Finding Writing Time Where Time Doesn’t Exist

When I poll my students about workshop, a common theme that always emerges is wanting more time. Longer notebook times to nurture new ideas. More time to write and confer. (They never beg for longer minilessons 😄)

But when you’re working with 46 minute periods like we are, there’s only so much you can do. This is the rhythm we usually fall into:

Introduction & Announcements: 2-3 minutes

Notebook Time: 5-7 minutes

Minilesson: 10-15 minutes

Writing time: 15+


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Image from

But no matter how tight the schedule seems, when our kids ask for more writing time, we owe it to them to make more writing time.

What would it take to pull some extra time out of our magician’s hat? Below I’ve presented some rough draft thinking about how we might find class time where time doesn’t exist.

  • A true soft start

A soft start is an activity that students fall into as they enter the classroom. The momentum of the class builds as more students enter and begin the work of the day. Ideas for soft starts include 10-15 minutes of reading, notebook time, and other quiet, individual warm-up activities.

My school’s schedule actually has a nice soft start built in — no bell to initiate the beginning of class. I make it hard, however, when I wait for every student to arrive, even the stragglers, to introduce the day’s lesson.

When implemented as a hard start, notebook time can absorb a lot of valuable minutes because it also involves things that are not notebook time — students entering the classroom, unzipping their bags, sharpening pencils, saying hello, getting settled.

What if…

If we implement a soft start, and expect every student to produce x amount of notebook time pages before the end of the week, students will write at their own pace (some may add to their pages at night if they arrive to class late or have a slow start), and notebook time will just be notebook time, taking no more than 5-7 minutes.

  • Alternate extended notebook time with extended writing and conferring time

As students dig into their writing projects, they show less patience for notebook time — they want to nurture the ideas in their pieces, rather than thinking up new ideas every day.

Conversely, during the beginning stages of a writing study, notebook time can be extremely helpful to writers who are gathering information and honing ideas.

What if…

So what if we made notebook time more or less prominent depending on where students are in the study? Here is a possible schedule for phasing notebook time in and out:

Gradual Release of Notebook Time for 4-week Writing Study

Week 1 of study Extended Notebook Time/Conferring + Lessons
Week 2 of study Extended Notebook Time/Conferring + Lessons
Week 3 of study Lessons + Conferring/Writing
Week 4 of study Lessons + Conferring/Writing
  • Make the main thing the main thing

Problems with time occur when we try to do too much for too long. The fact is, we can’t do everything in every class period. We have to make choices.

What if…

So what if we alternate notebook time and conferring every day to allow more time for the most important work writers do — writing and conferring about their writing?

The schedule below features one major activity per class period while always dedicating some time for conferring.

Day A Day B
Notebook Time: 15-20 minutes Lesson: 10 minutes
Lesson: 10 minutes Writing + Conferring: 30+ minutes
Writing + Conferring: 15 minutes
  •  Extended study of one notebook time invitation (5 Day Study)

This idea came to me in a Georgia Heard workshop I attended in November 2014. Heard presented the idea of “living with a poem for a week,” where students study a poem over a period of a week, uncovering more layers each day. Let’s call it 5 Day Notebook Time Study.

What if…

What if we introduce one notebook time invitation at the beginning of each week instead of a new one each day? This would give the illusion of more writing time because writers are deepening and refining one small writing project over an entire week, rather than spinning something new in their notebooks every day.

Here is a possible outline for a 5 Day Study with a mentor poem (adapted from Heard):

Monday: Appreciate the poem

Tuesday: Explore the poem

Wednesday: Respond to the poem

Thursday: Revise and extend response to the poem

Friday: Share and reflect on responses

Here are Georgia Heard’s suggestions for Day 1 — appreciating the poem:

  1. Read poem twice.
  2. During the second reading, ask students to circle parts they find intriguing and words/parts that they find confusing.
  3. After you read the poem twice, ask students to read it silently to themselves and visualize the imagery in the poem. Students can sketch their visualization next to the poem.
  4. Ask students to move into small groups to discuss their first impressions of the poem.
  5. For homework, students can write down one discussion question for the next day.

And here are her suggestions for Day 3 — responding to the poem:

  • create a short video or podcast
  • choose to write their own poem
  • “talk back” to the speaker
  • write a personal essay
  • illustrate the poem
  • enact the poem, either alone or in a small groups, presenting the lines or a paraphrase dramatically
  • spine reading/writing – cracking it open

I tried this approach with my 8th and 9th graders this week, and the results were wonderful! We studied “Traveling through the Dark” by William Stafford in 9th grade and “My Papa’s Waltz”in 8th. Here are a few of the responses my students created:

From left to right: 1) Caroline B. used another poem we studied earlier in the year, “The Portrait” by Stanley Kunitz ,as a mentor text to write a poem from the perspective of the speaker in “Traveling through the Dark” 2) Max C. created a comic strip illustrating the arc of the narrative in the poem “My Papa’s Waltz” 3) Lydia C. wrote a letter to the speaker/main character in “Traveling” 4)Hannah C. illustrated a significant moment in “Traveling…”

There is so much potential with 5 Day Notebook Time Studies! We could study a piece of data for five days — study, ask questions, do research, write something, extend and revise. We could play with an old notebook time writing for five days — identify a piece of writing you want to go back to, make a revision plan, revise, share with a peer, revise more. What other ideas do you have?

  • True MINIlessons

I’m guilty of teaching minilessons that aren’t so MINI. It’s hard to keep them small — I just want to squeeze all the good information and techniques and possibilities into the presentation! But after learning about demonstration notebooks from Kate and Maggie, I wonder if some of that extra stuff might be better suited to individual and small group conferences?

What if…

What we presented 1-2 main points or techniques in a minilesson, and then made rounds with demonstration notebooks to offer more possibilities to the writers that need more possibilities? Not only would this shave time off the minilesson, but students might be more receptive to the techniques we’re sharing if they are personalized through conferences.

  • Post (don’t read) your announcements

I begin every class with announcements and goals for the day. Do I need to? Yes and no. My announcements are visible behind me on a color-coded PowerPoint. Students can read them. And they rarely change from week to week. Do I need to have them there every day? Yes. Do I need to talk about them? No.

What if…

We rely on visual announcements and cut out announcements altogether? Once students are used to the routines of the class, using visuals for information, etc. we can cut back on announcements and put back minutes into writing time.


Today I’m going to try a soft start, push past announcements, and move right into the minilesson.

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My PowerPoint slide for Notebook Time today

Because my students aren’t used to soft starts, it may take them a few days to settle into this new kind of beginning.

I challenge you to try one new thing this week to add minutes back into your students’ writing time. If it seems impossible, tell yourself what we tell our students about their writing when they’re trying to do too much — keep the heart and cut the fat. Surely there are things you can let go of.

How do you shave time off less important activities and give it back to writing? What are your strategies for soft starts and other time-saving strategies? Please share!

–Allison @allisonmarchett



  1. Good questions you’re grappling with here. What’s the best use of time for the greatest benefit of all students? I’ve been experimenting with #flipped learning tasks – having students do a 1st reading of a text before coming to class, select 3 poems related to our theme and bring them to class, even offer a novel to ss weeks in advance of studying it so those who need more time to read/enjoy can and those who recognize they’ll want more time in the class (to work w peers or conference with me) can read ahead to gain that class time. My class isn’t as structured time-wise in a day; I’m not on a cycle of learning stages like you describe. Not sure if you’d be able to see these options fitting for your purposes. For something like the two teachers in the video describe, like mini lesson on grammar points, I’d direct them to websites like Grammar Flip. It includes instruction in video form, practice sheets w immediate formative feedback, and other practices meant for a st & tc to discuss. To gain more time in the class for certain things, I’m flipping things and to allow for more personal conferencing w students needing similar help I’m using the formative tools to determine and aid them.
    Look forward to hearing advice/thoughts of others. In reflection, reading this and explaining is helping me recognize how nicely my students are adapting/owning our more flexible use of time. I need whole class instruction/collaboration at times but am enjoying the things they’re doing/learning/experimenting with when they split to smaller pods for the creative work.
    Cheers to you! Thanks for sharing.

    1. Marcy, I’m so sorry I never responded to this! Summer has afforded me more time to go back and read responses to each post. Thank you so much for sharing your thinking. I look forward to checking out Grammar Flip as I am not familiar with this resource! Hope you are having a great summer. Allison

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