A blank page. A sharp pencil. A venue for wild thoughts and creative wonderings. What better way is there to foster a love of writing than to give students the opportunity to put pencil to paper on a regular basis? That’s why we’re such big fans of the idea of writer’s workshop. And while we believe that any time spent writing is good, focused time spent writing is one of the best tools teachers have in their repertoire. With that in mind, we asked our expert teachers to share their best tips to make writer’s workshop a success. Here’s what they had to say.
1. Keep writing tools handy. Give your students the tools for success in writer’s workshop by making the resources they need available in a central location. One teacher we talked to has a “writer’s workshop corner” where she stores the students’ works-in-progress in folders, along with sharp pencils, erasers and reference books.
2. Start with a read-aloud. Great writing often starts with reading great literature, so inspire your students to writing workshop genius by reading aloud a favorite short story or poem that acts as a springboard to that day’s mini-lesson.
3. Keep the timer going. It’s natural that some kids write more quickly than others. So while one may be adding the finishing touches to her piece, another will still be brainstorming. Set the expectations that the purpose of writer’s workshop is to write for a specific amount of time, not until a piece is done. If someone isn’t finished when the timer dings, just set the work aside to finish during another workshop.
4. Have a routine. Set clear expectations about how you expect writer’s workshop to work—for example, start with a mini lesson and finish with a peer critique. Keep that routine consistent so kids can focus on what matters: putting pencil to paper.
5. Model the writing process first. Some kids struggle with understanding what it takes to write. One of the best tools you can give your students is to model the writing process by thinking aloud as you compose a piece from brainstorming to final edits. This process of modeling may take some time, but it gives your students an invaluable glimpse into how a writing mind works.
6. Allow for flexibility. Writer’s workshop is an innately flexible activity—capitalize on that by allowing your kids to process their writing in the way that naturally works for them. If one kid outlines first while another skips all of the prewriting steps and immediately starts drafting, don’t worry about stringent rules but instead praise the individuality of each child’s process.
7. Have some fun. One teacher told us that undoubtedly her best writer’s workshops happen when she chooses a theme that’s fun. Try having your students write about their messy rooms, the plight of homework or what they would do in a zombie attack.
8. Switch up your objectives. One day have your students write with the purpose of practicing organization, and then next have them write for word choice. That way kids get specific practice focusing on a variety of writing skills.
9. Never skip peer feedback. Several of the teachers we talked to mentioned that there is a temptation to skip small group feedback or critique in order to save time. But this is one of the most valuable components of the writer’s workshop process. Always make sure that your students have the opportunity to work in small groups to critique and hone their work.
10. Give teacher feedback, too. Always spend time reading your students’ work and giving them feedback. There’s value in writing, but even more value in learning from the mistakes and accomplishments of the writing process.
11. Keep inspiration handy. Always keep a variety of writing samples available for your kids to read and use for inspiration if they get stuck. Hint: Sharing examples of your OWN writing makes for a great mini lesson!
12. Write across the curriculum. Try facilitating a writer’s workshop during science or math class and have your students write about what they are learning or respond to an assignment or concept.
13. Turn writer’s workshop into a classroom discussion. Writing is a great segue into meaningful conversation. One teacher told us that she always plans a thematic writer’s workshop the day before she plans to have a classroom discussion on the same topic. That way, the students have already processed and organized their thoughts and are ready to think deeply as the class converses.
14. Always give your students a choice. While it’s essential that a teacher guides student writing (have you ever tried to tell a classroom of 9-year-olds to “just write something?”), it’s also essential that kids have choice in their writing. Provide a group of writing prompts that center on a theme and allow your kids to decide which direction to run with their words.
15. Host a “coffee shop” celebration of writing. Allow your aspiring authors to share their work with the entire class if they desire. Pull up a special chair and allow the featured authors to share what they wrote.
16. Know your standards. It can be difficult to keep track of the Common Core State Standards, especially when doing something as inherently ambiguous as a writer’s workshop, but by tying your state’s testing requirements into your writer’s workshop, you teach your kids to write in a way that leads to success. So, if your state’s tests require certain features—quoted sources, multiple perspectives, opinion writing—give your students the opportunity to practice those features in a writer’s workshop.
17. Keep work to show growth. Many teachers keep their students’ writing either in a journal or a folder. Either way, make sure you keep all work together in one place so your students can measure their own writing progress and go back and read old pieces for comments and ideas.
18. Demonstrate your love of writing. Show your kids how much you love writing by choosing to spend the writer’s workshop time journaling or writing for yourself. Be sure to read your work aloud, too!
19. Do regular status checks. One teacher we talked to said she regularly holds up a stop sign in the middle of her writer’s workshop for an impromptu status check. She’ll ask, “What are you struggling with?” and give immediate feedback to students before they continue.
20. Don’t stop at writer’s workshop. It’s easy to separate writer’s workshop from the rest of instruction but several of our teachers cautioned us that this is a waste of precious instructional resources. One teacher told us that once a semester, she has students pick one piece that they started during a writer’s workshop and hone it, perfect it and turn it in as a major grade. She says it’s key to explain to students that writing doesn’t end at writer’s workshop, it only begins there.