What a High School Writing Teacher Can Learn from Preschool Writer’s Workshop

I teach big kids and always have. High schoolers. But since writing instruction is my great teaching passion — and since summer provides few outlets for actual interaction with students — my almost-three-year-old daughter became my student as I subjected her to a summer of preschool writing workshop.

How does this endeavor equal summer fun and relaxation? Well, let’s be honest — it was mostly a convenient excuse for me to spend some time studying writing workshop with our very youngest writers, something I know absolutely nothing about. But Allison and I borrow and adapt techniques from elementary workshops in our high school workshops all the time — I figured, why not extend that into preschool? What gems might I find?

Also: it was just a fun experiment for mom.

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I did a bit of preliminary research on the Internet to try to find an answer to my central question: what do you do with a toddler writer. Every source I found redirected me to a single book, so I digitally scurried to Amazon and ordered a copy of Teaching, Drawing, Writing: Lessons for Our Youngest Writers, the bible of primary writing workshop. While most of the lessons and techniques outlined in this book were a bit advanced for Georgia, it was an absolutely fascinating read and got us started with doodling, captioning, and dictating.

As we worked, I wondered which elements of a pre-writing writing workshop, if any, could be useful in a high school workshop. I took away three big ideas to try with my classes this year:

Make writer’s workshop more like play

With my daughter, writing workshop meant stickers, a pretty notebook, and special markers. We put these items in a writing workshop box, and only when we were doing workshop could she use them. She begged me for writing workshop time every day. 

This was hugely incentivizing for her , and, when I thought about it, it would still be hugely incentivizing for me! In fact, I do motivate myself with pretty school supplies — the new post-its I buy each August, the colorful pens I purchase to make sitting down with a stack of papers more fun.

Why shouldn’t it be this way for my students? This year, I want to make writing workshop — and particularly my students’ writer’s notebooks — more playful. I am encouraging my students to decorate the inside of their notebooks as much as the outside. I am suggesting they doodle when they have run out of ideas during notebook time rather than merely allowing them to doodle. I am not just acknowledging that markers exist, but actually setting them out while students work in their notebooks.  

My hope is that this will bring more ownership and joy into our work. 

The writer’s notebook is the writer’s notebook

To that end, I am trying to do a better job of constantly reminding myself that the notebook belongs to my students and not to me. I want it to be sacred to them, so I need to treat it as sacred and keep my hands off!

This summer, I constantly fought the impulse to insist my daughter use her notebook in the way I envisioned. My blood pressure shot up when she would want to color on two (or three! or four!) pages instead of just one in order to tell her story. I would get anxious when she left one story unfinished before moving on to another or change stories midstream. I’m just that uptight. With the possessive truth of a three-year-old, Georgia consistently reminded me that her notebook was “mine” and I should keep my hands off.

And it is her notebook, so she should use it in the way she sees fit. So should my students. Though I almost never write in their notebooks, I do tend to micromanage them. I like for all writer’s notebooks to be organized in my image. My students, especially my younger, struggling writers, need help with organization — they need a vision and sometimes a prescription for what that should look like. But they also need the freedom to explore what feels right to them. If given room to grow, this freedom will breed independence, and both their learning and writing will be better for it .

So, even though I have prescribed the basics of notebook setup for my students this year, I keep repeating aloud — for my benefit more than theirs — “This is your notebook. Do this the way that makes sense to you.” 

Baby steps are big steps

When you are writing with a three-year-old, you go slowly. In tiny baby steps. First, we worked on drawing. Then a one-word caption. Next, putting that caption into a sentence. (We never actually made it to dictating a story.)

But I knew that the slow-going baby steps were big steps for my daughter when she proudly paraded her notebook around the house for her father, her grandparents, for anyone who would look at it.

In my classroom, I am always poised and waiting for those big, dramatic growth moments — when a struggling student suddenly (and miraculously) turns in brilliant, inspired work.  I have a tendency to move too fast in an effort to get that result, afraid that we won’t “cover” enough, afraid that students will get bored. But warp speed has a lot of drawbacks, so, I am trying this year to do a better job of reading my students, getting a pulse on how quickly they need to move, and celebrating the little baby steps of mastery along the way.

What techniques have you borrowed from the classrooms of younger or older writers? Are you a high school teacher who borrows from elementary teachers? Are you an elementary teacher who adapts the work of a high school workshop?  Do you engage in conversation with teachers of students radically different from your own? How do you adapt their curriculum, tricks, and techniques to meet the needs of your students?

We would be so interested to hear from you! Please leave a comment below or find us on Twitter @RebekahOdell1 and @allisonmarchett.

 

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