If choice is the easiest element of writing workshop to implement, time might actually be the hardest. Because we never, ever have enough of it, do we? And if you don’t currently dedicate class time to writing — and a lot of it — this is going to be hard.
But don’t worry. We’ll take baby steps.
If you do already give class time to the writing process, what can you do to make that time more efficient? More streamlined? How can you make it feel even longer so that students can get even more writing and conferring done?
We’ll tackle that, too.
When I was in middle and the first three years of high school, except for essay tests, writing happened entirely at home. The teacher would introduce the writing assignment on Monday, perhaps with an accompanying handout detailing how many sentences, paragraphs, or pages the final piece needed to have, and it would be due Friday. Best of luck.
After a brief daily reminder of our upcoming homework, we never spoke about our writing again over the course of the week when we were supposed to be writing. (Of course, we just wrote it the night before anyway.) We would write alone and hope that we guessed what the teacher wanted us to say and how she wanted us to say it. We’d pass it in.
A few weeks later, we’d see that paper again, returned to us with red pen marginalia and a grade. Tucking it in our backpacks, we moved on, never to discuss that writing again.
But my senior year of high school I moved from Virginia to South Florida and had a very different kind of English teacher. We didn’t have a writing workshop, per se, in 12th grade AP Literature, but Mrs. Bevilacqua — the teacher who made me a teacher — gave us time to write. As high school seniors in a course preparing for a high stakes test, we knew that minutes were precious. But Mrs. Bev gave them to us. We sat in our desks and drafted essays, and while we drafted, Mrs. Bev would call us over to her desk for a check-in. We’d spend hours writing.
When our essays were finished and turned in, Mrs. Bev would give us time again — this time calling us over to her desk for her to score it in front of us. I’d sit knee-to-knee with her behind her desk, hardly breathing, watching her hand glide through my sentences, listening to her running commentary. I drank it in. I lived for her check marks and whispered yeses. Even then, I knew that Mrs. Bev gave us time to write and time to receive her feedback because the writing mattered. It was important. Maybe the most important.
Why did she do this? Why do we do this when we could be teaching fifty other important things? Because, in the words of Penny Kittle, we give our time to what we value. And if what you value is your students’ growth as writers, you will find a way to give their writing your class time.
We give students time to write during class to show them how highly we value the act of writing and how hard we know it is, but we do it for a few other reasons, too:
In-class writing time shows we value process.
Promising students multiple class periods (multiple weeks, in my class) of time for them to write shows them that writing is not something that just happens in one draft the night before the assignment is due. Students who spend class time writing get sucked into a process — they have to! They draft and they tinker and they add and they rearrange and they confer and they struggle and they rewrite. It’s beautiful.
In-class writing time gives equal opportunity to write.
Many students might not be able to write at home for lots of reasons. I’m not just talking about the soccer player with a Wednesday night away game hours from home. I’m talking about the student who works a five-hour shift after school to save for college or support her family. I’m talking about the student who is responsible for feeding and bathing younger siblings at home because their parent is at work. I’m talking about students for whom home is virtual war zone…and we ask them to write an essay in the midst of it.
In-class writing time gives every student the opportunity to have peace and calm to breathe and think and write.
In-class writing time gives immediate feedback to both teachers and students.
When students write, I am conferring with writers. I’m helping answer questions. I’m troubleshooting problem spots. I’m helping them move forward in their writing because feedback that comes only at the end of the writing process isn’t nearly has useful as feedback that comes in the middle of the writing process.
But I’m also learning. I’m learning what’s going well and what isn’t, what I probably need to clarify or reteach. I’m learning how Sophia solves writing problems and where Morgan is really struggling. I’m learning that Ben M. loves persuasive writing, but Ben D. misses narratives. I’m learning how to teach these writers both now and in the future.
Wading into Making Time
I know it’s scary, especially when we have the ticking time bomb of pacing guides, curriculum maps, and testing looming over our plan book. Even if you’re not ready to give six entire class periods to letting students work through a piece of writing, here are some steps you can take to get started:
Find little ways to have your students write something in your class everyday.
I promise my students that they will read and they will write every single day of my class. If our students are going to grow as writers, they can’t write only on worksheets and in an end-of-unit essay each quarter.
If you can give writing only the tiniest sliver of time in class tomorrow, could your students write a six-word synopsis of what they learned? Or a 144 (or 280)-character reflection on where they could use some help? Can you give them five minutes to do a flash draft of the ideas they want to share in the discussion before it happens?
Building in time for even the tiniest doses of routine writing will help students become stronger writers … and it will help you make writing a daily part of your classroom culture.
Work in small bits of writing time every day.
Will I talk about Notebook Time during every single installment in this series? It’s possible.
But one way to start making room for the act of writing in your class is to give a regularly-scheduled 7-10 minutes to writing every day (or every other day). Notebook Time is a great way to do this — building students’ writing muscles in tiny increments. Once you feel comfortable with this, those increments can grow into longer stretches of writing time.
Build in the occasional writing work day.
Okay. You’re feeling a bit bolder now. Try this: build in ONE whole class period for writing. Make it the class before the essay is due — that way students can ask last-minute questions. If you promise them in advance that this day is coming and that you’ll confer with any writers who already have a little bit on paper, they might just come prepared with words for you to look at, and they can benefit from that on-the-spot feedback before the turn in day.
If you feel like you could do a little more, build in TWO class periods for writing. Make it the FIRST day you assign the essay. Then you can get back to your regularly-scheduled curriculum. Then return to a writing day on that last day before it’s due! Look at how early writers have gotten started on their piece! If nothing else, you’ve just guaranteed that they have thought about their writing in advance of the due date. And that’s saying something.
You’ve been doing this for a while, so what else can you do make time work for you and your writers? Here’s my suggestion: work to make the writing time more flexible to meet the need of every writer.
Writing Workshop Stations
I’m experimenting with this right now. It makes differentiating mini-lessons possible, and I love that. It lets me look four or five students in the eye as I discuss a technique rather than just spouting it out into the room and hoping it lands on someone.
To be honest, I’m also working out some kinks. More on this someday when I’ve figured it out. 🙂
But consider breaking the class into some small groups — while one group works with you on the mini-lesson, another group is doing some Notebook Time, another group is doing independent reading, and another group is actually working on the writing itself.
A Calendar of Choice Mini-Lessons
This isn’t my idea — it’s Allison’s. At the beginning of a unit of writing study, publish a calendar of mini-lessons that you will be offering each day. Set a number of lessons each student needs to attend (4 of 8?) and tell them to sign up for the mini-lessons they need!
This is SO smart because you are achieving the small group learning I’m aiming for in my workshop stations while also asking students to be highly reflective as writers — what do they need to learn? What do they want to learn to improve their writing? It also values the differences in our writers by acknowledging that they don’t all need to learn the same thing at the same time.
I’m going to try this in my next workshop in a small dose — just the last few days with grammar / conventions. I’m going to offer five different lessons focused on grammar, and I’ll ask each student to attend ONE lesson. And that’s the skill they’ll be responsible for demonstrating in their best draft.
Even when the mini-lesson is 10-15 minutes, I resent the time. I hate taking it away from the writing and conferring. So, instead, make a screencast of the mini-lesson, tell students to put on their headphones and watch it — during class or at home. (The great thing is that our students with audio processing accommodations can get the lesson again and again and again this way!) Then, you’ve just bought yourself 10-15 more minutes for conferring with 1-2 more writers!
I know you have questions about how to make time for writing workshop and fit it all in! Hit me with your best shot. Leave your questions in the form below, and I’ll answer them in two weeks!