In my travels many teachers have asked me how to get all kids to be able to work independently during Writing Workshop. Because a story can teach so much I’m going to share the story of one 4th grade classroom I recently visited where this type of independence was occurring. The day I was there, the kids were in the midst of a news article study. The teacher did a minilesson showing kids one way to use their notebooks to get ready to draft. She then sent them off to write. As I looked around, every kid was doing great work. Some were doing the minilesson. Some were trying other notebook strategies and some were already moving onto their drafts. Even though kids were doing many different things they were all doing good work. They were not raising their hands, calling out, saying they were finished, or simply staring into space. They were all doing something towards the end goal of producing a well-written news article. While the kids were working independently, the teachers was able to confer with four children without interruption and then called the entire group back together for a share.
Seems somewhat magical, no?
Actually the teacher carefully orchestrated it. There were three big things that she did that created a classroom of independent writers.
Immersion: Before the kids began collecting in their notebooks or drafting news articles, she gave them plenty of time to study different types of news articles. During the immersion phase of the study, the kids noticed many craft techniques that the experts used that they could implement into their own news articles. Many of the kids actually took notes in their Writers’ Notebooks on which craft techniques they thought they wanted to try. Also, while studying these news articles, they discussed the type of Writers’ Notebooks these authors may have kept in order to produce this kind of writing. They literally were ‘shopping for ideas’. Later in the unit this came in handy because the kids had other things they could do during Writing Workshop besides what the teacher had taught in the minilesson that day. Also, during the immersion phase the class had written a news article as yet another way to deepen their understanding of that genre.
Charts: The teacher had a few charts around the room that documented the immersion. The first chart was a chart of everything the kids had noticed about the craft of news articles. The second was a chart that captured the conversations that the kids had about what they thought these authors might have collected in their notebooks. Both of these charts reminded kids of all that they could do both in their notebooks and their drafts. It once again reinforced the idea that Writing Workshop was much more than a time when you just did what the teacher taught in the minilesson. Rather, it’s a time when you work on a project and make independent decisions about what strategies and craft techniques you need to do to move towards producing that final product.
Language: It was interesting to listen to the exact words this teacher said. During her minilesson, she was teaching students one specific notebook strategy to help them get ready to draft. After she showed the strategy and they practiced it together, she then said, “Now this strategy may help you today to get ready to draft or there might be another strategy that you think would be more helpful to you. You’ll have to make that decision.” What she said was really important. It held the kids accountable to making this decision on their own. Many kids ended up using her strategy, but some didn’t and were able to chose a different strategy off the charts around the room and then explain why they chose what they chose. At the end of the lesson, this teacher said one more thing that really contributed to their independence. Here is what she said: “Now I know different people are in slightly different places. We are having our publishing celebration in seven days so pace yourself wisely. Also, don’t forget that as you move to drafting you can try anything in your news articles that you noticed in other news articles. You may want to keep them out on top of your desk so you remember to refer to them.”(Each child had her own copy of the news article for easy reference.) Once again, she reminded them that their responsibility was not just to do the lesson of the day, but also to continue using everything they knew to help move towards the goal of publishing a news article.
These 3 key components: immersion, charts, and language are not just components that help kids become more independent during a news article study, but they are also key components for any writing unit of study.
Any other tips folks have in helping kids to work independently during Writing Workshop?