Overcoming Obstacles to Writing Workshop

Overcoming Obstacles to Writing Workshop - Management Tips

My previous posts on Writing Workshop have generated a greater than normal amount of feedback from you, my faithful readers. Several of you contacted me with questions and requests for more information. A few themes emerged (How do I find the time? What about management?) so I decided to consult my friend (and expert writing teacher) Carol Cook.

First, know that I write this post under the impression that you already believe in Writing Workshop as a best practice. If you need more convincing, read the following:

What Do Kids Need To Learn About Writing?

What Is Writing Workshop? An Overview

Writing Workshop is a “Kid-Changer”

Architecture of a Mini-Lesson

Now then. Let’s assume you are “all in” in terms of want-to but you need some help with the how-to. I asked Carol to talk about the common obstacles teachers face when implementing WW and share her suggestions for overcoming them. Her answers are paraphrased below.

Obstacle: Writing every day is too time consuming. I have a very tight schedule and struggle to fit it in!

Solution: Examine your schedule with a minute-microscope and see if you can carve out a 40-minute block. The truth is that most of us can find the time if we manage our teaching time more effectively. Where is the dead weight in your schedule? Do you spend 30 minutes on morning work? That time would be much better spent on Writing Workshop! Do you have some wasted time in transition that could be streamlined to create an extra chunk of instructional time? Could your students eat snack during a lesson (like read aloud) rather than spend class time on simply eating? Hunt for precious minutes!

In kindergarten you can get by with 30-35 minutes for Writing Workshop, but once students enter 1st and 2nd grade (and up) you need at least 40 minutes. 45-50 minutes is perfect. Many teachers find as they get better at WW and the kids get more involved and comitted to independent writing, they need the extra time.

Of course, at the beginning of the year you need less time. It’s beneficial to start small and let the kids build stamina for independent writing. You can increase the independent writing time gradually.

Obstacle: What suggestions do you have for classroom management? I am nervous about sending my students off to write for 20 minutes. Will they actually do it? How will I monitor them and conference at the same time?

Solution: There are several things you can do to make the workshop flow smoothly with minimal disruptions.

First,  establish a strong routine. You need a predictable routine that is the same every day. For example,

1- Gather students together and teach a specific point during a mini-lesson.

2- Give children a chunk of time to write independently while you conference.

3- Close by gathering the children again for a brief time of sharing (and to reinforce the teaching point.)

Once the routine is well established, you can teach into it. Everyone knows what to expect.

During the first few weeks of school, most of your teaching will be about establishing the expectations and procedures for Writing Workshop. You will model what you want students to do, how to find a spot for writing and stay in it, what to do if pencils break, how to “stretch out” and spell unknown words, etc. You won’t do much conferencing during those early days. Rather, you’ll be monitoring and reinforcing the expectations while students work independently. (And make sure it’s independent- when they have questions, say “What can you do to solve that when I am busy conferencing?”)

Don’t give up if it takes your students a while to catch on- especially if they are new to WW. Take the same approach with their behavior that we take with academics- offer lots of coaching, modeling, and reminding. We need to teach them what we expect them to do.

For example, if you have an issue with kids moving around during WW and wasting time, make the next day’s lesson about “staying in one place and focusing on writing.”  Address the behavior, teach new expectations and procedures, and go on. Sometimes you don’t need to teach the entire class-  it may be in a small group or one on one.  But it’s hard to get to heavy-duty conferring until you get those procedures well established in your routine.

Question: How do I know what mini-lessons to teach?

Solution: I’ll plug Lucy Calkins’ Units of Study here.

She and her team have created some very strong resources for teachers. However, the best way to decide what you need to teach is to get to know your students as writers. Where do they struggle? Where are they getting stuck? What are the common needs you see popping up frequently during conferences? You’ll end up with a list of mini-lesson topics faster than you would expect!

Final Thoughts:

Remember that the children should be doing most of the work. That’s the shift in thinking that happens when you move away from prompt-based writing to a workshop approach.  If you want to be a better swimmer, you need to stay in the pool. If you want to be a faster runner, you have to spend time on the track. If you want kids to be strong writers, they need to spend time writing! Children have a voice. When we show them that we value their stories, they will too.

If you have other questions or challenges you’d like us to discuss, leave them in the comments or email me at sbantonelli@bellsouth.net

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photo credit: STARSFoundation via photopin cc

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