For several years now, I’ve been hovering around Readers/Writers Workshop, certain that this is the path that is exactly what my students need. I started with Readers Workshop two years ago, and I’ve watched my students grow in their love of reading and stretch themselves. I’ve seen kids go from being professed (and almost proud) non-readers to stalking my bookshelves for new books or asking me to get my hands on specific books that they’ve heard about. (If you’re new to the idea of Readers Workshop, check out this post to learn more about why it’s so awesome!) We still have work to do in Readers Workshop in my classroom, but I feel comfortable about the direction in which we’re heading, and I’m confident that my kids are on the right track. I even use Readers Workshop strategies with my AP kids, thanks to encouragement from posts like this one from Amy. She’s the one who started me down this path.
Writers Workshop is a different animal (for me) entirely. Perhaps it’s the fact that I feel like I should be reading everything that they write; maybe it’s that I’m still struggling with giving up some control–I’ve been at this teaching game for a while (since 1997) and sometimes it’s hard to teach old dogs new tricks. Writing has always been important to me, and it’s something that I’ve put emphasis on in my classroom. My kids have always known that they’ll be doing plenty of writing in my classroom; until this year, though, most of that writing has been in traditional academic essays: ACT-style essay prompts, persuasive essays, literary analysis, etc.
For several years now, I’ve abandoned traditional objective tests, opting instead to give my students essay exams. It means that my grading load is heavier, but I feel more confident that I’m getting a more clear idea of what my kids know and can do as opposed to the answers that they have memorized from the students from earlier class periods. I tell them that I’m not necessarily concerned that they remember the specific character names of the characters in Farewell to Arms or that Huck Finn met Buck in the middle of a Hatfield/McCoy style shoot-out. What I’m more interested in are the ideas and connections that they can make from what we’re reading in class to other pieces of literature and to what’s going on in their lives and in the world around them. I want them to see that the themes in Langston Hughes’ “Mother to Son” still resonates today, even though it was written 96 years ago, and that Carl Sandburg’s “I Am the People, I Am the Mob” could have been written by Emma Gonzalez last month after the Parkland shooting instead of in 1916, 102 years ago. That’s the beauty of literature–the themes are timeless and the human experience tends to be the same from generation to generation. So we’re doing real work, and I’m working to help them make connections so that they can see models for navigating these times that we find ourselves in. (Read more about connections like these here.) I’ve seen improvements throughout the years, and I’ve seen kids grow, but I haven’t seen the same kind of buy-in that I’ve seen in the growth in the reading culture in my classroom.
All of the literature is clear–just as readers thrive in a culture of choice, writers need choice as well. Kelly Gallagher says that, in order to improve, writers should write at least four times what teachers could possibly read–FOUR TIMES! Knowing that but also knowing that I’m barely keeping my head above water with my grading load is probably also part of the hesitation that I’ve had with Writers Workshop.
This year I’ve been determined to move past that hesitation that I have in order to better help my students. I’m so enamored by posts like Shana’s that show just how powerful Writers Workshop can be, so I am pushing past my awkwardness. I’ve modified how I grade essays, trying to cut down on some of the workload there. Rather than marking up student essays, I try to do more holistic grading and then encourage my students to come to me for writing conferences where I can give them more focused feedback. This pushes my students to look at their writing themselves rather than simply search for my comments and make changes based on those. I’ve also tried to build in some choice in writing topics, giving them 4 different options for argumentative prompts, for example, rather than one topic that they’ll all write in lock-step.
The biggest change with writing in my classroom lately, though, has been with the introduction of writing journals and writing prompts. I was lucky to go to a professional development session with Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher in February, and they talked about different ideas and strategies to get students writing. One of the things that they modeled was writing beside students and encouraging students to take a small period of time to “make it better.” Now we have a writing prompt at the beginning of class just about every day. I usually give them about 4 minutes to write, and then they’ll have 1 minute to make it better. Sometimes I specify how they should do that–sometimes I ask them to strengthen their verbs, other times I ask them to add details, while still other times I ask them to work with sentence structure, adding complexity and interest. After their “make it better” minute, we spend some time talking about what they’ve done and sometimes I ask for students to share their work.
These are little moments in the scope of my classroom–we have 53 minute periods, so we spend 10 minutes reading (choice reading, of course), 4 minutes writing, and then 1 minute making it better, before we move on to the other 38 minutes of whatever we’re doing that day–but these have become some of the most powerful moments in my classroom. I’ve had students who are so excited to share or who have been proud of a particular turn of phrase or image. These moments of Writers Workshop in my classroom have begun to create a community of collaborators with students working together to encourage each other or to come up with the right tweak of a sentence. They’re excited about these short segments of class and they buzz with ideas for their writing. There have been requests (pleas, really) for more time to keep writing because students are pulling on a thread and they want to stay with it while the ideas are fresh.
One of the best parts of this, from a time management perspective, is that I’ve been able to do these things and achieve this growth without adding anything to my grading load. The feedback comes from our discussions and from their peers’ response to what they have written. I will have them go to their notebooks soon and pull something from what they’ve written to expand it into a longer, more developed piece, but this little foray into Writers Workshop has taken away some of the stigma of writing in the classroom. When they’re done in 4 minute segments with 1 minute to “make it better,” it seems more accessible for students and less intimidating. I’m not asking them to plan out a whole paper or to reflect what they should have read–these prompts have (so far) been either reaction/response prompts to current events or creative outlets. The creative prompts are the ones that they have enjoyed the most. I teach Juniors in high school, so there are very few moments in the day when they actually get to do things “just for fun”–these Writers Workshop moments and the independent reading for our Readers Workshop are the “fun moments” in my kids’ days. Maybe that’s the biggest takeaway for me–through Readers and Writers Workshop, my kids are beginning to reawaken that part of themselves that enjoyed learning just for learning’s sake. That alone makes any struggle or growing pains immensely worthwhile. We may be making baby steps in our progress towards Writers Workshop, but it feels as if we’re starting along the right path.
Do you use Readers and Writers Workshop strategies in your classroom? What were the hardest parts for you when you were getting started? What have you seen as the biggest rewards? Share your story with us in the comments section below!