What is Writing Workshop? An Overview

An Overview of Writing Workshop I could write 1,000 pages on this topic. In fact, every time I started composing this post in my mind, I felt overwhelmed. So let’s eat this big, rich pie in baby bites, shall we?

What is Writing Workshop?

The simplest answer is that it is a structure for teaching writing. However, that answer doesn’t quite do the job because Writing Workshop (WW) springs from a philosophical point of view called constructivism. It’s based on a belief that children are capable people who learn best when given the opportunity to construct their own understanding (“learn while doing.”) Therefore, teachers in a WW see their students (even those who are quite young) as competent writers with interesting ideas and stories to tell. They also believe that with intentional instruction and support, those children are perfectly capable of learning how to write meaningful and interesting pieces just like “real” writers.

What is the teacher’s role in Writing Workshop?

The teacher begins each WW with a 5 to 15 minute mini-lesson that provides the direct instruction component. Modeling is a critical component of the mini-lesson. Following a gradual release model, the teacher uses an “I do- we do- you do” system. Before the mini-lesson concludes, students are given a brief opportunity to engage in guided practice and “try out” the new skill or technique they were taught.

Once the mini-lesson is completed and the students are released for independent writing time, the teacher conferences with students one-on-one or in small groups to further support students while also collecting assessment information. This is the true heart of the workshop as the teacher coaches and scaffolds each writer where they need support. Topics for future mini-lessons will become evident during this part of the lesson. (i.e.- “I’ve noticed three pieces of student writing today that move from event to event without stopping to develop any small moments. That’s something I need to reteach.”)

The teacher concludes the workshop with a “share time” during which he/she selects a few students to read a piece of their writing to the class. These samples often reinforce the mini-lesson or might be other inspirational exemplars worth sharing.

What is the student’s role in the Writing Workshop?

Kids write! Of course, they participate in the mini-lesson and sharing time. In that regard, they are also expected to take ownership of the techniques and skills modeled during mini-lessons and begin to apply them independently. However, the main responsibility for students is to find a comfortable spot in the room, stay there, and write quietly. There is no “I’m done!” (Independence is taught early in the year and this issue is revisited as needed. Writers are never done!) If you are new to WW, realize that it will take time to help children shift from being totally dependent on the teacher for directing every moment of their work to feeling confident working independently. (See this post on what kids need to learn about writing)

At some point during each “unit” students are asked to select a piece they wish to publish. They will refine that piece through revision and editing until the deadline.

What does a “unit” look like in Writing Workshop?

Lucy Calkins gets credit for creating the Writing Workshop model currently used today. I think that’s probably fair, though I will say that there are many other experts (like Donald Graves, Ralph Fletcher, Katie Wood Ray, and Regie Routman) who had many similar ideas and inspired much of my personal journey in learning how to teach writing. (Though I do love Lucy!) :-)

However, Lucy Calkins (and her crew at the Reading and Writing Project) get all the credit for developing fabulous Units of Study for each grade level!

Unit of Study is a guide to leading students through a certain style or genre of writing. For example, units are based on narrative writing, opinion writing, persuasive writing, etc. Each unit includes 4 to 6 weeks of sequential lessons that guide you through the entire process of teaching the genre, from getting started to publishing.  Each lesson includes key teaching points, a suggested mini-lesson, notes to guide conferences, and suggestions for small group instruction. The units are an excellent resource and I highly recommend them- especially if you are new to Writing Workshop.

How long does Writing Workshop take in the schedule?

Typically the entire workshop lasts from 45-60 minutes and ideally is taught 5 days per week. Many teachers have told me that they don’t have time in their schedules for that much writing. I know it’s so hard to find time in the school day to teach everything we need to teach! However, I will say that I think the time is there- it’s more often about the choices we make. I wrote a post about managing teaching time that might be helpful if you are facing that issue. The bottom line is this: could you tighten up in other areas (like morning work, packing up at the end of the day, seat work, etc.) to carve out some time for writing? It’s worth it!

What are the pros of Writing Workshop?

Too many to list! Though I suppose the biggest ones I’ve personally experienced are:

1- Kids learn to “own” their writing. It’s authentic and “theirs.” As a result, motivation to write skyrockets! (As do their writing skills.)

2- Teachers “own” their teaching. Instead of following a scripted curriculum or guide that tells you what writing lesson your students will need in October (AS IF a publisher could possibly know!) you read your own students and use them as your guide.

3- Students grow as writers by leaps and bounds. One of my very favorite things to do is look at a child’s writing sample from August and compare it to their May sample. SO AMAZING every time!

What are the Cons?

If I must list “cons” I will say that an approach like WW can take more planning time. Of course, it’s like anything else- once you gain experience and confidence, your mini-lessons will come easily! It’s like any other new approach- just take the jump and dive in!

In my next post I will dig a little deeper into the structure of a mini-lesson.

Do you teach writing through a Writing Workshop approach? Anything you would like to add to this post that might help other teachers who are new to it? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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photo credit: Jackie TL via photopin cc

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  1. Monte Jacques says:

    Writing is my favorite thing to teach. It is amazing what they can do independently once you get all the procedures in place. By the way, on a daily basis, at the end of the day when my kids are telling about something good for the day, Writing Workshop is mentioned by many. I think reheat see it as safe, enjoyable and most of all, they own it! I’m so glad CCSD is investing in Lucy’s Workshop books for every teacher next year. I hope many more will jump in with both feet!

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