Writing Workshop: Rhythms vs. Routines

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Image via The Music Box Company

This summer a good friend introduced me to the Slow Home podcast about simple, intentional living and slowing down. I started with episode 5, “Rhythm, Baby,” about the differences between rhythm and routine. In this episode, the host Brooke McAlary discusses the differences between the two and explains how they play out in her life with two children at home.

As I listened to this podcast, my dog Ollie pulling at the leash in my left hand, baby stroller in my right, brain half-planning workshop for the next day, I began to think about how the concept of rhythm might apply to workshop.

Even though my school went to a modified block schedule this year, increasing each class period by five minutes (50 minutes total) and giving each class an extra-long period (70 minutes) once every 8 days, already I am finding myself pressed for time. Notebook time, sharing, mini lesson, writing and conferring, coming together as a writing community at the end–one of these routines gets sacrificed on a daily basis, and inevitably it’s sharing time since it falls at the end. As students respond to the bell and begin to pack up their things, I try to wrap-up the conference I’m having with a student and shout something like, “Okay everybody, we’ll begin with sharing tomorrow” over the chaotic zipper and velcro symphony of a group packing up and moving on. Only we never begin with sharing; we always begin with notebook time.

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The Routines of Workshop

On certain days I am better at letting go of this lack of closure, but usually I grow frustrated and disgruntled, upset for having conducted a lesson with a beginning and a middle and no end.  Even with the added five minutes this year, I still feel frenzied, rushed, stressed, unsatisfied that we have not made it through all the essential routines of the workshop.

Pondering our routines, it was at this point on my walk that Brooke’s talk began to speak to me:

“Rhythm and routine are different things that offer different approaches to our days…routine is the domain of the successful and the organized and the on-time. It’s the thing that you should be doing. But routine is also restrictive, it’s unfriendly, it’s regimented. But rhythm on the other hand, it speaks to you, it moves you, it moves with you and it feels good. On the face of it, there isn’t much difference between the two, but both routine and rhythm–they help you get things done, they deliver guidelines on what things need to happen and when those things need to happen. The differences though are really important, and if you’re looking to create a simpler life with less stress, rhythm is the way to go.”

She went on to talk about how this notion of rhythm affected parenting in the early days of her daughter’s life:

“After our daughter was born a few years ago, Ben and I were determined to establish a routine to get her sleeping pattern regular and to create comfort and predictability for everyone. As it turns out, babies don’t really work like that, and I’ve discovered over the last few years that life doesn’t really work like that either. It took us well over 12 months to figure that out but we discovered that routine, which is a strict sequential approach to our day, was really less than helpful. It made us feel as though we were failing when we missed a step or things got out of order, and that wasn’t a positive place to be operating from. But rhythm, on the other hand, was a much friendlier idea. It spoke of order, yes, but also of flexibility and movement and fluidity. It even sounded like a friendlier idea. Rhythm…rhythm moves you, you dance to it, you find your groove, you let go a little, enjoy the moment, you see where it takes you. It’s more like a dance.

Routine is not so much like that. It’s a march. You keep time. If you sway or if you linger or move out of order or miss a step, you’re out of time, you’re lagging behind, it’s a failure. Rhythm allows change and flexibility for different seasons in life…”

Brooke made me realize that the routines of my writing workshop may be somewhat restrictive. For example, I always cut off notebook time after about 6 minutes, afraid of cutting into the lesson or writing time. On certain days, my students are enjoying notebook time so much they ask for more time. On others, multiple students want to share. But rather than celebrate their enthusiasm and grant them more time, I more often than not tell them we have to move on for fear of cutting into the lesson too much, or more importantly, interfering with writing and conferring time. But the more I think of it, the less this makes sense: cutting off writing time so we can have more of it later.

The above routine also fails to take into account the students’ energy levels and personal writing goals for workshop that day. Like Brooke’s newborn, teenagers don’t necessarily work well with a strict schedule; come to think of it, neither do most writers! When we are beholden to a “strict sequential approach,” our creativity and flow of ideas is obstructed.

Writing Workshop Routines

  • Daily notebook time, lasting 4-6 minutes, regardless of students’ level of interest; ends with sharing with partners or whole class.
  • Mini lesson, lasting 5-20 minutes
  • Status of the class, daily
  • Writing & conferring, lasting the remainder of the period. I usually only get to a few students, leaving many with their hands up, their questions unanswered.
  • Sharing, last two minutes of class; we almost always run out of time to share.

So what if–instead of moving through the routines of writing workshop day in and day out–we followed the rhythms of workshop? What would that look like?

  • Notebook Time: I’d still like to begin with notebook time. Many writers acknowledge the benefits of “warming up” and writing non-stop for a few minutes to get their creative juices flowing. Additionally, notebook time eases the transition from math to English (or wherever the students are coming from) and gives us a common starting point. If we’re following the rhythms of workshop, though:
    • Students could linger in notebook time if inspired, putting their main piece of writing off until the next day.
    • We could hold off on sharing until the end of the class. What if students could share anything they had written that day–during notebook time, during writing and conferring, or even from that week?
    • Does every student have to begin with notebook time every day? What if students did NBT 3 out of 5 days when they most needed inspiration or seeds for new pieces?
    • With optional notebook work, I could kick off the workshop with a few conferences with students I didn’t get to yesterday or whose writing overnight prompted questions and the need to conference right away.
  • Mini lesson: typically the mini lesson is offered to the whole class, and conferences to individuals. What if I scheduled small group mini lessons around common errors, rather than waited to teach these during conferences, one student at a time? Combing mini lessons and conferences may make room for other important discussion to take place, longer notebook time, and so forth.
  • Status of the class: although this only takes 1-2 minutes to do, could I add this time back into writing & conferring by obtaining this information through a different medium? Could I ask students to share their daily goals through Socrative or on a chart at the front of the room?
  • Writing and conferring: what if I flipped the traditional schedule and began with writing and conferring first? Sometimes it seems appropriate to ride the wave of energy brought into the classroom after a class change, rather than wait until the end. I always feel like I’m racing to “get to workshop,” so why not put it first?

I will continue to grapple with these questions of routine and rhythm over the next few weeks as my students and I navigate the new bell schedule and make writing plans. In the meantime, please weigh in:

What are the routines of your workshop? Where might you let go of routine a little and move with the natural rhythms of your workshop instead? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below or on Twitter @allisonmarchett @rebekahodell1.


  1. I’m interested In the difference between notebook time and writing/conferring time. Do they need to be differentiated?

  2. This is really smart thinking. I think this would still hold true to the tenets of writing workshop, but not be so… stifling. I would appreciate it if someone honored my writing rhythms instead of forcing me to stop my flow after 6-8 minutes. I think you’re on to something…

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