About wordsonajourney

International school nomad constantly trekking through questions of practice

Winding up the Writing Workshop Experience


Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.

William Butler Yeats

Every year at this time I wander my classroom dialoguing with students about their stories, their wonderfully rich stories that with three weeks left in the year will undoubtedly never come to fruition unless a student is particularly inspired during the summer and independently motivated. Their plans and aspirations are deeper and more promising than anything they’ve written yet this year. They have no sense of time creeping up on them as they draft chunks of dialogue, rehearse it in their heads, share, and delight in the peels of laughter that erupt from their peers. They are deeply saturated in the writing experience, living the writing life. On one level I know I’ve been successful; I’ve seen students take incredible risks with language, try on new personas, reach personal vistas…yet why does a little voice in my head still wonder if it’s enough?

If I worked at a school where I felt the philosophy of the writing workshop was well honed, where every teacher valued the development of the writer over the writing, I might feel more secure. I do not live in that landscape. Each year I wonder if nine months of creative freedom, of roaming and developing your personal writing identity, can sustain a student’s sense of creative worth through a subsequent year of externally imposed content. I wonder if the students will be able to transfer the writing skills they’ve learned into an environment that doesn’t nurture a writing life. Are they too young to see the connection? If I had to set up shop on a new planet tomorrow, leaving earth behind, would what I’ve learned be adequate, would it help me effectively navigate on unfamiliar terrain?

Don’t get me wrong. I do believe in grammatical know-how, crisp sentence structures, conventional spelling. I just don’t believe in these at the cost of creativity. A skillful editor is not the same as a talented writer. Too frequently, in education, we want to forge editors. We continually broadcast the message, (even though the majority of the research speaks to the opposite pole), that editing is more important than the mysterious struggle of fusing your imagination to words. Because a conundrum exists between the creative process and the generation of a polished writing “product” in elementary education, capable teachers are often riddled with self-doubt, wonder if they’re doing their students justice to steep them in a creative cauldron.

John Holt, author of How Children Fail, notes: If we look at children only to see whether they are doing what we want or don’t want them to do, we are likely to miss all the things about them that are the most interesting and important. This is one reason why so many classroom teachers, even after years of experience, understand so little about the real nature of children. Only as teachers in schools free themselves from their traditional teacher tasks—boss, cop, judge—will they be able to learn enough about their students to see how best to be of use to them. Holt made this observation over thirty years ago. When I think about why the writing workshop is so difficult for teachers to successfully implement, it comes back to the teacher’s role within the workshop construct. Boss, cop and judge are still at play although many teachers don’t notice it. Check out these sentence stems that I hear quite often from the mouths of teachers: “Here’s what I want you to work on today;” “That’s not what I asked you to do;” “Didn’t you pay attention to the model?” Even in seasoned classrooms, teachers often lead from a teacher-centered point of view, invariably making the child’s perspective obsolete. Just as in a dystopian society, students learn to tow the line or bare the consequences. If we have spent a year inspiring kids to cultivate a point of view, to lead forth with their intuition, and to trust their own capabilities, we can easily be viewed by colleagues as trying to undermine the predominant school culture, which rests on obedience and an architecture of rules. Do we decide, given the odds, to be like Dustfinger in Ink Death, and play with fire? Can we choose otherwise?

I don’t claim to know the answer to this question. I know that in my fifteen years of practice in eight different school environments, this has been a recurring internal dialogue for me, especially as the year dwindles into summer. In disparate educational settings, from elite private schools in San Francisco to ELL classrooms in Taipei, parents and students alike have embraced my approach to learning, valued their growth, felt valued within the learning environment. On occasion, I have been lucky enough to work with teachers who share my philosophy of learning, who believe in the integrity of a workshop model, who co-create student centered learning territories. I have had small glimpses of the wonderful power that comes from students rolling through similar educational structures with similar expectations. However, it’s been my experience, even with the energy generated from Columbia Teachers College, that it’s hard to grow a group of teachers truly committed to building authentic writing workshop cultures within their classrooms. Given this reality, how can those of us who believe in this work keep the fire lit even if there will be pail after pail to fill?

Some Things to Explore:

  1. End the year with a lot of specific compliments. Celebrate growth. Share often. Let them exit with the roar of applause in their ears and a sense of purpose in their hearts.
  2. Find writing contests that can keep the desire to write alive. Publish student work on a shared summer blog where students can continue to check in, comment and enjoy being part of a cyber writing community.
  3. Team up with like-minded colleagues to sponsor an after-school writing club. (No need to script mini-lessons, just set the tone, inspire writing, and share at the end of each session.) Once a week, keep the embers glowing.


Evidence of Living a Writerly Life

A Trio of Mini Lessons to Riff Off

“I am still learning.”

Michelangelo Buonarroti

Is the process of teaching kids how to craft a lead wearing you thin? Is the predictable architecture of a beginning, middle and end leaving you hungry for something different? Are you feeling like the writing workshop is an antihistamine you suck down every day? Maybe it’s time to try something a little different.

It’s easy to get into a paint-by-numbers routine when scripting mini-lessons, easy to fool yourself that it’s that simple. If I just provide the outline and the colors, they’ll be able to recreate the Sistine Chapel, or at least one angel, heck, how hard can that be? However, if you’re like me, there comes a point in the year when I’ve run through all my key mini lessons on craft and I notice that my students’ writing has improved marginally but there’s still a lot of space to grow. Here are three mini-lessons that can help students till some of the larger writing fields out there; lessons you can spin off of time after time to help students shape writing that has an impact.

Words Matter

As writers, words are our brushes, paints, chisels, hunks of rock; writers build worlds using words. Perfect words may be simple or complex; writers need to develop an ear for language and how to find the words that will bring an image or a feeling to life. Some key ways to build a love of words with your students is to use dictionaries and simply generate word lists. Share some words you love, words you love to say, words you love the meaning of, giant words and ant-size words, let them in on how cool words can be. Another great way to indicate the power of words is to take a sentence from your own writing and circle a single word. Generate a list of five or six other words you could use. Try out each one and have the kids respond. Then build in context, fit the sentence into a paragraph or cement it to a larger chunk of writing. Discuss if the word choice wobbles within this new context. Is there a right word? It’s all great fodder for conversation and it also illustrates just how difficult the task of writing is. Got a great word-based lesson? Post it up!

The Bigger the Issue, the Smaller You Write

Ralph Fletcher talks about this idea in his book, What a Writer Needs, (p.49). Essentially the territory he’s mapping is the same as the sage old writing advice, “show don’t tell.” People like to write about significant moments. Death and love inspire a lot of writers to sit down with paper and pen trying to capture huge waterfalls of emotion. However, writing about big issues is usually overwhelming and the writing easily becomes mundane or muddy as the writer fumbles to encapsulate an experience that resists a container. The key is to capture the small story that lingers on the sideline of the war, the disaster, the wedding, the funeral, or the divorce. One interesting way to teach this lesson is to present the students with a complicated image from a disaster site or a war zone. It should be a photo that opens itself to story, one that isn’t too graphic, (check out the annual photo journalism awards for some possible ideas: http://www.worldpressphoto.org/). On a sticky note, (limit space to limit time), have students write a couple of sentences about what they see. Then share out in pairs, small groups, trios, or whole class. What have they honed in on? What’s the focus of their written snapshots? What’s the feeling behind the writing? Weave in the idea that truing details based on description can often access emotion more successfully than a dissertation on feelings.

This lesson can also be done as a teacher model using a powerful moment as a focused example. Write a short piece two ways in your own notebook. Use this written duo to show students your thinking; it’s also kind of a fun exercise to play with. Take a big issue and overwrite it; then, work within the cracks and try to write about the same idea set keeping the writing small. Notice what happens. Share with your students. You can also have them try this second exercise independently and explore what happens.

Remember the Reader

Often when student writing becomes garbled and unclear, the writer’s forgotten that he or she is a storyteller weaving a word web that others must be able to decode. Toni Morrison speaks of the dance that’s created between the writer and the reader: “The words on the page are only half the story. The rest is what you bring to the party.” This is an important data point for writers as well as readers. The reader cannot participate in a conjoined experience if the writer does not use language skillfully enough to apprehend a story. Young writers particularly live in their own imaginative worlds and developmentally it can be a struggle for them to recognize audience. Once again, model thinking using your own writing to demystify the concept. Share a snippet of a piece. Have the students put it to the test: Can they imagine what’s happening? (A fun way to do this is to have them do a quick sketch or comic of what’s going on.) Keep your piece short and try to use humor to your advantage. Have the students compare their quickly jotted imaginings. They will no doubt vary to some extent indicating that the “dance” is always slightly different for each reader.

Another valuable thing to do as a class is to generate a list of questions to help the writer see what a reader needs. Some examples are: Can we imagine the setting? Are we able to make a movie in our minds? Does the movie have the sound on mute; do we need more dialogue to imagine the scene? Does the movie flow from scene to scene smoothly and make sense? Are the characters fully developed? Do we know what they sound like? Do we know their habits? Do we know who the main character is? Sometimes I focus on one or two of these questions during the writing share to help students begin to build a sense of audience.

The main thing to keep in mind is that writing is complex work and by extension, the teaching of writers is also complex. I am continually caught up in the process of trying to see the writer who might be, gently chipping away the marble that holds them back. This is work that demands patience, faith and skill. Can we all do this work? Absolutely but remember, it is work that will never be finished no matter how dedicated and artful a teacher you may be. Take a moment each day to find inspiration, to look at your writing workshop from a different angle, find a unique perspective, refresh your tool set, and follow your intuition. What the writers in your room really need is for you to believe that their writing matters, to have faith that they can improve, and to relentlessly seek out their inner voice, the small sounds hiding out in nooks near the heart that when blown into a song of words give shape to the human experience we all share. This is what you, as a teacher, bring to the party.

Celebrating the Writer Behind the Writing

He who would learn to fly one day must first learn to stand and walk and run and climb and dance; one cannot fly into flying.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Have you ever found that some writing can just be really hard to celebrate no matter how deep you dig into your reservoir of compliments? In the moment it’s easy to get caught up with the dialogue in your head, the “judging” conversation, you know this one, it’s the dialogue where you tally how many things this poor writer needs to work on and wonder where the heck to start. It’s also easy to wear the blame for the student, to notice all the deficits and wonder if it’s too late to train to be a barista at Starbucks and abandon this teaching gig. I’m going to suggest that you stash that application in your desk and begin tricky dialogues about sub par work by celebrating the writer, not the writing. Lucy Calkins has been giving this sage advice for over twenty years, (Teach the writer and not the writing. Our decisions must be guided by what might help this writer rather than what might help this writing); but I’m pretty sure it’s a still a stumbling block for many of us.

There will always be a handful of writers in your classroom who face significant challenges. Take a deep breath and accept that reality. Life’s not fair. However, in order to move these writers ahead, you’ve got to embrace where they are and not engage significantly with where you wish they were. The first stance is about the child; the second stance is about you, the teacher. We will never actualize change in our classrooms if we can’t stand in the shoes of the student, trying to imagine life on the other side of the fence.

Life on the other side of that fence can be pretty tough. This year I have a couple of students who find the school environment a difficult learning space; they don’t often feel successful. The other day I passed back a set of papers grade by another teacher. She had taken the time to write personal comments to each child in a flamboyantly scrolled cursive that was way beyond my wildest handwriting envy. I admired her earnest attempt to give each student personal feedback and her ability to balance the glowing comments with the suggestions for improvement. I could tell it had taken her hours to manifest these comments. Yet one of my quirky students had already crunched it up and was ready to flip it inside his desk on Friday afternoon; I asked him why he didn’t want to take it home. “She didn’t think I did a good job,” was his reply and he trounced out the door leaving me with the paper in my hand. I took a moment to digest the comment and read the script on the assignment. It was professionally embedded; in fact, you wouldn’t think a third grader would even notice, but, yup, there it was; she’d thrown him under the bus in the last sentence and that was all he’d zoomed in on. All he took away from this assignment was the negative feedback, which clearly he owned. Imagine how much powerful red pen’s been wasted marking up papers, telling kids the way we think it should be?

A student named Annie taught a similar lesson to me about seventeen years ago. She was a skillful writer; she exhaled metaphor and wrote poems half-scripted by God. But, what was she writing in the workshop? A piece of fiction titled: Dick, Dicky and Dickson. It was a tale of three brothers, the youngest of whom, Dicky, stashed candy bars in the washing machine since he was a bit chubby and didn’t want his mom to know he was overeating. I remember stumbling through a conference, trying to guide Annie back onto the path of all I thought she was capable of. She finally heaved a big sigh, looked at me with a Buddha smile and said: “You don’t like it, do you?” Busted. This conversations wasn’t about her as a writer, it was about my preferences and me as an adult reader. I wasn’t letting her be eight; I wasn’t empowering her to play with her own ideas; I was getting in the way of her evolution as a writer; blocking her progress with my own expectations.

These days when I feel a tension curling up around my spine when I read a student piece, I try to put the lens on myself. What am I trying to manipulate in the writing? What am I not seeing in this writer? What am I not able to celebrate? Writers need space to work things out, play with ideas and words. They need an environment where it’s truly okay to make mistakes. Don Graves said of the writing workshop: Teachers who function well in teaching the writing process are interested in what children have to teach them. * I get that now. Annie taught me that in a way I’d never forget.

The next time you’re struggling to celebrate a piece of writing, throw your attention back on the writer. What are they trying to do? What narrative might be unfolding before you? Can you voice your confidence in the writer and back away from your expectations of the written work? It can be really hard to do. Take a deep breath and affirm what the student knows. This doesn’t have to be a compliment about sentence structure or word selection; it can be a simple affirmation, an “I get you” as a person, I see that you’re really interested in robots and you know a lot about them; I can tell you really love growing plants in your backyard with your mom; I understand that you have a story to tell even if it’s still caught in your heart and hasn’t shimmied onto the page.

*I highly recommend this article by Donald Graves if you have a few minutes and are yearning to further demystify the writing workshop experience. In it he examines how the practice of the writing workshop can be highly effective for students with learning challenges. (http://www.ldonline.org/article/6204/)

How to Creatively Manage Time in the Writing Workshop: Shifting from the Ideal to the Real

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.

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.