My summer reading right now is The Writing Workshop: Working through the Hard Parts (And They're All Hard Parts) by Katie Wood Ray. Granted, as someone who already uses workshop model in her classroom, reading this feels more like preaching to the choir than gathering new information, but it's beneficial to read research that supports what we already know and believe in addition to works that challenge our established beliefs. It's the blend of both that supports my growth as an educator each summer. Reading this book is allowing me to reflect on my use of workshop and how it aligns with the "ideal" model and where I fall short.
I get asked about workshop a lot by other English teachers. Usually, it boils down to two main questions:
1. How do you do it?
2. Where do I even begin?
And I always, always, feel completely inadequate when trying to answer these questions. The area in which I am probably closest to being an "expert" and I fail miserably to communicate my methods to those seeking advice.
I've thought a lot about why it's so hard for me to articulate how to launch and maintain a workshop, and the only thing I can come up with is this: it's something that you just have to do in order to understand. (I know that sounds like a cop out. Maybe it is.) You can talk about it, but most of it won't make sense until you're actually doing. You can plan for it, but workshop isn't a plan-heavy endeavor because it's based on individual needs.
In an effort to be less opaque and demystify workshop a little bit, I'll share a brief version of my journey and values when it comes to this method. I don't promise any quick fixes or magic bullets because they aren't there.
I tried workshop my first year to disastrous results. Too much chaos, no set routines, goals, or technology for taking writing beyond notebook drafting, and still too much of a push from well-meaning mentors to teach in a traditional (grammar-focused) way. Halfway through the year, I bailed on workshop and started to do what was expected, and did that for the first four years of my career. I was miserable, but I felt like I was becoming a better Teacher-with-a-capital-T because I was getting good at being in front of the classroom. Except that my students weren't learning how to write. How could they? They spent maybe ten minutes each day writing in my class. How good can you get if you're only willing to give it ten minutes a day?
I've said it before, but I'll say it again ad nauseam: the Iowa Writing Project saved my career and transformed the life of every student to walk through my classroom since I took my Level 1 Institute in 2011. After spending a summer reading so much professional literature and coming to terms with my own writer identity, there was no justifiable reason that I could think of to continue to ignore the benefits of workshop.
I did not go all-in to a full workshop at once, which is probably what saved my sanity in the long run. My first steps were to incorporate more of three basic principles into my classroom:
1. Individual writing conferences
2. More writing time
3. Writing with my students
These three things are still cornerstones of my workshop. Through trial and error, I have found the ways they work best for me and my students.
1. Writing conferences
I used to schedule the majority of conferences outside of class time. (IDIOT!) Students had to sign up ahead of time, before school, during study hall, after school, during lunch, during my planning period, etc. If you want to achieve burnout and be the crankiest conference partner ever, do this. Now, most of my writing conferences take place during class time while other students are writing or peer responding. I still make "private" conference times available for students who don't want the chance of others overhearing our conversation.
2. More writing time
There is nothing, nothing, more important in a writing classroom than providing time to write. Remember this every time you open your mouth to say something wise or funny or whatever. Remember this every time the schedule gets changed and you have to shift things around. Remember this every time you end up in a group of teachers complaining about how there is never enough time to accomplish what you all need to accomplish. There will never be enough time in our lives. We can't make more of it, we can't guarantee the right amount of it. We can agree as teachers to make time for writing in our rooms. If we aren't willing to give our classroom time for writing, then how can we ever expect our students to understand that making time for writing is one of the most important parts of being a writer? If you do nothing else, if you have no interest in creating a writer's workshop in your classroom, then at least give your students time during the day to write.
3. Writing with my students
Let go of the ego and write and share your writing with your students in real time. (This is different from only sharing your polished drafts.) Not in one class or occasionally, but in all your classes, every single week. You are asking them to be writers, and you need to be one, too. There are a million fears and insecurities that teachers have when it comes to writing and sharing their writing with others. Good. Now you know what it feels like to do the thing you are forcing your students to do. If I were a soldier, I would scoff at a leader who only talked about battle and fighting techniques and told me what was insufficient or wonderful about my own warrior skills. I would die for a commander who fought beside me. If you want writers who are all-in, then you have to be, too. No exceptions or excuses unless you are willing to accept them from your students. I know it's harsh, but I have no flexibility on this issue. "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach" is an idiom because we have too many people in our profession who make it true. Don't be one of them, especially in a workshop.
Even as I started to incorporate more of workshop into my room, with the full weight of research and best practices in my corner, I still had this irrational fear in the back of my mind that if people (principal, other teachers, parents, etc.) knew I was giving kids so much time to write and explore individual choice as writers, that I’d be in trouble. (Typing that seems absurd now.)
I was terrified that I wouldn't be enough of a Teacher if I wasn't constantly imparting wisdom and putting in enough time at the front of the room, if I wasn't thinking up fun, new assignments to engage kids in the act of writing. That feeling doesn't go away; it's just something I've learned to accept. The less I talk, the more my students learn to write. The less I dictate, the more they push beyond any fun, new ideas I could have come up with on my own. I wonder how much kids in all content areas would learn if the adults in their schools would learn to shut up and just let them do?
Necessities for Workshop
Every workshop has its own essentials. Ray lists her essentials as: choices about content, time for writing, teaching, talking, periods of focused study, publication rituals, high expectations and safety, and structured management (15). I agree with all of these, and they are all components of my workshop.
My advice for teachers wanting to create a workshop is a little more focused on what the teacher needs to do before he/she can allow these other things to flourish. Workshop is a student-centered environment, so I believe most teachers' hesitation stems from letting go of their issues more than it has anything to do with the kids and what they're doing.
My tips for launching workshop:
1. Get over yourself. Your insecurities, fears, your need to be the expert; none of these have place in the workshop unless they are topics for your writing. (I write a lot in my classroom about my teacher identity. The students love to look behind the curtain of a teacher's brain.) Be vulnerable. Experiment. Admit defeat. My students respect me more as a flawed workshop facilitator than they ever did as a dictator, no matter how funny or charismatic I was.
2. Time. There is nothing more important than providing writing time. Everything else is in support of the time it takes to be a good writer. The music teacher doesn't get in trouble when kids are playing music in class. The art teacher doesn't feel inadequate when they are making art. The shop teacher doesn't spend more time talking about building stuff than actually having students draft and build. Writing teachers need to view writing time the same way.
3. Routine. If you are providing time, but you don't create a supportive structure, then things will go wrong. Routine does not have to be boring. It takes time (weeks; months, sometimes) to establish the routine. Keep reinforcing.
4. Flexibility. Do not plan weeks in advance. If you are required to, or if you are a strict planner, then plan for flexibility. Writers write at different paces. They have different needs. The greatest mini-lesson doesn't work if it's not what the writers need when they need it. Talk to your writers often. They'll tell you what they need. Read their work often. It will show you what they need.
5. You are a writer, too. I said it before, but it bears repeating. No exceptions. If you are scared, you should be! Writing is a wonderfully terrifying thing, even for those of us who love it. You don't have to be a stellar writer to write with your students. In any given year, I have at least thirty 13-year-olds who are better poets than I am. Isn't that awesome? Here's the secret: it doesn't make them respect my authority or ability any less. It makes them respect me more because I'm willing to put my warts-and-all writer-self out there, and they see that they can help me grow, too. Give them the chance to help you. Give yourself a chance to fall in love with writing again. The more you write with them, the more you'll grow as a writer and the better you'll be able to help them in authentic ways. I don't need to sound important or impart wisdom at the front of my room because my students view me as a writer.
If you want to launch a workshop, jump in and do it. The doing is the key part of any workshop and it is a constantly evolving, refining process.
Ray, Katie Wood, and Lester L. Laminack. The Writing Workshop: Working through the Hard Parts (and They're All Hard Parts). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 2001. Print.
I teach 7th and 8th grade English in rural Iowa and hope to reflect, connect, and share with other English teachers. Iowa Council of Teachers of English Executive Board member. Iowa Writing Project superfan. UNI MA:TESS graduate.