If you’re new to teaching writing, this is a question you might have asked yourself or your colleagues. I use a modified version of the writer’s workshop to format my writing block. I find keeping the students on the same part of the writing process is easier to manage in a primary classroom with many struggling writers.
What is Writer’s Workshop?
First, what exactly is writer’s workshop? Well, writer’s workshop is a framework that is used to teach writing. Writing time for each day is broken down into three main components I’ll discuss more below. The components are a mini-lesson, student writing time which may include writing conferences, and sharing time.
During writer’s workshop, students are expected to be writing independently for a majority of the time block. Students should also be writing on a personal choice topic rather than on a provided prompt. If students can choose their own topic, they will usually write freely and for a longer period of time than if they are told what they have to write.
Components of Writer’s Workshop
The major components of writer’s workshop are:
- Mini-lesson (10-15 minutes)
- Writing Time (20-30 minutes)
- Share Time (5-10 minutes)
For the mini-lesson, the teacher is offering direct instruction to the whole class on a specific writing skill. This may include topics such as crafting a great lead, using proper punctuation, adding details to a story, or building story suspense.
The mini-lesson is short and hyper focused to teach one item for the day that students can take and apply to their own writing. It’s important to also model this skill during the mini-lesson. I like to share my writing using a document camera but you could also use an anchor chart.
When I first began writer’s workshop, I used Lucy Calkins model, First Units of Study. This was a great way for me to learn the process and I loved many of her mini lessons, but like many other teachers I found the formatting of the books hard to follow quickly while teaching.
Today I write my lessons according to the skills needed to teach a specific genre. Then I break down my lessons into bite-sized pieces that become my teaching point for each day. I like to stick with one genre of writing (opinion writing, expository writing, and narrative writing) for multiple weeks.
The next component of writer’s workshop is to have writing time. Just like it sounds, this is the time students are released to their seats (if you had gathered them to the carpet for the whole class lesson) to write. Traditionally students in a typical writer’s workshop would check in and state where they are at in the writing process before heading off to write.
Within my own classroom, I have the majority of my class working on the same part of the writing process so it is easier to manage. As I planned my writing units, I created lessons that would lead to the culmination of a final, graded work. Students follow the daily lessons to practice the skill for the day in their own writing.
An example mini lesson might be on how to begin an introduction. I will show several examples of introductions and then release students to write. At their desks, students will work on following the blueprint I gave them to craft their own introduction. When they finish the task, they will continue to write but on a different piece of writing. This can be an unfinished piece of a new piece but should be on the same genre we are working on to limit confusion. They keep their writing pieces in a designated writing folder. The image above is from a mini lesson during expository writing on how to create text features.
The final component of the writer’s workshop is to have share time. This is just what it sounds like - students are given time to share their writing. I find in my own class that this is the time students look forward to the most. I like to set a timer after my mini lesson so that I am making sure to keep this time available each day.
I like to think of share time as the equivalent to a number talk in math. The most important part of number talks is allowing students to see how others arrived at a solution. With writing it’s just as important to provide time for students to see how others are writing, and see how they are completing their stories. I find that often the students have more creative ideas than I do! This is a component that should not be skipped.
When I am short on time, I have students share with their writing partners for a timed five minutes. If both partners are unable to share during that time, then the partner who didn’t share goes first the next day. This procedure is built into my lessons prior to beginning the partner process. I also like to assign my writing partners to be the same throughout a unit study. This allows students to know exactly who they need to work with when it’s time to work in partners.
In my classroom, writing conferences are very informal. I set my topic for writing conferences according to the students’ writing goals. For more information on my goal setting, please visit the blog post and podcast episode called Setting Student Learning Goals.
I make note of the student writing goal and approach the student, asking them to read me their current writing. Then we reference their goal together and note the progress on that specific goal. I like to keep the conference aimed at one specific point (their chosen goal) even though there are usually MANY other topics we can discuss. I find if I bring up too many things the student can become overwhelmed and possibly shut down. I end the conference much like I would with a parent teacher conference by providing a positive note to the student.
It might be helpful to keep a checklist of your class roster that you can mark off as you go throughout the week. This will help make sure you are meeting with every student equally. I also like to pull small groups that have similar, if not the same, writing goals that we can work on together. This is usually students struggling with beginning sentence structure or even sounding out words. My motto is always to work smarter so instead of having five individual conferences, I can hold one conference of five students and do a quick modeling of the expected goal outcome.
By sticking to this framework, you’ll be planning lessons and implementing your own writer's workshop in no time! I suggest if you are new to writer’s workshop that you first start with a series of lessons that explicitly teaches your workshop expectations. After students know what to expect it is easier to have them work independently during writing time.