Last week our elementary school faculty had a fishbowl discussion about the challenges of the writing workshop. We hoped that an honest authentic dialogue would collectively help us problem-solve some of the rough spots. One of the most daunting factors about teaching a writing workshop is how to effectively manage time. Below are some ideas that floated out of the fishbowl or popped into my head later. The key thing to remember is that the writing workshop as presented in a lot of “how to” texts is a model. Ultimately, if you preserve the basic integrity of the writing workshop, you have the power to shift and shape the model to suit your students’ needs and the time you have available in your schedule.
Ideas to Try:
Find yourself always skipping the share segment of the writing workshop? Try shifting the sharing portion of the workshop to the beginning. While conferencing, identify a few writers whose work could stand as an example to others. Blend student work examples into your mini-lesson. For instance, do you have a writer who is working in a different genre such as literary nonfiction or poetry? It might be a great time to highlight the idea that writers pursue different projects based on their interests and their intended audience. Do you have a group of kids involved in energized plots loaded with action but void of paragraphs? It could be a perfect moment to focus on the craft of building action while also demonstrating how paragraphs give the reader a break, a space breath to picture and digest the plot. The share can also be done every other day; as long as there’s a rhythm and regularity to it, the students will buy in.
Are you fixated on the fact that at any given time in your writing workshop some writer isn’t involved in meaningful work? Are you paranoid that an administrator will walk in and the one writer rolling on the carpet will be her lasting impression of your ability? Try shifting this responsibility onto the students in your writing community. Have a class meeting and share your observation that not everyone appears to be focused on writing during the workshop. See if the students can find solutions. I’ve been surprised by what they’ve come up with and their willingness to share the responsibility for finding solutions. It’s been my experience that the more ownership the students have of the workshop, the more efficiently and effectively it runs. If one writer in particular struggles with focus, talk to a colleague or an administrator and have this writer spend the bulk of his writing time in a novel environment where there are minimal distractions, (a table in another classroom, on a clipboard in an office area…). Give this writer a timer so he can self-monitor and return to class for the share. Explain that this isn’t a punishment but a strategy to build focus and writing stamina. Usually a few writing sessions spent in this way paves the road for change.
Are you feeling like it’s impossible to embed each piece of the workshop on a daily basis? Then don’t. Really, I don’t have writing conferences every day of the week nor do I have a mini-lesson every day. I manage my workshop time best when I think of it on a week-by-week basis. I usually script three harmonized mini-lessons for any given week, based on a pattern I notice in student writing. I try to fit in two or three conference days each week and have one meaningful weekly conversation with each writer. If I really want students to try a writing activity that will help them hone a new skill but won’t allow time for choice writing, I try to schedule that lesson outside of the writing workshop. What do I keep sacred? Every day the students know there will be time for them to work on writing pieces that they have initiated independently. Every day they can count on reading a piece of their own writing or hearing some writing from a classmate. Every week they will learn one or two new strategies for building their writing skills. That’s it. Keep it simple. Keep it sane.