The Writing Workshop: Design Thinking in Action

I’ve been musing a lot about design thinking lately. One of the key pieces within the design thinking process is the research or taking a deep dive into what you are doing. Finding out as much as you can about a topic or an area of interest and then zooming in on or identifying a unique problem that you can pursue further.

Junot Diaz, in this video clip, talks about two writing vantage points: feeling as if you are in familiar territory versus feeling lost. He advocates for being off the map or lost, as that is the place where you are actually exploring new horizons. Wandering off known maps, away from the mentor texts, toeing the waters beyond your research, you enter the space where you can actually begin to make discoveries, create something innovative.

Listening to Diaz brought me back to one of the most exciting parts of writing: the process of discovery, of finding something new to say, articulating a unique viewpoint, creatively communicating your understanding of the world. But this can’t happen without a deep dive into the unknown.

In the writing workshop, it strikes me that teachers should provide maps or models so students have strategies when they enter the unknown, but then we need to empower students to delve deep into their own unique stories, craft their own narrative worlds, get lost. On this journey the students will hopefully discover more about themselves and some may possibly tap into an experience that resonates for other readers, the empathy piece Diaz suggests, the point when a writer apprehends or tangles with something large and universal.

Students can only have this experience in the writing workshop if we let them wander, follow their own inclinations and hunches. When you bushwhack, there are lots of failed attempts. When you’re lost, there are lots of things to figure out. Making peace with ambiguity is something that children need to learn in order to be resilient. Life is mysterious, full of the unknown. The writing process is like that too.

I have a hunch that it’s a lot harder for teachers to embrace ambiguity than it is for kids but we’ll need to if we want to engage our students in authentic writing experiences. In this type of workshop, there will be moments when the maps you know, don’t help you at all, points when you’ll need to choose a route based on what you know solely about stars and currents, build your own tool out of scraps. Think MacGyver versus Dummy Guides. You’ll need to make choices based on your intuition, ford a river without Google Maps.

Lucy Calkins and her Columbia posse, in their new units of study, crafted in response to challenges presented by the Common Core, (speaking of uncharted territories!) asserts:

Writers write to put meaning onto the page. Young people will especially invest themselves in their writing if they write about subjects that are important to them. The easiest way to support investment in writing is to teach children to choose their own topics most of the time.

I’m suggesting we do a deep dive this year into what might happen in our writing workshops if we release our grip on the maps we’ve always used to teach writing and join our kids as explorers, embrace our inner Lewis and Clarke. What’s exciting about this? What scares the pants off you? You’ll never know what you might see if you don’t give it a go. Instead of giving away the ending for your students, this year let them write their own adventures.