The writing workshop

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​Schools often teach writing in the Writing Workshop, an approach originally developed by Lucy Calkins. In Victoria, this approach is sometimes known as Writer's Workshop.

Regular and predictable timetabling of the writing workshop is recommended so that students can anticipate, prepare and plan for their writing (Calkins, 1994). 

The structure of the writing workshop

While the processes of writing are an integral component of any effective teaching approach to writing, the principles underpinning writing workshop draw heavily on the work of Donald Graves, motivated by an emphasis on ‘writing as a process’, and where individual interest and choice are fundamental to students becoming independent writers.

The writing workshop is designed to offer a simple and predictable learning environment. Ideally it should occur daily for 50 to 60 minutes.

A typical writing workshop session

    Mini-le​ssons:

    Mini-lessons are short and focussed of approximately 10 minutes. The teacher seeks to inspire and instruct the students as writers. A mini-lesson might focus on something the students are struggling with, and introduce strategies that the students can employ in their own writing. 

    During the mini-lesson the teacher connects the day’s teaching to the ongoing work that the students have been doing and they explain the Learning Intention and Success Criteria.

    The teacher then explicitly teaches, after which the students have the opportunity to briefly engage/apply what they have just learnt.​

    Substantive talk is an important part of this point in the mini lesson. The teacher ends the mini-lesson by asking the students to apply what they have learnt in the mini-lesson to their on-going work 

    Work time (writing and conferring):

    Students work independently on their written pieces.  Different structures and supports are in place to ensure students get support from their teacher or peers.

    Roving student-teacher conferences:

    The teacher moves around the room enabling students to showcase successes in their writing and receive assistance on areas that trouble or challenge them. 

    Calkins (2011) advises teachers that conference outcomes should lead to tangible strategies students can employ in future writing. Often, checking the students take up of the new learning will characterise the conclusion of a student-teacher conference (“So from now on, whenever you write, will you remember to …”).

    Guided or group student–teacher conferences:

    The teacher might gather small groups of 4-6 students who have a similar need and provide additional instruction and support. 

    Peer conferring, response groups, sharing sessions:

    Here, the focus is on the classroom being a community of writers. As part of the writing workshop, students need the opportunity to:

    • share drafts
    • comment on each other’s strengths
    • advise on areas that could be clearer or more powerfully conveyed
    • offer strategies for overcoming difficulties. 
    Share Time:

    At the end of the workshop, the teacher ensures there is time to capture the work of the day, reminding the students of what they have learnt as writers.

    In some classrooms, an author’s chair is the location which allows for affirming and constructive feedback and advice to be direct to all students in turn.

    Publication celebrations:

    These occur throughout the year—often at the end of a teaching and learning cycle. They may replace the regular daily workshop as outlined above.

    Opportunities need to be made to recognise students’ writing achievements as they:

    • publish final pieces of writing
    • complete a text in a new genre (a report, an argument, a poem), or
    • receive a response to something they have produced for an audience. 

    On some of these occasions, the wider classroom community (family members, caregivers, grandparents, etc.) can participate in the celebration.

    This both values the students’ achievements, as well as legitimises writing as a meaningful and important activity.

The teacher’s role in the writing workshop

While student choice and ownership of their own writing is often foregrounded in the Writing Workshop (and certainly responsibility lies with the students as they plan, draft, revise and publish) the teacher’s role is fundamental to the success of this approach in the classroom. 
The teacher needs to scaffold and model the entire writing process, so engaging in acts of writing by the teacher helps facilitate this:

  • If the students keep a Writer’s Notebook, so should the teacher.
  • If the students take the author’s chair to showcase their writing and seek responses, so should the teacher. 

Specifically, teachers need to think about the focussed, explicit teaching they can offer to the whole class, to small groups and to individuals.

Some of these instructional approaches (modelled writing, shared writing, interactive writing) are focussed on elsewhere in this toolkit and these can be deployed strategically to support students as they move through the process from planning to publication.

Theory to practice

Calkins and Ehrenworth (2016) outline key principles which inform the Writing Workshop approach: 

    Protected time to write

    Children must be given ‘the luxury of time’ (p. 186) to become deeply invested in their writing, and draft, revise and publish their written pieces at a pace that honours and recognises the creative process. 

    The ideal writing workshop includes ten minutes of explicit instruction, at least half an hour of writing time (conferences and small group instruction), ending with 5–10 minutes of sharing and goal setting with a peer (Calkins & Ehrenworth, 2016).

    Cho​ice

    Opening choice over both topic, genre and strategies used for writing provide opportunities for engagement and investment in skill development.

    Resp​onse in the form of feedback

    Feedback is provided as students are engaged in the process of writing emphasising ‘the critical role of process in writing, collaboration, personal responsibility, authentic writing tasks, and a supportive learning environment’ (Graham & Sandmel, 2011 as cited in Calkins & Ehrenworth, 2016, p. 9).

    Explicit instruction

    In the writing workshop, explicit instruction is provided through mini-lessons, conferences and small group work.

    Here, a whole class focus on a shared genre ‘employing strategies and emulating mentor texts of that genre’ provides a context for explicit teaching about the ‘craft and structure’ of the genre which can be used by students in their writing (Calkins & Ehrenworth, 2016, p. 10).

    Working towards clear goals

    Mentor texts or model texts are used to establish clear writing goals and to help develop independent writers as they learn to ‘transfer and apply what they learn from one writing opportunity to another’ (Calkins & Ehrenworth, 2016, p. 10).

​The Writer’s Notebook

An important component of the Writing Workshop approach is the Writer’s Notebook which ‘creates a place for students (and writers) to save their words—in the form of a memory, a reflection, a list, a rambling of thoughts, a sketch, or even a scrap of print taped on the page’ (Buckner, 2005, p.4).

The notebook serves as a means to encourage young writers to value writing, where ‘seeds’ for a longer writing project require revisiting and rereading to locate ‘a phrase, a paragraph, a page’ which might be expanded and developed (Calkins, 1994, pp. 38-39).
Ideas for developing a seed include:

  • I think … I feel… I wonder… chart
  • mind maps
  • PMI chart (plus, minus, interesting)
  • Y chart (looks, feels, sounds like..)
  • three by three—list three-word phrases for three minutes
  • capture what is important—try to capture feelings and emotions 
  • drawings and sketches
  • collections of artefacts in a ‘seed box’.

The generation of ideas is only the beginning. It is the teacher’s role to support the extension and elaboration of the ‘seeds’ which might become a more detailed plan, a draft or a published text.

While not all ideas will be seen through to a ‘final’ copy, it is the role of the teacher to monitor students’ writing to ensure experiences which progress their writing through the various processes of writing, and across a range of text types, are provided each term and across the school year. 

Some key points about the Writer’s Notebook

1.  A writer’s notebook is a tool students use to record the things they notice, observe, and think about.  Each recording is called an ‘entry’.  The entries can be any of a variety of ideas. The most common are:

  • memories
  • observations of the things happening around them
  • descriptions of people and places important in their lives
  • opinions
  • wonderings
  • wishes
  • family stories, hobbies and other passions.

Children write best about the things that are important to them and what they are interested in. It is writing that comes from what they know and what they have experienced. 

2. A writer’s notebook houses ideas that writers can return to in order to grow ideas, restructure, rethink, revise, connect ideas and ultimately choose from a variety of entries to publish for an audience.  It supports the work of publishing.

3. Notebook writing encourages a writer to take to the ‘long view’. What might start off as a small undeveloped idea has the potential to be developed into something fully formed.

4. Students need daily sustained periods of time to write. The writer’s notebook helps give direction to those sustained times for writing, especially early in the year when establishing a classroom community that will support students’ writing throughout the year.

5. Assessing how the students are using the notebook might include:

  • reading the recent entries in your students’ notebooks
  • asking students to put post-it notes on the entries they would like you to read— give some criteria to the students for example, chose an entry you love, an entry where you tried something new, an entry that shows your best writing
  • conferring with students and asking them to talk about the entries they have included over the last week.

References

Buckner, A. (2005). Notebook know-how: Strategies for the Writer's Notebook.  Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Calkins, L.M. (1994). The art of teaching writing. (2nd ed.). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Calkins, L.M. (2011). A curricular plan for the writing workshop: Grade K. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Calkins, L. & Ehrenworth, M. (2016). Growing extraordinary writers: Leadership decisions to raise the level of writing across a school and a District. The Reading Teacher, 70(1), 7 -18.