questions or derail this section, because it’s so quick and so important. The mini lesson takes place in a meeting area of the classroom so everyone is right next to each other and really leaning in to focus and learn.
Here’s how you run a mini lesson.
Begin with a short hook. This could come from pop culture or be a story from your own life. It’s just a way to interest students in the topic.
Then directly state the teaching point for the day. Explain briefly what the kids are about to learn.
Share a model. This is a chance to write in front of the students, analyze a mentor text (more on that later), or show a short video.
Give students a little time to practice. This could be turning to a partner to write or chat briefly about the teaching point.
Then you send students into the writing portion of the workshop, making sure to provide them with clear choices for what to work on.
Moving into the writing part, what do students do once that independent time begins? How do they generate ideas, and what do they do if they finish early?
Each unit lasts about 3 weeks to keep students from getting bored with a writing project. There will be different phases within that unit.
It’s really important to be clear about what is allowed during the work period. In some phases of a project, like brainstorming, plenty of conversation is allowed. At some other points, it needs to be silent, like if you’re doing a quick writing assessment to show you what you need to teach mini lessons on as the unit progresses.
When students finish early, congratulate them on working hard and remind them “when you think you’re done, you’ve just begun,” and let them know maybe they just need a little break. Maybe they could use a little time to draw a picture to go with their piece, or to write something else for a little while, or help someone else, etc. Stay super positive as much as you can – challenge kids who are struggling to write for five minutes with a timer or to make it to a certain line of the paper.
Amanda often shares her charts of ideas for what students can do during workshop over on her Instagram feed.
While they’re writing, you’re conferencing. This is the part of writing workshop that sounds most intimidating to me. How can you possibly conference with everyone, and how can you keep track of it all?
Conferencing can be intimidating, because you don’t want to leave everyone else alone and risk having them go off task! But it doesn’t have to be really formal, and you don’t need to record everything. You just have quick conversations with students. There’s a really simple structure to the conference that you can use. You’re just there to teach one skill.
Ask them how it’s going and scan their writing a bit. Try to focus on one thing they really need to work on. Say something positive and then give them one piece of advice and get out of there. Five minutes tops! You want to get to other kids. Everyone in the area is likely to pick up on the mini lesson too, so that’s a benefit.
But you can’t conference every day. It’s really overwhelming. It’s also a good idea to wait until you’ve progressed in the workshop quite a bit and the expectations are super clear and the behavior element is working well. Once your kids are workshop savvy, it’s much easier to conference.
Do not worry about tracking your conferences, a checkmark by the name of each student you chat with is just fine!
Remember, “teach the writer, not the writing.” Every conference is going to be really different, because every kid is really different.
One of the big catchphrases I hear associated with writing workshop a lot is mentor texts. Can you explain what a mentor text is and why it’s helpful?
Lucy Calkin’s came up with this term. It’s basically just sharing an example of quality writing with students so they can get a sense of the expectations and the characteristics of a good piece of writing in this genre. You can use a piece from another student, a piece you’ve written, a selection of a novel, etc.
Want to learn more from Lucy Calkins? Check out these Lucy Calkins Books.
What are some of your favorite writing projects you have done with your students over the years through workshop, and how do they share that writing beyond your desk?
Right now Amanda’s students are working on position papers. The students have four controversial topics (social media presence, financial smarts, elective course offerings, and technology in schools), and model situations relating to those topics.
The students have a wide variety of sources provided to help them research the topic they choose, and then they write based on the situation they are given.
For example, for the social media topic, students imagine their phones were taken away and they must write a letter to the school newspaper, based on their research, on what it means to have a healthy relationship with social media.
Some students will eventually share their writing outside the classroom, and some want to keep their thoughts private.
Connect with Amanda Werner
“I’m a full time middle school English teacher in the Bay Area. This is my twelfth year teaching and I still feel like a novice. Every year is a unique and exciting challenge to inspire a new group of students to become avid readers and writers. I read educational literature voraciously and enjoy writing about the teaching of reading and writing on this website. I received my B.A. in English Literature with an emphasis in Humanities at Western Washington University.” -Amanda