Alone on the Range: Trying to Keep Your Balance in the Writing Workshop

“Writing teachers draw upon three distinct areas of expertise. We must know our students. We must know how to teach. And we must know something about writing itself.”

(Ralph Fletcher, What a Writer Needs)

I spend a lot of time thinking about why the writing workshop is failing in many elementary schools despite the amount of professional development administrators and teachers invest in the enterprise. Here’s a quick dictionary snap of failure: 1. Lack of success; 2. Something less than that required; 3. Breakdown of something; 4. Lack of development or production. The thing about failure is that it isn’t prescriptive; it’s often hard to trace the genesis of the problem. Teachers frequently groan about the writing workshop.  Those of us still invested in the process continue on trying to find the magic key, while others let it quietly drift by the wayside. Should I be shocked? I guess not. I mean how many people have ever given up on a diet? Sure, we know fruits and vegetables are good for us, science provides a lot of solid health data, but many of us find ourselves sneaking up on the donut versus the apple. The writing workshop has a lot of data to support its effectiveness, yet it still resides on a slippery slope. Even if you find your way, you still wrap your fists around clumps of grass and roots trying to steady your hold. Why is this practice so tricky to actualize within the classroom context?

I have a hunch it’s because there are a multitude of factors involved in the writing workshop that never make it into an inspirational published text or even a volley of collegial banter around the water cooler. Nobody wants to talk about what’s really going on for fear of being caught naked, the Emperor gone commando! Every day when I look out over the workshop sea, there are a million ripples to gaze at. Not only is each writer an individual with defined needs but each piece of writing is also unique. It can be daunting to know where to cast the rescue line. Do I help David who can barely get a word on the page or do I conference with Kate who’s giving J.K. Rowling a run for her money? What about the two kids off in the corner, notebooks open, giggling hysterically? Are they on task or off? Do I check in or let it go? The architecture of the workshop stands opposed to almost everything those of us who received an education in the past fifty years believe to be “standard” classroom procedure: all the students should look involved in purposeful work and the teacher should look as if she is in control of the learning environment.

Even if you know your students deeply, their strengths and their weaknesses, even if you’re a high flyer when it comes to classroom management and innovative lesson plans, rest assured the writing workshop will still be a wriggling wild animal that’s difficult to get your arms around. Even with thick gloves and a lot of treats in your pocket, the truth is, you might still get bit.

When I drop down in a chair with a sage-like text on the writing workshop, I am always stymied by the scientific precision of the featured classrooms and teachers. I have to shake my head and wonder if my workshop even qualifies as legit. For instance, on Mondays, I just like to take the workshop pulse, no magic mini-lesson, no mentor text madness, no conferences; I just start with one solid reminder of how writers work and then I let them get to work. I spend about forty-five minutes roaming the room touching base with every writer for a minute or two. I ask two basic questions: What are you working on today? Do you need any help? Usually I discover the lay of the land, the info I need to know to let me work with tacit intention for the rest of the week. What am I looking for? I want to know which students are starting a new story, trying to hook onto an idea. This can be a rough ride especially if they were highly invested in the piece they just finished or if they stumble to have an independent thought. I’m looking to see who’s stuck in some writing quicksand and may need some help getting to solid ground. I’m looking to see who’s coming in from the weekend off of his gourd and might need some explicit strategies to get back into a writing zone. I don’t expect much on a Monday in terms of production. Monday is all about truing a compass for the rest of the week.

Most weeks I deliver three robust mini-lessons, well truthfully, it’s often just one broken into three chunks. I try to balance my agenda, what territory I want to cover during the year, with my sense of what most of the writers in my classroom are struggling with, call it the responsive or receptive curriculum. I’ve found this can be difficult to manage if you’re always bound to an intensive unit of study. I find myself consistently hacking away at units of study year after year; I’ve come to believe that units inevitably drive a product and this stands opposed to my gut knowledge that writers learn through process. In addition, product is far too often teacher driven. What kid in their right mind really chooses to write a personal narrative when zombies, aliens, talking animals and magic are available? We need to let young writers test drive possible forms of written communication but we also need to recognize that buy-in comes when students write about what they care about.

Fridays I relax and let the workshop flower with experiments. This may include a play that finally gets performed, it may be clusters of small groups sharing based on audience preference or it could be a comic workshop or a poetry break away. Usually it’s something different, a new way to think about or approach our writing work. I hope the work done on Fridays will drift into a notebook or two on Monday but I don’t hold any of my writers to this expectation. As a rule, writers don’t follow rules. If they’re authentically invested in writing, they step to their imaginations, wander their hearts.

As teachers, perhaps we should learn to do the same. Billy who can’t get more than a couple of sentences on the page doesn’t need a scripted writing conference: “How’s it going?” “Like crap, thank you very much.” The empty notebook says it all.  Billy needs a muse, a teacher to celebrate his every word. A teacher to listen to what might not ever make it on the page, a teacher who celebrates his storytelling approximations. It might take Billy three or four months, even a year, but one day, he’ll be ready for that writing conference. He’ll have a voice and something to say if he’s nurtured. If not? I suspect he might just hate writing for the rest of his life. The stakes are that high for some students.

The work is always insurmountable when you glance it from a distance. Almost every day I think back on my writing workshop and ask myself questions, mulling how it went: Did I encourage different voices in our conversations? Did purposeful talk way out the static? Were most writers on task, involved in meaningful work? Did I touch base with everyone, even if for a brief moment? Our teaching obligation in the writing workshop is to meet the needs of all our writers. It’s not an easy task. Writing is an expression of who we are. We write to explore new vistas, figure things out, write the endings we wish for, and apprehend our dreams, if only for a brief moment.  The work is hard and the results slippery; as a writing teacher it’s easy to feel like Sisyphus rolling the rock up the hill for an eternity.  I get flattened a lot. But perhaps we should seek our balance and rhythm through another set of lenses, not spend so much time comparing our daily writing jam sessions to the flourish of the Teachers College chamber orchestra. Maybe our success is actually in the small moments, the moments we notice a young writer’s face flush as he stumbles for the right words, when we watch young writers strive to live more deeply through story, the joy that comes when a slice of life is apprehended in print. It is in those moments that I find the meaning in the practice, the energy to help each writer reach a little higher, dare a little deeper, believe they have voices that matter.  Next time your workshop feels off kilter and you just want to throw in the towel, take a deep breath and spend a moment noticing all the learning that’s quietly erupting in the cracks of your imperfect classroom. And yes, your gangly buzzing unkempt classroom is a perfect hive for writers-in-the-making. Trust this.


The Zen of the Writing Workshop: Unraveling the Koans


“Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good.”

William Faulkner

My first experience of a writing workshop was in college in the early eighties, long before the practice became intrinsic in elementary classrooms across America. I think this was probably a lucky break. I had a chance to participate in a writing workshop when the idea was still exploratory, unshaped and dynamic. I can still remember the poet-professor hopping on a desk, ripping the clock off the wall, citing Ginsberg while he literally smashed time. I perked up. I paid attention. This was a learning environment unlike any other I’d ever been a part of. That year I learned how to listen critically, how to respond with my heart and my mind; I also learned to hone my writing instincts, work productively within a community, and take risks. I got to write about what I wanted to write about, there was someone to listen, and I wasn’t being compared to anybody else. There’s nothing quite like it.

Donald Murray built the forms for much of what we call the writing workshop in elementary school today.  He was an inspiration to Donald Graves at the University of New Hampshire who later became a fundamental mentor to Lucy Calkins. A Pulitzer prizewinning writer himself, Murray attempted to break down the architecture of writing in a way that kept the imaginative pulse of the experience while giving it an integral structure, stomping out a path for writers-yet-to-be.

In an essay titled “Write Before Writing,” Murray challenges teachers to confront one of the more difficult aspects of teaching writing, albeit that it’s not a tidy, predictable formulaic process and that writers, real writers, are quirky. Murray cuts to the chase:

We command our students to write and grow frustrated when our “bad” students hesitate, stare out the window, dawdle over blank paper, give up and say, “I can’t write,” while the “good” students smugly pass their papers in before the end of the period.

When publishing writers visit such classrooms, however, they are astonished at students who can write on command, ejaculating correct little essays without thought, for writers have to write before writing.

The writers were the students who dawdled, stared out windows, and, more often than we like to admit, didn’t do well in English—or in school.

Donald M. Murray, “Write Before Writing,” College Composition and Communication, Vol. 29, No. 4. (Dec., 1978), pp. 375-381.

Murray studied thousands of writers in his lifetime; he was thoroughly fascinated by the variant hues of the human writing process. One pillar that Murray continuously stands on in his work is the need for writers to pre-write, an act that often manifests itself as daydreaming or procrastination. In this “delay,” Murray believed that writers are seeking time to let the seed of an idea fully develop roots. In the end, Murray believes that only one act is necessary in order to become a writer…writing. Here is a glimpse of Murray’s spin on the essential components of writing and how teachers can cultivate environments in which writers thrive:

This process of discovery through language we call writing can be introduced to your classroom as soon as you have a very simple understanding of that process, and as soon as you accept the full implications of teaching process, not product.

The writing process itself can be divided into three stages: pre-writing, writing, and rewriting. The amount of time a writer spends in each stage depends on his personality, his work habits, his maturity as a craftsman, and the challenge of what he is trying to say. It is not a rigid lock-step process, but most writers most of the time pass through these three stages.

Prewriting is everything that takes place before the first draft. Prewriting usually takes about 85 percent of the writer’s time. It includes the awareness of his world from which his subject is born. In prewriting, the writer focuses on that subject, spots an audience,chooses a form which may carry his subject to his audience. Pre-writing may include research and daydreaming, note-making and outlining, title-writing and lead-writing.

Writing is the act of producing a first draft. It is the fastest part of the process, and the most frightening, for it is a commitment. When you complete a draft you know how much, and how little, you know. And the writing of this first draft—rough, searching, unfinished—may take as little as one percent of the writer’s time.

Rewriting is reconsideration of subject, form, and audience. It is researching, rethinking, redesigning, rewriting—and finally, line-by-line editing, the demanding, satisfying process of making each word right. It may take many times the hours required for a first draft, perhaps the remaining 14 percent of the time the writer spends on the project.

How do you motivate your student to pass through this process, perhaps even pass through it again and again on the same piece of writing?

First by shutting up. When you are talking he isn’t writing. And you don’t learn a process by talking about it, but by doing it. Next by placing the opportunity for discovery in your student’s hands. When you give him an assignment you tell him what to say and how to say it, and thereby cheat your student of the opportunity to learn the process of discovery we call writing.

To be a teacher of a process such as this takes qualities too few of us have, but which most of us can develop. We have to be quiet, to listen, to respond. We are not the initiator or the motivator; we are the reader, the recipient.

(From Don Murray, The Essential Don Murray, Lessons from America’s Greatest Writing Teacher: Heinemann Publishing)

The practice of the writing workshop continually requires that the teacher adopt a beginner’s mind; the Zen of the workshop is that it always unveils puzzles and delivers very few answers. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been on your game. The other day I had a writing workshop that was going off the rails quicker than I could cool the engines and slam on the brakes. Three girls doing pirouettes, (of course it was a part of their script); a few walking meditators, notebooks in hand; several conversation clutches imported directly from Starbucks; when I scanned the room I just had the sense that none of these writers were in a writing zone. I resisted the urge to flex my teaching muscles but the next day my mini-lesson started with this question: “What are we learning in the writing workshop?” I wanted to touch on the basics, realign the structure. One student raised her hand and launched, “We’re learning how to use our intuition.” I pushed her thinking. She continued, “We’re learning how to trust ourselves as writers. We’re starting to know when we have an idea that’ll grow and one that won’t.” Whoa, I wasn’t expecting this conversation. Another student popped in, “Yeah, we’re getting writing muscles.” Yet another, “We’re working on our writing instincts.” These were third graders; this was a conversation we’d never had. I wanted them to feed me words I could relax into like “Writers generate ideas, use plans, draft, edit, revise…” They were into much deeper territory. I was freaking out about the writing; they were being writers. Don Murray would’ve chuckled.

How to weave Murray’s insights into your next writing workshop? Here’s the marrow:

  1. Make time every day for kids to write and let them drive their topics
  2. Keep your mini-lesson tight and focus on a key component of the process
  3. Don’t present a mini-lesson as if it is the only way a writer can work, try to create a menu of possibilities
  4. Shut-up and let the kids write
  5. When you observe a behavior in the writing workshop that appears unproductive, approach it with wonder and heart, try to view it as part of a writer’s struggle and not a reflection of your own classroom management style
  6. Trust your instincts


The Hidden Gifts of the Writing Workshop Share


Lately I’ve been ruminating on sharing, the part of the workshop where students gather together to listen, enjoy and respond to each other’s writing. For a long time, the share was the piece of my writing workshop that dropped by the wayside due to time constraints. I’d glance across the room and notice all my students involved in meaningful work and I’d decide to forego the sharing component of the workshop. Sharing occurred in pockets or spurts but it wasn’t something the kids could rely on.

Then one year, I decided to focus on the share factor for my professional learning goal. When I began to look at sharing with consistency under the classroom microscope, interesting patterns started to emerge that I hadn’t noticed before. One of the first things I caught was that more often than not, the students who wanted to post up regularly in the share weren’t always my strongest writers in a pencil paper way; they tended to be, however, the most effective communicators—kids who enjoyed telling a story under the spotlight. These writers were also kids with a good sense of humor and a good ear for language. They delivered dialogue in a crisp original way even though they couldn’t punctuate it accurately to save their lives. I suspect many of these kids actually think in dialogue sound bites and that it is the sound of voices that shape their character development and their plots. These writers gave the share momentum; their strong voices helped me grow a culture in which sharing our written work was a part of how business occurred in the workshop.

Never underestimate the entertainment factor in learning; once the writing workshop share was associated with a consistent dose of humor, drama and suspense, the share became the part of the workshop that kids anticipated and looked forward to the most. I did a short series of mini-lessons on expectations for the share: What’s the role of the listener? What’s the role of the writer? How do we, as audience “readers,” respond to writing in progress? How can we as a community of writers support each other on our quests to improve? Effective sharing requires some clear expectations for student behavior. Listeners must be focused and thoughtful. Genuine compliments need to be generated. The teacher’s voice must only be one voice among many. When these ingredients fall together in the bowl, I’ve come to think that the writing workshop share might be the most powerful tool I have in the classroom for transforming student writers and their writing.

What do I mean exactly? Let me try to flesh out my thinking with a few examples. As teachers we always talk about the power of mentor texts and I agree, they certainly can have an impact on a writer. However, I’ve come to recognize the equal power of a student mentor text; a student who generates a piece of work that resonates with other students and opens up all sorts of possibilities.  Kyle came into school a math whiz and by all leaps of his own imagination, he was already hammering himself into an engineering mold. Hidden beneath the pocket protector and the calculator, however, was a knack for creative storytelling. He took the writing workshop share by storm with his initial piece about our classroom and their encounter at school with an alien. He made all of the students in our class relevant characters in his fictional world. His peers loved it, he was an instant cult classic, and suddenly I had a classroom full of students generating stories about classroom adventures; students who stumbled for ideas could hook onto this student generated model and script successful pieces. Kyle, being a generous writer, encouraged this rip-off as he went on to send the class to Hollywood and mash it up with Barbie and Ken, Elmo, Katie Perry and other characters from Hollywood Boulevard.

Another student in my class physically couldn’t generate any writing at all and yet through his voice in the writing workshop share, he became a writer. In the beginning of the year he would hold the paper in front of him with barely a line written down, and he’d read a story that he’d composed in his head; the rest of us could imagine the words. Nobody knew but me that his story wasn’t living on the page. Over the course of the year, he was able to accomplish more and more but I really believe that the impetus for his growth was his sense that he was a writer because of his successful participation in the writing workshop share. Other students went to him for ideas; his ability to play with language in his head made him a great resource for other writers trying to work through challenges of plot of character. Valued by his peers, his confidence grew, and little by little, his personal writing began to evolve.

Just yesterday in my after school writing club where the share goes at least thirty minutes, the students blew me away again when they started to make text to text connections between students’ current writing and stories that were written in the past: “That part reminded me of Lucas’s ‘Magic Notebook’ story…you wrote about orphans last year but you’ve grown your idea…wow, ‘The Tooth Bully’ is sort of like that story you wrote about Mr. and Mrs. Meatball, but so much better!” They could recall details about work that had been shared a year ago or more with absolute clarity; the power of the student mentor text was completely validated in their conversation.

To battle time and make the share sacred, I had to deeply ponder this question: What is writing really? I still don’t have an exact answer but perhaps it’s the power to tell our personal narratives, to share our spin on the world, to communicate with and entice others with words. I believe we all have stories to tell and the breath of the writing workshop share gives life to story through the power of voice. Do I skip it anymore? Nope.

Tips for Making the Share Run Smoothly:

  • Stick with a short mini-lesson to insure time at the end
  • Have the students sign up to share, let confidence develop over time
  • Start with a short session and build in a longer share as the students become more skillful
  • Have students rehearse what they’ll share
  • Have students with long stories do a quick review of what’s happened so far, (“Last week on Grey’s Anatomy…”), instead of starting from the beginning
  • Encourage the writers to guide the listening, (“I want you to listen to see if my time transitions work…”)

Topics That Make Teachers Cringe

This is some of the work that’s been going down in my writing workshop the past couple of weeks.


The Fox and the Rabbit and the Case of the Mysterious Poop

By Sarah and Hana

Chapter 1

One day, Fox and Rabbit were walking by the meadow to go Animal-nese School. (P.S. Animal-nese School is where animals learn how to speak Animal-nese, a language that all animals understand. Once they learn it, they can never forget it.) Fox said to Rabbit, “It’s time we go to class,” so they went. The teacher said, “You’re late! You’re late! Morning detention for you guys!” “We’re sorry, we’re sorry,” said Fox and Rabbit. The teacher gave them a dirty look. The teacher said, “You’ll have to stay after school.” Then tears started rolling down Fox’s face, “I don’t want to stay afterschool.” “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy!” they both shouted. The teacher said, “Do you guys want to go to the principal’s office?” “NOOOOO!” they shouted. More and more tears appeared on Fox’s face. Rabbit ran out of the room bursting with tears. Fox followed her. The teacher grabbed for Fox’s paw but she was too quick. Fox and Rabbit huddled outside the bathroom.

Fox said to Rabbit, “I need to go to the bathroom. Will you guard the door for me?” “Okay,” said Rabbit and Fox went inside. She closed the door and locked it. She smelled something disgusting. She looked down into the toilet. “Ewww, POO!” she said. It was the biggest poo she’d ever seen. Fox opened the door to show Rabbit, but just then Rabbit smelled the poo, “Fox!” she screamed, “What did you do?” Fox said, “I didn’t do that!” Rabbit said, “Sure smells like it.” “I thought you were my friend Rabbit.” “I am.” “Then let’s find out who polluted the bathroom.” And the mystery began.

These students are focusing on writing territories that make teachers slightly uncomfortable and confused. Do we let this flow or do we intercept? An interesting exercise that I use to ground myself is to step back from the immediate and ask myself: “What do these writers know?” By inverting my stance and focusing on the positive, I can often see where to set my compass.

Sarah and Hana’s detective yarn, “The Case of the Mysterious Poop,” is actually housing some decent grade three writing. They are developing characters using dialogue. They have a healthy balance of action, description and dialogue. Have they inserted a problem? Yup! Are they using a mentor text? Absolutely, they’re following a “mystery” formula similar to that in A-Z Mysteries; they’ve got detectives, clues and a mystery that needs to be solved. Are these writers writing about something they know about? Hard to deny that! Given all the instructional pieces that are coming together in this piece, can I overlook the poop?

Ellin Oliver Keene, a literacy expert, muses: “I wonder how many times I’ve said, ‘Write what you know’ and looked forward to a touching personal narrative that predicted how socially conscious a child would be as an adult. I called that topic choice!?!” It’s very easy to derail a writing workshop by carving “choice” around our teacher preferences instead of fostering an environment where students authentically choose their expressive paths, cultivating a personal writing turf that is exploratory, relevant and genuine.  Ralph Fletcher in his book titled, “Boy Writers,” and Thomas Newkirk in his work, “Misreading Masculinity,” both deconstruct a lot of the parameters we use to confine the imaginations of boy writers; I think it may be time we open our minds to include renegade girl writers in this conversation as well.

Next time a student topic rocks your boat, try to keep your sense of humor. When confronting a dicey topic, I’ve found it’s best to smile and enjoy the ride. I’m pretty certain Quentin Tarantino’s “small moment essays” didn’t erupt into the script for “Kill Bill!”


Striking a Balance Between Accountable Talk and Writing

A good writer possesses not only his own spirit but also the spirit of his friends.
Friedrich Nietzsche

Recently a colleague wrote:

I am thinking a lot lately about the balance between time to talk and time to write in WWS. Developmentally, I feel like the younger kids need exploratory talk time to get their ideas, plans, etc. to a place where they are ready to write about them … but then they spend much less time writing than I (or Lucy, for sure) think they should. I’ve decided to let kids talk through the planning stage, but then make them go write alone for the drafting portion.

Some Thoughts:

This can be a delicate balance for kids and for teachers; it’s something that I struggle with still, especially on days when I lose track of the big picture. When does the chatter turn to print? I’ve got to say, having really explored this terrain in my grade two classroom for many years, younger writers need to grow and rehearse a story several times before they can actually write it down. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve sat next to a young writer to capture her story on a keyboard and have been corrected for typing the “wrong thing.” The story lives as a voice in the writer’s mind but this doesn’t mean necessarily that it’s underdeveloped or unformed. In fact, the opposite can be true. The story may be quite complex and a writer with imaginative skills may find her small motor skills fail her imagination. She can’t effectively capture in print what she can apprehend in language. Our stories start with finding a voice and essentially our voice is the medium for our narratives. Print is a relatively modern concept if you think about it. Most of our written tales spin out of a love for oration, for hearing a wonderful narrative told to us, performed for us. Poems and songs are no doubt the earliest forms of narrative and both are intended to be caught by the ear not the eye. In short, I don’t worry too much anymore about students engaged in purposeful talk in the writing workshop; each writer unfolds a story at his or her own pace and each writer needs a varying degree of collaborative support, (i.e.conversation), to get the job done.

Transitions from spoken word to written work depend primarily on an individual writer’s age and disposition. Start asking yourself some questions about the writer, not the writing. Is this a kid who is tentative and second-guesses himself a lot? I’ve found if this is the case, it may take a lot of talk time before this writer can move with confidence into drafting. Print can feel like a huge commitment to this type of writer. One thing that may help this writer is to empower him to sign up on his own volition for a weekly conference with you. An accountable talk time the writer can count on. Taking the talk past the partner or the peer table coffee-house banter to a more strategic teacher-to-writer dialogue level can sometimes move the student’s confidence to the next level. In order for a student to feel comfortable with this teacher dialogue dynamic, I’ve found it helps to hold back in the first few conferences—just listen to the student talk about his narrative. I have to purposefully slow down my own agenda and ask a lot of probing questions to help mentally guide the work, build the architecture. After I feel I’ve bolstered the student’s confidence in the relationship, I can strategically move the student towards capturing ideas down in the notebook. A lot of time I spend conferencing is about validating the spoken word and encouraging the next step: “That sounds great, write it down, now, quick… before it slips away.”

Remember, you really do know a lot about your kids. You live in the same room with them every day for almost six hours! If there’s a storyteller in the crowd holding court during the writing workshop, you may need to levy the BOOM on occasion to insure that his hand is working the pencil as rapidly as he’s wagging his tongue. In general, I’m usually less concerned about a verbal student than the student who is unable to tell a story. I’m pretty sure that all storytellers will develop into effective writers down the line.