Chances are if you’re reading this blog, Writing Workshop happens in your classroom or in your school. You probably know and follow the structure of Writing Workshop (mini-lesson, work time, share) and strive to ensure that your teaching during Writing Workshop is focused and clear each day. You probably teach different qualities of writing in your classroom and then assess your students to see if they use these qualities while writing.
While it’s important to follow the structure of Writing Workshop and to teach qualities of writing within that structure, it’s also important to not become robotic and know when you need to take a detour from your typical Writing Workshop. Sometimes it’s not the structure of Writing Workshop or one particular quality of writing that a student needs in order to reach their writing potential.
I was reminded of this when I was visiting Paige Elementary School in Schenectady, New York. I was working with a wonderful team of third grade teachers. Together we were looking at the students’ poems before we went into the classroom to teach Writing Workshop. These children clearly had worked hard on their poems and the teacher had clearly been teaching them how to write well. Their poems were filled with similes, metaphors description language and repeating lines. You name it. They had it, but something still wasn’t right. The only word that kept circling in my mind was that the poems weren’t honest. They were so busy trying to make their writing sound good that they weren’t writing what was honestly in their hearts and minds.
It reminded me of a day a few years back when I was conferring with a 5th grade girl in Edison, New Jersey. She had written a personal story about a time when she went to an amusement park and wasn’t sure if she was going to be allowed on the ride because of her small size. Alas, when they measured her she was tall enough and they allowed her to go on the ride. In her story she wrote well about her excitement to go on this ride and indeed her story was filled with the qualities of a good narrative but something still didn’t feel right. In my conference I asked her if excitement was the only emotion she had that day. She paused and then said that although she was in fact excited, she was also nervous because she had just made the size requirement for the ride and was worried that she would get hurt on the ride. It’s harder she admitted to try and show both of those feelings in her story. After she said that we had a conversation about writing honestly even when it’s hard. I challenged her to try and write that story describing the mixed emotions that she felt that day. The end result was a much higher quality piece of writing.
These kids in Schenectady were having the same issues that this 5th grade girl had. These third grade students in Schenectady were in fact using what they had learned about qualities of writing to write poems but they weren’t writing honestly so their poems sounded a bit like someone trying too hard. I knew I wanted to talk to the students about honesty in their writing, but teaching kids to be honest in their writing didn’t fit neatly into the structure of a focused minilesson. I knew that in order to teach them this we needed to have an honest, heartfelt conversation.
So I gathered these 3rd grade kids together. We talked about what the word honesty meant and I read them a few poems that I thought were really honest and the kids agreed. I talked to the kids about the importance of trying to write honestly and not worrying as much as about how many qualities of writing they had used. I looked at their faces and wondered if they were taking this in. I then sent them off to write.
What they came back with was simply amazing! One little girl wrote a poem about going to Central Park when she was three. She remembered how at that early age she thought the clouds were people and she talked to the clouds inside her head. Another little girl wrote about the sadness she felt when she set her pet turtle free in a river. Originally, she had thought she no longer wanted a pet turtle, but the moment she saw her turtle swimming away she regretted her decision.
The kids gathered back together at the end for a share. There were a lot of quiet moments of awe as kids read their poems aloud. I didn’t try and teach too much into them. I just kept saying to them, “Wow, what an honest poem!”
The teachers and I met again at the end of the day and we marveled at the students’ writing and what an improvement it was from their previous poems. We also noted the slightly unconventional nature of Writing Workshop that day. My minilesson was longer than usual and my share didn’t have a tangible teaching point but I know they learned! Honesty in writing, we decided, was hard to teach within the official structure of Writing Workshop. I had to let go and trust that the students would learn about honesty by hearing beautifully written poems and engaging in a heartfelt conversation.
Do I think it’s important to have a structured Writing Workshop? Of course I do and on most days my teaching fits into that structure. Should we teach students the qualities of writing? Of course and I am often teaching these qualities in my minilessons and conferences. We must be careful though that we don’t get so caught up in what Writing Workshop is supposed to look and sound like that we don’t look at student writing and talk honestly about wise ways to address their strengths and needs. Sometimes these ways will fit in with how you normally teach, but sometimes they won’t. Be brave and unconventional and I’m sure you’ll be blown away by what your students produce.