What Are You Working On? Empowering Student Writers through Workshop


I’ve always believed in the writing process. My teaching didn’t always reflect that belief, as I spent too many years earlier in my career creating worksheets and essay prompts and outlines and templates. I soon realized that just because my writing instruction included steps didn’t mean it was a process.

That said, in more recent years, I’ve tried to integrate more elements of writing workshop: writer’s notebooks, quickwrites, peer response groups, conferring. Just about every day, for example, we begin my AP Lang class with writing—writing to reflect, explore, find topics, generate ideas, develop fluency, play with language. Students work through the process of finding ideas worth writing about, organizing those ideas, and developing their voices.

As much as I’ve tried to turn the writing process over the students, the truth is, no matter how well-intentioned I may have been in my efforts to empower students, I realized that nothing empowers students more than actually giving them power. So that’s what I did.

What follows is how I’ve taken another step in shifting my classroom towards a more authentic writing workshop.


1. What is this class asking you to learn?

For the second half of the marking period—from now until the end of January—I told my students that we would dedicate the middle of the week, Tuesday through Thursday, to writing workshop. Because of all the prewriting we’ve been doing in our notebooks, I knew that my students would have no shortage of topics to explore. The goal would be to produce writing that reflected their best writing selves, showcasing their growth since the beginning of the year.

First, I asked students the question, “What is this class asking you to learn?” I stole this question directly from Sarah Zerwin’s work with ThePaperGraders.org, whom I saw present at NCTE this past year. I collected their answers online through an open-ended response question on Socrative.com, reviewed the results, and compiled a list. After removing duplicates, I ended up with a list of approximately 40+ different student-identified skills/goals. These included things like:

  1. To find ourselves through writing
  2. To work well with others
  3. To improve writing through intentional word choice and sentence fluency
  4. To use a notebook to explore ideas
  5. To identify stylistic choices within a piece of writing

It was interesting to see what students could identify as the goals for our class. The fact that they could clearly articulate some of the goals for the class felt good to me; I was getting through to them. Then again: could they just be parroting what I’d been telling them? Perhaps. Their answers might reveal compliance rather than authentic engagement. So how could I move beyond that compliance?

2. How will you do that learning?

The next day, I asked students to choose the top 5 items on the list that they would like to work on in the next few weeks—those things that would inspire them to work to the best of their abilities and improve as readers and ultimately, as writers. “Choose the items that are priorities for you right now,” I suggested.

Students copied these items down in the first column of a Writing Workshop Overview organizer I created. Once those items were finalized, I pointed out that these items were essentially goals they had set for themselves. I then asked students to think about each goal they chose and to list the actions they would need to take in order to work on those goals. These would include specific behaviors to ensure their success. For example, for the five goals listed above, students wrote:

  1. Experiment with different types of genres until I find the one that feels “right” for my topic and purpose.
  2. Give and get peer feedback on writing.
  3. Read mentor texts that showcase effective use of diction and sentence fluency.
  4. Write in my notebook daily.
  5. Annotate my readings for specific strategies writers use.

WW Goal Setting

3. How will you demonstrate that learning to yourself and others?

Here is where the real empowerment comes in. After talking with my students, we agreed that they would need to produce some minimum amount of writing in order to prove that they had made progress on their goals. For our class, this was 3,000 words in at least two different pieces. For example, students could write three 1000-word essays; or two 500-word letters and one 2,000 word essay; or one 800-word Op-Ed, two 500-word letters, and two 800-900-word narratives. Some students are writing poems. It all depends on the student

portfolio review
Slide I showed students in our introduction to this approach

The goal for students is to create, maintain, and produce an ongoing body of work each week that shows their learning and works-in-progress. This part is crucial. Students are the ones responsible for showing evidence of their learning and writing. I handed out folders for students to keep all artifacts—articles, essays, drafts, etc.—that they consult, create, or annotate. At the end of each week, students complete a weekly reflection that explains what each artifact is and how those artifacts reveal the work they’ve done. These might include mentor texts they’ve found and annotated, drafts of writing, photocopies of pages from their notebooks. Students must prove what they have learned by making visible their process. And because each student is unique—just like all writers are unique—this process will look different for each student writer.

Workshop Reflection
Students complete each week; I created a fillable Word Doc form for them to either type and print, or print and fill-in.

Ground Rules for Workshop

Once we had these pieces in place, it was time to begin. I reviewed with students some ground rules for making sure they made the most of their workshop time. In short, as students read and write, I move around the room, checking in with each student. I keep a dedicated notebook for this process so I can take notes, with each student’s name on a separate page. Rebekah has already done similar work with her class, and I love what she says about the process, “Rather than spending time trying to assign a point value to students’ conversations or homework, I spend my time observing.” I also scheduled in-depth conferences with each students over the next week so that I can 1) go over previous essays; 2) review their workshop goals, activities, and products; and 3) give concrete suggestions and modify or set new goals as they move forward.

Ground Rules for Workshop
Slide used to introduce this approach

Because it’s important that I not let any student “slip through” this process, I also set up individual discussion boards with each student on our LMS (Schoology). Each discussion board, seen only between me and each individual student, serves as the place for an ongoing dialogue for us. I just started this process last week, and I have already had four students use their individual discussion boards to ask me questions and seek suggestions. One student asked for articles that included more direct writing instruction, like “how to write effective sentences.” Another student asked me to take a look at her notes for three different possibilities for an essay she was writing and to offer an opinion, while another asked me for suggestions for “out of the box” mentor texts to practice voice.

Making Learning Visible: The Board

img_5351-1Outside my classroom, I post two questions that students see every time they walk into my room. 1) What are you reading? 2) What are your working on? I’ve been developing a robust independent reading program for several years now, and I feel confident that I’ve put students in the position to be able to answer the first question. But the second question has always eluded me a little. Until now.

As a writer myself, I know that I am always working on something, whether it’s a blog post for Moving Writers or the PA Writing/Literature Project, Heinemann Fellows action research or the Slice of Life Challenge on Two Writing Teachers. As anyone who writes knows, writers are always prewriting: generating ideas, wondering, pondering, questioning (I often do my best prewriting in the shower or in the car).

Yet I knew my students weren’t necessarily engaged in this same process. How could they be when they were always waiting for me to assign them something to write? Instead, with this workshop approach, the responsibility of creating the assignment that showcases their learning falls to the students. Now my students aren’t just reading like writers, but thinking like writers, too.

Now that question—What are you working on?—is written on a dedicated whiteboard in my classroom. And beneath is a chart listing every student’s name. Next to the names, students sign in by writing down what work they’ll be doing that day to progress on their goals. Though we’ve only been at this a week, I can’t overstate the power of seeing this board every day. One of my 9th grade students looked at the board and said, “That looks fun. Can we do that?” (I’m working on it.)

Tricia Ebarvia
Dedicated whiteboard for all students to sign-in each day. Going for a “newsroom” feel.

Tricia Ebarvia

As you can see, each student is working on something that is unique to his or her own goals. It’s a process that’s not only personalized, but differentiated to meet each student’s individual needs. And because this work is made visible and shared daily, my hope is that students will look to the board to find support from each other and make suggestions as they see similarities among them.

So Far So Good

If you walked into my room this past week during workshop time, you’d see students deeply engaged with their work. Students walk into the room empowered with choice: they must ask themselves each day, what is the work I need to do to improve as a reader and writer?

What else would you see? You’d see Henry and Curtis, both reading the same essay from The New Yorker as a mentor text for writing about a passion (the essay describes one man’s experience with squash, a sport both Henry and Curtis play). You’d see Kelly and Neal both reading some of David Sedaris’ work so that they might try out his signature humor in their own writing. You’d see Kevin writing pages and pages in his writer’s notebook, seeing where his ideas take him. You’d see Dan reading The Ethicist column from the New York Times because he wants to write something—perhaps an essay, perhaps an advice column—on social cues and etiquette. You’d see Ellen doing research on bees because she was inspired by Brian Doyle’s essay, “Joyas Voladores,” and wants to write something similar. You’d see Jenny start writing an open letter, only to decide by the end of the second day that her ideas would be best served in essay form. On the other hand, you’d see Kasey reading McSweeney’s Open Letters section and finish her first open letter (to a friend she hasn’t spoken to in years). And you’d see Ella paging through her writer’s notebook, looking for topics, typing notes, and then exploring those topics in multiple modes until she finds something “worth writing about.” And for each student you see doing the writing that matters to him, you’d see another and another and another.

This is the work of workshop. This is its power.

Next Steps

I’ll be honest. As smooth as things have been so far, it’s also been a lot of work. And it will continue to be so. After all, conferring is exhausting but also the best way we can teach kids— in the context of their own writing. After I posted the pictures of the board above on Twitter, someone asked what steps he’d need to take to get his kids ready for a process like this. Certainly the building blocks of writing workshop need to already be in place. My students know what it’s like to write in their notebooks for extended periods of time in order to discover ideas. My students know what it means to read like a reader v. read like a writer. My students know the value of mentor texts and how to “write-like” professional writers. These habits and understandings need to be in place.

What about assessment? Like I told students, their portfolio should be a living, breathing process. Rather than portfolios that are reviewed only at the end of the process, I framed our workshop with an “ongoing portfolio review” using weekly check-ins, reflections, and conferences. I will also ask students to evaluate themselves and to show me the work they’ve done. I want their grades to some levels of mastery, yes, but also to reflect their growth as writers. Together with my students, and through some combination of student and teacher assessment, I hope that my students see writing as a means to empower themselves.

(If you’re interested in these ideas, check out Rebekah’s series, “So I Quit Grading…” She frames her classroom around a shared set of values and goals she creates with students. As I continue to tweak my own process, I know I’ll be going back to that important series to learn from her, especially Rebekah’s work with students on self-evaluation).

As I said, I’m still in the early stages, and while some may think me crazy for jumping in like this, I can’t help think: if not now, then when? And with that, what do you think? In what ways, small or big, do you empower your own student writers? Do you have any suggestions? I’d love to hear them!


  1. Hi Tricia. Thank you for pushing my thinking. I especially like the discussion of shifting your classroom to one where students are active instead of passive players of the game of school. Next year I’ll start teaching AP Research and this is the sort of classroom I’d like to create, so your article has sparked some ideas I’m jotting down this morn. I currently teach AP US History and students work on improving their craft w the help of APUSH alumni (I’m blogging about this for Oakland Schools in MI). But the type of writing in APUSH is different. Any thoughts on the application of your model in a class where students are not developing their own topics, but instead have to improve on writing focused arguments using content they’ve learned weeks ago, analyzing documents, etc.?

  2. Teaching how to write is something that would help you anyway in life even if you are not going to become a professional writer. Writing is actually essential as general knowledge of maths, however, it happens that not everyone possesses excellent writing skills especially when it comes to writing papers and assignments. If you have poor writing skills, you may actually apply to professional essay companies, like http://myadmissionwriters.com/. Here you will get his paper assignments done directly by pro writers. Thanks for a great article!

  3. Hi Tricia,
    I love your post, and I’m going to read it multiple times, because it’s brimful of excellent ideas. I love your guiding questions and the newsroom style board that you use for students to check in, Awesome stuff! Thank you.

  4. Tricia, I am going to read this post three more time at least before we head back to school in January. I love this spirit of this so very much. Are they writing ANYTHING? Are the writing in genres you’ve already taught and assessed? Are they experimenting? What is the writing and where is it coming from? This is really exciting stuff.

  5. This is a wonderful resource that you put together. I briefly spent time helping college kids craft their essays, and teaching writing was incredibly challenging. (Apparently hoping that people will absorb things through osmosis is not a good teaching strategy. Who knew?)

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