When I work with teachers who are struggling with writing workshop, the first question I ask is, do you write with your students? And the second question is, what are your workshop routines and structures? Because most problems with workshop stem from the answer to one of those two questions.
Routines in classrooms are partly about managing people and behaviors and limiting chaos to productive levels. But they are also about creating predictable spaces where meaningful work can happen–for students and for teachers.
If you’ve read many books and articles about implementing writing workshop, you may have noticed how much space workshop teachers devote to describing their routines and structures. We’re a bit fanatical about routines in the workshop classroom. And that’s for a very good reason: organization is what makes workshop work.
Creative work is dependent upon predictable routines, procedures, habits, structures, and rituals–as the ample literature of how artists and writers create attests. Writers don’t write occasionally, when inspiration strikes. The productive ones develop consistent daily routines. It seems that the very boringness of those routines and structures invites the work to happen.
Teaching is also creative work, and it turns out that what’s good for our student writers is good for us. Managing curriculum and unit design and writing daily lesson plans is so much easier when we have a structure to follow. I suggest that new teachers develop a predictable daily schedule for workshop. The majority of the class period can be used for writing practice and conferences. Teachers can focus their lesson planning time on identifying the immediate needs of their student writers, finding effective mentor texts to support student writing, and developing mini-lessons.
Daily schedules might include:
- a quickwrite
- independent reading time
- a read-aloud (poetry, YA book, mentor text in the genre under study)
- a mini-lesson to teach writing craft, techniques, and strategies
- significant time for writing practice
- writing conferences (can take place during students’ writing practice)
- whole-class sharing
If you teach on a Block schedule, there is time for all of this in one period. If you teach in shorter periods, you will have to be more selective.
It’s also helpful to think about, specifically plan, and explicitly teach your students the routines and procedures to:
- Start class
- Manage supplies
- Transition between activities
- Submit and return work
- End class
In In the Middle, still the best book I know about reading and writing workshop, Nancie Atwell recounts the story of a compliment she once received from Donald Graves. After observing her teach, he said, “You know what makes you such a good writing teacher?” She prepared herself for some sort of inspiring validation–only to be told by Graves, “You’re so damned organized.”
And that’s the key: being so damned organized. As Atwell explains:
From the beginning of my attempts to teach using a workshop approach, I’ve had to organize and reorganize my room and myself to support writing, reading, learning, and teaching. … I had to define organization in a new way. I don’t mean neatness–a good thing, too, because meticulousness will never feature among my virtues. By organization I mean discovering what writers and readers need and providing plenty of it in a predictable setting.
Before any student comes anywhere near my classroom at the beginning of September, I need to get ready for our workshop. This means knowing exactly what I expect will happen, knowing how, where, and when I expect it will happen, and knowing who’s expected to do it. I organize myself and the environment in August. My goal is to establish a context that invites and supports writing and reading so that when my students arrive they’ll find what they need to begin to act as writers and readers: time, materials and texts, space, and ways for them, and for me, to monitor our activity, organize our work, and think about what writers and readers in a workshop might do.