A (Writing) Library of Possibility: Structure and Freedom

In recent years, I’ve moved further away from assigned writing prompts to a more open workshop model. It’s been a hard shift, though, and it’s messy. Really messy. Like many teachers, my planning for writing often goes one of two ways: 1) read mentor texts and then develop a writing prompt, or 2) develop a writing prompt and then study mentor texts. With so much beautiful writing in the world, it can be difficult to keep up. I want students to read and write all of it, but because that’s impossible, choices have to be made and then we dig in.

How to decide what to write comes down to a number of factors. Faced with time to do only one essay, for example, should we do a narrative or a process analysis piece or a definition essay? Of course, the most important thing to consider are the kids currently sitting in our classroom, kids who may have different needs and interests from the students who sat in those seats last year. Flexibility is key.

But just like we need to balance whole class novels with choice and independent reading, we also need to think about what opportunities for choice we give our students in writing. Yes, students can always choose how to respond to a prompt, and we can create prompts that are open-ended enough that no two students will ever have the same response. But what about choice in the prompts themselves? Or what about allowing students to find their own mentor texts, choose their own modes and genres, write their own prompts? How can I use a balanced writing approach that allows students to study the same mentor texts as a community of writers but also give them space to individually find and study their own? 

Currently my students are working on a definition essay. They are are all working on this essay. But they are also working on individual writing that they choose for themselves. And this is all happening simultaneously. (Like I said, it’s messy.) We began a multi-week immersion in workshop in which students produce a portfolio of writing of a minimum of 2,500 words (many students go over) and at least three distinct pieces. One of those pieces is the definition essay; the other two are pieces that students choose and create for themselves. (In reading workshop, this would be the equivalent of asking students to read one whole-class novel and two independent reading books.)

The challenge, just as in reading workshop, is in the independent writing choices. Just as it can be hard for students to figure out what they want to read for independent reading, especially for students who don’t have enough experience reading to know what interests them yet, students have a hard time figuring out what to write independently, too. And just as in reading workshop, where open, free choice can be overwhelming for many students, in writing workshop, students can also be paralyzed by the freedom of “write anything!”

Small, daily writing in our writer’s notebooks provides the necessary foundation from which longer pieces can emerge. But even then, I found that students then struggled to figure out a way to move from their notebook to that longer writing. We didn’t necessarily have mentor texts to go along with everything they wrote in their notebooks, and when they searched on their own, they had a hard time finding what they were looking for.  Again, this is not very different from the student who, during reading workshop, aimlessly wanders around the classroom library unsure what to choose or even where to begin.

So last year, I started to compile a list of all the writing prompt ideas I had come across that students might enjoy writing about during workshop. I then compiled these prompts into a slide deck, with the prompt on one slide, followed by links to several mentor texts on the next. Some of the prompts were former “whole class” assignments. Just as not all students will enjoy the same whole class novel, not all students will respond to the same whole class writing prompt. In an independent writing workshop where choice is plentiful, students have all the options—plus any others they create for themselves. My hope is that each of these prompts, and the mentor texts that go with them, can serve as a model for students to write their own.

In the same way we build a library of choice reading for students, we can build libraries of writing possibilities. And just as we use book talks to introduce kids to potentially interesting titles to add to their TBR or “on deck” lists, we can also “book talk” writing prompts and mentor texts, too. During workshop, I begin each day of writing workshop by spending 5 minutes to share a writing prompt and/or a potential mentor text for study. Some kids run with it and immediately flash draft in their notebooks, while get right back into working on they had been doing before.

Framework

In summary, here’s what workshop and all its messiness looks like right now in room 290.

First, before anything else, we make a pledge and set goals.

 

At the beginning of the week, students set their weekly plan.

 

Students arrive to class, set goals for the class period on the big board.

 

Begin with 5 minute “essay talk” of a potential writing prompt and/or mentor text. Here are just some of the writing possibilities collected in the slide deck:

 

Individual work time (Students and I have compiled a list of things they can do while they are engaged in workshop, and at all stages of their writing process. Click either image to see more.)

 

At the end of each week, students submit a weekly reflection:

 

And there you have it. With a library of writing possibilities, there’s just enough structure and freedom to meet every student where they are. Every student is walking to the proverbial beat of their own drummer—and yet there’s a harmony and buzz in the room that just works.

P.S. Oh, and a bonus tip / app I love— Noisli white noise maker. Today we worked to rain, thunder, and passing trains.

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2 thoughts on “A (Writing) Library of Possibility: Structure and Freedom

  1. This is truly a fantastic post. I keep coming back to it. Would you consider sharing the actual slide deck? The screen capture is so small. I’d love to have a closer look at some of your ideas.

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