After fifteen years of getting a writing workshop up and running in my classroom, I figured I might have something to offer others who are interested using this model to teach writing. Systematically attempting to deconstruct the writing workshop, I’ll admit from the get-go, is a somewhat impossible task; each teacher, each class infuses the experience with nuances that make it unique on a yearly basis. When you establish a writing workshop environment, you are asking the kids to go on a journey with you and you must be willing to be a part of the adventure. I always think that teachers who believe in the power of the writing workshop are somewhat akin to Columbus; you must have faith that the world’s round and you need the courage to convince others. Many will think you’re crazy and you may not end up at all where you thought you would, but in the end, I believe it will be worth it; you and your students will be forever changed.
Lots of books are out on the market that promise to tell you how to establish a robust writing environment, step by step. Every year, I indulge in professional development to deepen my craft and renew my drive but in the end, when it’s just me in my classroom with twenty students, all the training falls flat. In practice, the workshop is active and somewhat messy. If it isn’t, it probably isn’t a true workshop. The giveaway is right in the title: workshop; have you ever been in a wood shop or an artisan’s environment that wasn’t a bit cluttered, noisy and unfettered? The greatest misconception teachers have about a writing workshop is that they can forge it using the traditional power structures that teachers always use to corral students. I am not saying that there won’t be days when the workshop is brimming with a gentle quiet buzz but I am actively promoting the concept that the workshop environment should be robustly humming with dialogue sound-bites, stapler clicks, laughter and movement or it probably isn’t thriving.
What are the keys to making a writing workshop effective? There are three things I know for sure and about the rest, I’ve got my hunches but I may be completely off the mark. I’m hoping you’ll let me know. The first thing you definitely need to cultivate in your classroom is an authentic community where students are free to express themselves, interact with content and engage safely in opinionated dialogues. The writing workshop is dynamic; students must be willing to become participants in their own learning. The second non-negotiable is that the teacher needs to empower and support the students in their quest to guide their own learning. A student will never buy in if you appear to put her in the driver’s seat and then say, “Oh, no, this isn’t what I meant. You should’ve…” Teachers need to give themselves permission not to know everything, not to have all the answers. You’re Columbus, remember? You’ve got a lot of navigational skills and you’re convinced you have a destination but the journey, it’s brand new and you need to flexibly respond to what’s heaped on your plate. Writing workshop teachers need to believe the students can be skillful participants, helping the teacher to guide and define the experience.
The third thing you need to do to run an effective writing workshop is to commit to it. That means it happens every day no matter what. If it doesn’t happen daily, I don’t think you’ll ever get the momentum you need for the kids to be able to relax into the structure and subsequently evolve to their capacity. Oddly enough, this time commitment can be the most difficult pillar to establish.
Now that I’ve thrown down some general thinking on the topic, I’d really like to field questions and grow discussions to sustain people along the way. At least once a month, believe me, I still feel like I’m marooned on a deserted island, eating the last of the stash, wondering if I’ll be able to fix the boat and move on. I’m hoping this blog might offer a few notes in a washed up bottle to get you inspired to overcome the challenges and find the drive to continue to engage in a practice that I’ve found to be both inspired and inspiring.