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.


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

  1. Thank you
    You hit so many of my fears and anxieties in this one blog post.
    Thank you
    As a mentor to us in writing, I am relieved that you to “hold onto the grass” (nice Patricia Polacco reference by the way). I think I grab hold of the roots more so than the grass.
    Thank you
    I always feel so inadequate to these classrooms I read in the teacher texts….I do take it with a grain of salt that it is “Edutopia” but they don’t build for proximal development do they.
    Thank you
    I love the structure you think about for the week. Much simpler than how I have been approaching it yet way more holistic and a more effective way to pulse the class.
    Thank you

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