Reader Mail, Part 2: How Do You Plan for a Year of Writing Workshop?

We love reader mail! On Monday, we began our answer to Cassie’s brilliant query. Here is the second part of our answer:

How do we build our workshops & the lessons that go in them?

When we first started writing workshop, we religiously referred to a chart on page 13 of Write Beside Them: “Writing: Increasing Skills and Learning the Habits of a Writer”. This chart gives a continuum of skills and products to move students through different types of writing during one school year.

Over the years, we’ve adapted and modified. In fact, every year we adapt and modify the order of our workshops, the genres we study, and our lessons.

In ninth grade, we generally move students through seven to eight workshops beginning with narrative/memoir and ending in literary analysis. With older students, Rebekah has done a whole year of workshops focused only on different kinds of literary analysis.  While every year is different (because we can never stop ourselves from tinkering), here’s how our 2012-2013 school years went:

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By contrast, here is what 2013-2014 looked like:

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While we’ve only begun planning for 2014-2105, some new plans will include:

  • compressing writing workshop into one semester (due to maternity leave)
  • using a continuous portfolio for assessment rather than end-of-the-year portfolios
  • integrating standards-based assessment of writing
  • adding technique-driven, rather than genre-driven, workshops
  • exploring new genres, such as humor writing, writing as gift, writing as forgiveness, etc.

As we’re planning mini-lessons for each workshop, we start with this recipe:

1 grammar/mechanics/usage skill


1 argument skill


4-5 content/organization/style skills


1 stretch skill (for extra credit)

To figure out what to teach, we study dozens of mentor texts and look for patterns across these texts on our own. While we may refer to the Common Core, school curriculum, etc. we feel that the mentors themselves are the most reliable, authentic sources of curriculum.

We don’t always know the traits of the genres we will teach, and this is what makes workshop exciting and real. We learn along with our students and create lists of noticings as we go. We also add mini-lessons based on the needs we see in student writing as we confer with them.

In terms of writing down actual plans, we like to use Google Calendar to plan units of study. It’s easy to tweak and move things around as plans change. Here is an example of the initial planning of a study of infographics:

Screen Shot 2014-06-06 at 5.36.59 PM

We write a simple phrase/trait like “Smart searching online” to help us remember what we need to plan for. Then we keep our actual mini-lessons in Google Drive folders where students can refer to them throughout the workshop. The rubrics we use to assess student writing come directly from the mini-lessons we teach; they are essentially a list of traits/features of that genre, with levels of achievement next to each trait (Mastered, Approaching, Developing, Not Present).

Finally, when thinking about the sequence for the year, we keep a few questions in mind:

1). Which genres are most accessible? These genres are placed at the beginning of the year. (The answer is almost always memoir, although Nancie Atwell has had a lot of success with poetry. This year we began with critical reviews, building on a summer reading assignment).

2). Which genres complement one another and share skills we can build on and from? These genres are placed next to one another in the year-long plan.

3). Which genres will require more practice and stamina? These genres are placed at the end of the year.

Cassie, we wish you and your colleague the best of luck. We have truly leaned on one another and grown in our teaching together over the past few years. The inspiration and strength we’ve drawn from one another, coupled with our passion for writer’s workshop, actually lead us to launching this blog in December. We know that you and your partner will do great work together! Let us know how we can help!


Allison & Rebekah

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