Whole-Class Writing Studies vs. Individual Writing Studies

Every year I write on my syllabus that students will produce a new piece of work every four weeks. And while I do create units of study that typically span four weeks, students aren’t necessarily finishing a new piece every month. It often takes us longer than planned to move through a study. Holidays and vacations set us back. Sometimes, I extend studies if I think that even a few students are not ready to move on. Stuff happens.


Students reviewing the traits of a book review.

But sometimes students can’t reach this writing quantity because they are waiting for me to move on. Waiting for the study to end, even though they have finished their pieces. Waiting to begin that new writing that started as a flicker at the back of the imagination and has since grown into something large and real and ready to be written. It’s at that point–when I see that some students are itching to move forward and begin something new and others are still stuck in their early drafts and in need of more support–that I begin to wonder if whole-class writing studies are about as effective as whole-class novel studies.


from zinkshappenings.edublogs.org

Many of us have made the move from whole-class novel study to independent novel study in reading workshop. We differentiate assessment, teach through conferences, and cheer on students as they move from one book to another at their own appropriate pace. What’s preventing us from adopting this structure in writer’s workshop?


by woodleywonderworks, used under Creative Commons lic

Nancy Atwell describes an approach to independent writing studies in her book In the Middle. Her 7th and 8th graders produce two pieces of writing every six weeks. Some of these pieces are written in genres the class has studied as a group, but much of the writing students do is completed independently of any whole-class genre study.

At the beginning of each trimester, Atwell’s students set writing goals (I want to write 6 pieces this trimester, I want to write in a new genre, I want to experiment with poetry, I want to try a new approach to drafting, I want to write about my dad, etc.) and are evaluated based on progress made towards these goals. A student who has met all of her goals at the end of a trimester and engaged thoughtfully and deeply in the writing process will receive an A in writing for that trimester. A student who has met some but not all of his goals may receive a B, etc. Individual pieces of writing are not assessed; only a student’s writing portfolio and work ethic hold the key to his or her true abilities as a writer.

In another book, Lessons that Change Writers, Atwell offers a chronology of the mini-lessons she teaches in one year. She places an emphasis on free-verse poetry in September and October, fiction in November, holiday gifts of writing in December, book reviews in February, punctuation in March, essays in April, and humor writing and Mother’s Day poems in May. However, students are moving among these genres and making choices that suit their interests and needs as writers. Atwell expects her students to try the work of different genres as she spotlights them, but my sense is that students are ultimately choosing which pieces to take to final copy.

These books show us that it’s possible to create a rich workshop based on individual writing studies (one look at her chronology on page XXVIII and XXIX of Lessons and you’ll understand the power…).

Still, I long to sit down with Atwell over coffee and ask the hundreds of logistical questions I have about this approach to instruction:

  1. Without an understanding of various genres, how do students make informed choices about which genres they’d like to write in? As genres are spotlighted throughout the the year, their knowledge will grow, but what do those early weeks and months of workshop look like?
  2. How might I create a sequence of writing lessons that would somehow speak to what each particular writer is working on at any given moment while creating some grounded understandings and reference points that will carry any writer through any writing situation?
  3. Deadlines are a fact of writing life. How can I set appropriate and fair deadlines for individual writers while creating momentum in the workshop?
  4. Should I require students to write in certain genres throughout the year but allow them to choose when?
  5. If coupling individual study with whole-class units of study, should I require students to bring all whole-class pieces of writing to completion? Or should they be given the choice to abandon these pieces if they are not working?
  6. What is an appropriate number of pieces to ask a high school student to complete?
  7. If one student is working on a long short story that requires in-depth research, is it fair to ask him to turn in the same number of pieces as a student working on several shorter blog posts?
  8. As a teacher, how will I manage so many writing projects happening concurrently? When will students be asked to submit drafts? Asked to bring pieces to final copy and submit again for editing by me?
  9. How can I create the feeling of a newspaper or magazine staff climate in which writers are working both independently and interdependently towards personal and collective goals?
  10. What if a student only wants to write editorials for the whole year? How do you celebrate that passion while nudging him towards different writing territories? Do you make it a requirement that students write in certain genres throughout the year?

I am fortunate to teach a semester-long creative writing elective in the fall and spring each year. In the past, this class has been my guinea pig: many of the writers are returning students who are better able to navigate a new approach or idea and understand my “let’s try this” enthusiasm. Additionally, I have more autonomy in this class than any other and thus more room to experiment. My goal is to try individual creative writing studies in the spring. But before then, I may have to flag Nancie Atwell down at NCTE ‘14 and buy her a coffee in exchange for workshop wisdom. Wish me luck.

~ Allison

If you have had success with individual writing studies, particularly with middle or high school students, please comment below or find us on Twitter @allisonmarchetti @rebekahodell1. We’d love to know more about the logistics of it all.


Mentor Text Monday: Engaging Students with HUMANS OF NEW YORK

Mentor Text:  Humans of New Yorkblog and book by Brandon Stanton

Also: LIttle Humansbook by Brandon Stanton

Writing Techniques:

  • Effective interviewing
  • Fusing images and text
  • Concision & drilling down to the essentials


While I’m off, I am dreaming of the mentor texts and units of study that will fill my second semester when I return to school. One text that keeps popping up is Humans of New York, a popular storytelling blog-turned-book by photographer Brandon Stanton. On his blog, Stanton features a photograph of someone he encounters on the streets of New York. The photo is accompanied by the subject’s brief response to an intimate, probing question posed by Stanton. Both the portrait and the accompanying quotation capture something truthful — often raw — and essential about the subject.  The result is captivating, as evidenced by Stanton’s millions of followers and imitators around the world.

Beyond the interesting visuals and quotations that will capture students’ attention and the blog’s huge relevance and popularity, one of the greatest  things about Stanton’s work in the context of a classroom is that he is neither professional journalist nor professional photographer. In a way, he’s just like our students. While his work is great fodder for mentor text work, this fact makes him a great mentor for our writers as they uncover his process and become inspired by his craft. Continue reading

Note-taking Possibilities in Writer’s Workshop

I think most of us will agree that we’d like our students to keep a record of the lessons we teach in workshop each day. They need something tangible to look back at as they progress through each study. And in a perfect world, they’d want something to take with them at the end of the year, a record of learnings they might use in subsequent years of school. But what form should that record take?

I have tried many different forms of note-taking over the years: Cornell Notes, bulleted notes, notes in full sentences, teacher-made notes, student-made notes, class secretary-made notes. Admittedly, some years I told myself that the students would figure it out, would cobble together some iteration of the lesson in their notebooks and be just fine. Other years I’ve taught explicit note-taking techniques and styles. Regardless of what I do, note-taking in workshop has always felt a little awkward to me. Why?

Taking notes in workshop is very different from taking notes in science class, for example. In English, the majority of my lessons are skill-based, not content-based. How does one capture the essence of a skill lesson in note form? Continue reading

Writing Instruction When You Aren’t There

I am not at school and won’t be for the next couple of months. Instead, I’m home snuggled up with this:

photo 2

Because of my impending maternity leave, much of my summer planning time was spent pondering a tough question: how do I maintain intentional, quality writing instruction when I’m not there to instruct?

This is a question all writing teachers face eventually — even if it’s not an extended maternity leave, we have lives and families that sometimes demand we step away from our classroom for a time. Though less problematic, we even face this when we are out of school for a few days at NCTE or when we are down for the count with the flu.

This time around, I am really lucky — right now in my classroom is a long-term substitute who has previously taught English in my school and spent more than two weeks shadowing me and learning our routines before I left. (Thank you to school administrators who saw the value in this!)  A dream, really. When I had my daughter, my substitute wasn’t hired until after her birth. I never even met him.

We all know we can’t depend on the fact that a qualified English teacher will be there to teach our students (much less teach writing to our students). How can we planner-loving control-freak educators mitigate the risk of time away? What can we do to ensure that our students are engaging in meaningful writing when we aren’t there and when we have no control over who will be? In the absence of perfection, what’s the best we can do for our students?

I don’t have the right answer, but here are some questions I asked myself as I looked at the school year ahead:

How can I structure our curriculum for the year to best support my students’ writing lives?

In my English classes we have literature study, writing workshop, and independent reading to accomplish. Looking at this list of to-dos, I wondered, “What can I most easily and most fairly expect for a substitute to be able to teach? And what will my students best learn in my absence?”

Sometimes re-structuring the curriculum means pushing some things back. Both of my leaves of absence have very conveniently happened so that I have started the school year, been out during most of the first semester, and then been back at school for the start of semester two.  So, it just made sense to me to leave the heavy lifting of full-time, all-out writing workshop for second semester when I return.

In the meantime, my ninth grade students are still practicing many of workshop’s basic routines (more on that later). They are studying literature as a whole class, the element of my curriculum I thought most subs would be familiar with and for which I could most easily leave suggested activities.  Finally, they are engaging in rigorous independent reading a la Penny Kittle, which they will continue for the entirety of the school year.

But, sometimes re-structuring the curriculum  means frontloading instruction when we would typically wait. With my eleventh graders, who will move to a different English teacher second semester,  I spent the first month of school in a “writing blitz” — all writing workshop all the time as we reviewed the elements of analytical writing by writing an analysis of a film or episode of a television show.  While I am gone, students will be moving into a pretty traditional, literature-centered English course. While I wouldn’t normally begin the year with such an intense burst of analytical writing, I wanted these kids to have a hearty review of the kind of writing they will be expected to submit, and I wanted them to have a hearty review of writing workshop structures that could help them achieve success in writing even when they are not in a workshop-centered class.

This question of re-structuring works on the micro-level, too, though. Even when we are out unexpectedly for a day or two are there lessons you could push back (things that you really need to have your hands on)? Are there lessons or activities you could push forward (things that your students have had practice with and could more easily navigate with minimal teacher input? Writing group feedback, perhaps? Some structured revision?)

Where do I need to let go?

If we’re honest with ourselves, our expectations are often out of control. I fail to meet my own expectations in my classroom most of the time, so it would be tough for anyone, however wonderful, to step into my classroom and take the reigns. I bet the same is true for you, too.  We — I  —  have to let some things go.

Here’s what I decided to let go while I’m out — writing workshop. Now, this doesn’t mean my students won’t be writing — they will — but in a less holistic and integrated way than were I present. My students will write regularly, and they will write responsively to literature and to their independent reading, but I have decided that it’s not fair to expect my sub to develop and teach mini-lessons, move through various genre and technique studies,  or confer with my students. This is an awful lot to lay on someone walking into my classroom for a twelve-week stint.

Where can you let go when you are gone? Where can you convince yourself to trade what’s best for what’s good?  What are reasonable concessions to make in your teaching context? (I promise, there are some.)


What writing routines can I establish that my students and any substitute can continue on their own?

While I wouldn’t ever expect my substitute to teach mini-lessons and confer with students, there are plenty of elements of workshop that my students can be practicing and incorporating into class life over the next three months:

    • Using the Reader’s/Writer’s Notebooks — In the month I was with my students, we spent a lot of time setting up notebooks and practicing how to use them. As they continue to collect ideas and bits of work in their notebooks over the next few months, they will also be preparing gems they can polish in future, bigger pieces of writing in semester two
    • Notebook Time — Notebook Time is the time for writerly play and experimentation during the first 5-7 minutes of class. Students respond to poems, study and imitate powerful sentences, draw conclusions about data, practice revision, playing with writing territories, and collect seeds of ideas for future pieces of writing. Having modeled it during our shadowing period and having shared some resources for Notebook Time, I feel confident that this routine practice and writing play time is something that can continue through my leave.
    • Sharing Writing & Collaborating — Students are always encouraged to share their responses to the daily Notebook Time. My students will also be working in smaller collaborative groups to share about independent reading and to complete activities and projects related to their whole class reading. The more practiced students are at  sharing their work, having conversations, and collaborating together, the more effective writing groups will be in the second semester.



When you are out — what writing routines can your students practice without you?

Closing Thoughts

The reality — something I have had to pep talk myself on over and over again — is that it won’t be the same as when you are there. I haven’t yet had a group of students who can teach themselves an entire unit of workshop study. So, some things will have to give. Taking a break from the classroom is never perfect, but that doesn’t mean we need to ditch our best laid writing plans entirely. After all, isn’t any consistent, intentional writing practice better than nothing?  With flexibility – and some relinquishment – we can provide our students with writing opportunities that will benefit their writing lives while we take care of our outside-school lives. We will all be better off for it when we return.


I would LOVE to hear how you work to make writing instruction continue when you are out — for illness, for maternity leave, when recovering from a surgery. What tips and tricks can you add to our community? Leave a comment below or find us on Twitter @RebekahOdell1 and @Allisonmarchett. Use #movingwriters.