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.
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.
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?
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:
- 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?
- 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?
- Deadlines are a fact of writing life. How can I set appropriate and fair deadlines for individual writers while creating momentum in the workshop?
- Should I require students to write in certain genres throughout the year but allow them to choose when?
- 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?
- What is an appropriate number of pieces to ask a high school student to complete?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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.
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.