Writer’s Workshop in the High School Classroom

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Typically, the discussion around Workshop takes place against the backdrop of the elementary classroom. When I tell other educators I also used workshop in my high school classes I am inundated with endless questions… How did you do that? What curriculum did you use? How much time did you have?

First, before jumping into the weekly schedule and content I used, I always explain a few things up front.

Logistics and Important Information About My Classroom:

  • Class periods were 42 minutes and I met with the students every day for one semester.
  • I worked hard at the beginning to build a community of writers, one where students would be willing to take risks in their style and content and share with a wider audience than the traditional lone teacher.
  • All students submitted a writing portfolio at the end of the course, sharing their chosen pieces, paragraphs, lines, etc. which demonstrated mastery in standards.
  • All students were required to complete, at least, three typed-pages every week of original work or one that was heavily revised and edited.
  • Students were part of a blogging community and required to post something every other week and comment on 2 other blog posts every week. This public sharing of work provided a different audience than the traditional lone teacher and helped grow writers faster than anything else I had done throughout my writing. (This community was high school students from across the US and in 4 different classrooms.)
  • Students chose content and type of writing each week. Portfolio asked for examples in multiple types, subgenres, and media; but students had complete control over the when, what, and how during the semester.
  • Along with typical types and subgenres of writing, students also created and wrote in contemporary modes including images, videos, music, infographics, etc.
  • Every two to three weeks students turned in a “publishable piece” to be assessed.
  • Finally, I wrote with my students. I modeled my thinking, shared my pieces, and asked for feedback!  

 

I used the traditional Workshop model where I tried to keep my direct instruction at a minimum so that students could write, apply the learning, and collaborate with each other and me when needed. The following is a typical weekly schedule. During student Independent Writing time they had three options: write, collaborate with peers, collaborate with me. As long as their actions were done with intent, the climate and culture in my classroom allowed them to decide what they needed most at that moment to move them forward as a writer, and then do it!

A Simplified weekly schedule of Writer’s Workshop for a 12th-grade writing class:

MondayInspiration. Brainstorm. Share Every Monday I would take time to launch students into writing. I called this “Monday Inspiration”. There were many methods I used to get kids excited about writing. Students were inspired by a mentor text, video, image, or other types of communication. I would pose a question or prompt to contemplate and write about. Students would take part in an inspiring writing activity that typically had them developing lists, sketching, moving, and so forth. All inspiration and accompanying thinking were recorded in their digital Writer’s Notebook section we labeled, Writing Territories, a term from Nancy Atwell. After the 10 to 15 minute inspiration, students would continue to brainstorm and write about the topic or in the genre at hand. This beginning may be something that they continue to develop throughout the week, or remain in their Writing Territories to call upon if they “don’t know what to write about.” At the very end of the class period, I would make sure to leave time to share. I learned early on, students loved sharing their thoughts, writing, and ideas on Monday after the inspiring start. The sharing was sometimes done as a whole class or in a small group.

TuesdayIndependent Writing. Peer Collaboration. Small Group. 1 on 1  On Tuesday, students were writing or creating independently on a piece of their choice. While they could continue the piece they started on Monday, students in my classroom always had a choice in Type and content of their writing. During this time, I worked with small groups, to teach a skill, reinforce something previously learned, or meet individual needs, collectively. I also had time to meet with a few students 1 on 1. This allowed me to know them as writers, address specific needs that either they or I identified, and to just do a check-in on their process. Along with working independently, or meeting with me, students also had the option to work with a partner or small group. During a writer’s workshop, students are at multiple points in the writing process. Some continued pieces week to week, others may just be in the beginning stages; students would revise, edit, and provide feedback to each other and their “virtual classmates” in the blogging community based on their needs as a writer.

Wednesday Language Study. Independent Writing. Portfolio. Blog. On Wednesdays, the class period began with a lesson over grammar, usage, or mechanics. Teaching grammar in isolation does not lead to use in writing. With this in mind, I used student writing, identify common errors made by the class and this is where I would focus my teaching. After the lesson, students continue to write or work with peers. Wednesday was also time for students to work on their writing portfolio, a collection of their best examples and reflections throughout the year and aligned to the standards or teaching goals. Students could also add a new post to their blogs or leave a comment on another student blog from our community.  

Thursday –  Independent Writing. Revising. Editing. Small Groups. 1 on 1. Thursday was spent much like Tuesday. Students chose how they spent their time based on their writing needs. Some worked independently, others worked with a partner or small group. During the revising and editing stages, students used a variety of strategies to accomplish their goals. These strategies were taught via whole class and small groups. They also prepared for Friday, making sure they had something of substance to share the following day. I spent my time working one on one with students, teaching specific techniques that would move them forward as writers.  

FridaySharing with Feedback. Fridays were typically spent sharing writing. To help build a community of growth, we started off sharing in small groups of 3 using the PQP strategy (Praise, Question, Polish by Bill Lyons). This allows the writer to receive the specific feedback needed. Another method used was Go, Fish, a whole class strategy that allowed every writer to give and receive feedback. An Author’s Spotlight was used to highlight individuals and often included multiple pieces by 2 or 3 writers. Important things about students sharing their writing: Everyone shared what they wanted to with the rest of the class, feedback was specific (more strategies were taught for this) and used to move everyone forward, finally, sharing their writing honored the process and provided a different audience than the traditional lone teacher.

It is possible to use a workshop framework in a high school classroom. In fact, I cannot imagine teaching writing a different way. Students had a choice in content and writing type. They also shared their work with classmates and to a larger, public audience. Students were writing for real, not just writing for school, and created in multiple mediums to communicate their voice through video, text, visuals, and more. And although this post shared a basic structure, I hope that it provided you with enough information to see the possibilities when considering how to structure a writer’s workshop in your own classroom.

10 Tenets of a Student-Centered Writing Classroom

 

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Today my work consisted of supporting educators on how to teach writing. Upon reflection, we realized that very few of us remember being specifically taught how to teach writing. Sure, we learned a lot about content, genres, and types of writing; but not one person raised their hand when I asked if they had an undergrad program that explicitly taught them how to teach writing. Empowering kids through writing is my passion, and I am driven to change the writing landscape that is found in many schools!

As a teacher of writing, I believe there are 10 Tenets of a Student-Centered Writing Classroom

  1. Teach the Writer, not the Writing – Focus on the learning, not the end product.
  2. Write in Front of your Students – Dispel the notion that writing is magic. Let young writers see and hear your process as you write in front of them.
  3. State the Why – Explain why Good Writers use specific skills, strategies, and resources when they write.
  4. Focus on Transferable Skills and Strategies – Answer and remind young writers how the skill or strategy can be used today and whenever they write. 
  5. Student Choice – Transfer ownership by letting students choose what they write about. Is it really about the content or is the content the vehicle in which demonstration occurs? Learning to Write, not Writing to Learn.
  6. Student Voice – Developing voice takes practice. Have students write often and in various genres. 
  7. Write for Real – An authentic audience and writing purpose engages young writers, provides relevance to writing, and allows them to share their story with the world.
  8. Surround Writers with Exemplars– Collect and share examples of writers and writings that students can gain inspiration from or that challenge them to apply a similar technique in their own writing.
  9. Differentiate – Pull small groups of writers or confer one to one with students based on needs and goals. While whole class instruction is efficient, small groups or one to one learning is more effective.
  10. Never Forget the Share – Honor the hard work young writers do through the share at the end of the class. Sharing promotes a safe community, builds relationships, and can target a teaching point!

The Teaching of Writing, A Promise to Students

A Guide to the Common Core Writing Workshop Middle School Grades (1-3)

Frequently, the answer to the question posed above is one met with hesitation. While most of us can answer the type of reading or math instruction a student will receive in our school, writing instruction is one area that is often glossed over, or assumed to be present in the ELA classroom. Teaching students to write is viewed as complicated, and many teachers resort to focusing on grammar and conventions. While these two areas should be included in any writing program, they often extinguish the love of writing in students. Likewise, rarely does a department or school have a comprehensive writing program; one that scaffolds and builds off of the previous year’s instruction. Typically, it is a game left to chance if a child receives writing instruction by a highly-qualified teacher; and even then, without an intentional writing program agreed upon by the department and school, gaps in writing instruction equal little growth seen in students.

The Common Core gives as much attention to writing as it does reading. In fact, three of the reading standards require students to read like writers. “Writing is assumed to be the vehicle through which a great deal of the critical thinking, reading work, and reading assessment will occur” (Lucy Calkins). Students abilities to read and understand will be assessed through their ability to write. The Core also provides an infrastructure into which a curriculum can be developed. Vertical alignment to the core provides foundations a student learned prior onto which one can stand upon and build from.

BUT…

The Core is the WRONG answer to give as to why one should reform their writing curriculum… instead,

  • You believe in kids.
  • You believe in democracy.
  • You believe in the right for all people’s voices to be heard.
  • You believe that writers make choices for deliberate reasons.

(Calkins, UoS)

The Standard-based approach to writing includes a shared commitment by the whole school, it is the work of everyone. Writing, like reading and math, is one of those subjects that affect a learner’s ability to succeed in other areas. Finally, there is a shared commitment to teach writing, and some infrastructure that assures enough of a curriculum that teachers can build off of prior instruction.

Lucy Calkins also outlines the “bottom-line conditions” needed for writing. I have created an infographic highlighting these conditions.

Conditions for writing

Complete slides found here

iMoments: Student Voice, The Story of Leo

Life has a funny way of tugging on those memories that need revisiting, reflecting, and ultimately shared with the world. When the ADE application opened, my friend Sue Gorman gently nudged me to apply. Although my educational journey with Apple started long ago (2009, 1 to 1 high school English teacher), I had never applied for the honor of being named an Apple Distinguished Educator. Fear of rejection paralyzed my application submission each time. Fortunately, this year was different (thank you Don Goble) , and when an application question asked me to share how student learning was transformed in my classroom, one story kept rising to the top – This is the story of Leo.

***leo***

Teaching in a small school allowed me the opportunity to have students as freshmen and again as seniors, and when Leo came through the door his final year of high school I could tell there had been many positive changes in his life. Leo shared with me that he had lost a considerable amount of weight, was looking forward to his final year of high school, and finally met a girl that he cared a great deal about. Things were good!

Enrolled in my Creative Writing class, and having recently implemented a 1 to 1 Laptop Initiative, Leo and his classmates experienced a different educational environment than those students from previous years. Students became a community of writers in the Apple environment. A digital writer’s workshop emerged, utilizing multimodal communication throughout the writing process. A blogging community evolved, connecting my students with peers in four other schools across the Midwest. The shift in audience wasn’t the only powerful impact on student learning. Student choice often dictated not only content of their writing, but mode in which it was shared.  Along with traditional text, Leo and his classmates used imovies to create multimedia productions to share their voice, and were in the process of finishing podcasts based off of NPR’s “This I Believe” when tragedy struck.

A car accident resulted in the untimely death of Leo.

The students and community were shocked. The next day, the students turned to their writing community for support and reflection. They reread pieces Leo had shared, comments he had left on their work, and then approached me about Leo’s “This I Believe” statement. Unfortunately, I did not possess a copy; but, Leo and I had conferenced earlier that week and I was able to share the happiness and joy that filled his life during this time.

 A few days later, at his funeral, when we opened the program there was an inserted sheet containing Leo’s “This I Believe” statement. You see, his writing, his words, a piece of him was left in the stories that were recovered on his Macbook, and his mother wanted all of us to have copy. Apple technologies helped to reimagine the writing classroom, provided students the ability to share their story, promotes student voice and self-expression in ways unimagined before now.

And as graduation approached, the senior class took a line from his writing and it became their class motto. I can’t imagine a more meaningful gesture, a fitting tribute to their friend.  Through Leo’s words, his legacy lives forever.

***

Permission and blessing given by Sue Barten, Leo’s mother

Reimagining the Writer’s Notebook

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In a Writing Workshop classroom, the Writer’s Notebook  serves as the heart of the community. The notebook is a gathering spot for inspiration/brainstorming, recording learning gained from minilessons, along with many other purposes.

Traditionally, this notebook has been concrete, filled with blank paper eagerly waiting to be filled. The writer’s inkblood poured onto to it’s pages, scotch-taped quotes and pictures hung out from the edges, practice examples, quickwrites, rough drafts; all filled the emptiness. Depending on the teacher’s philosophy and preference, these sacred notebooks, NEVER, EVER… EVER left the classroom; in fear they would be lost, damaged, or forgotten at home.

Working in a district where all students were provided laptops demanded me to reimagine the traditional Writer’s Notebook to one in a digital form. My goal was not to be a paperless classroom, in fact, many of the images contained within our Digital Writer’s Notebook were first done on paper.  Instead, I wanted to:

  1. Increase student enjoyment in writing.
  2. Move all writers forward.
  3. Consume and create traditional and digital literacies.
  4. Share their writing with the world.

A Digital Writer’s Notebook allows the freedom to incorporate a multitude of mediums. The accessibility allows the writer to add inspiration to this collective spot via multiple modes (phone, computer, tablet) at any time and from anywhere. Freedom in text, embedding videos, or inserting images provides the writer choice in communication.

All of these advantages proved to encourage students to write more and think more about writing. They began filling their Digital Writer’s Notebook, not because it was the designated class time, but because they were inspired! And those students who chose to sketch, draw, or keep a paper Writer’s Notebook (I am a firm believer in student choice) uploaded pics of their notebook (if they chose).

Using a Google Folder students were able to organize their Writer’s Notebook into different “Sections” or documents. Using Google Drive allowed students access from any device and the ability to set the document to work offline for times when there was no internet access.

Example of a Writer’s Notebook “Inspiration/Brainstorm” found here.