Writing Workshop 101/201: Encouraging Talk

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At first glance, it might seem like we are “just hanging out”: I am wildly waving my arms in the corner of the classroom, talking to a student about his latest, greatest idea. Meanwhile, Charles and Bowen are in the hall talk-writing. (Talk-Writing (n.) — the condition of chatting and writing at the same time.) Katie and Abigail have claimed the comfy window seats and are reading their writing aloud to one another. Connor is pitching a new concept to the peers at his table. There is writing. And there is talking.

Writing workshop is not silent.

I’ll say it again: writing workshop is not silent.

Because, as we all know, “Writing floats on a sea of talk” (Britton 1993). It’s almost impossible for writers to imagine a process that doesn’t involve sharing idea, trouble-shooting ideas aloud, talking out their thinking so that they know what to write. And so, to live within a thriving writing workshop, we need to not just allow our writers to talk but to actually encourage it.

I still feel self-conscious when a colleague or administrator pops into my classroom during a noisy work session — I feel like I have to justify the talking, convince them that, in fact, we are working. And working hard. Many teachers are raised to believe that a quiet classroom is a compliant classroom is a productive classroom led by a “good” teacher. Breaking this ingrained training can be scary … and very public. After all, my hallmates might not realize I’m offering my students their choice of writing topic, but they will immediately notice a change in classroom volume as they pass through the hallway.

Here are some ideas for getting more comfortable with talk as a part of the writing process and some ideas for taking talk to the next level!

Wading Into Talk

In writing workshop, talk happens between teacher and student as they solve writing problems together and amongst students as they support each other’s work. Writing conferences are one of the most visible mainstays of a workshop classroom: regularly-scheduled, intentional time when the teacher circulates among writers and checks in and answers questions.  Figuring out the conferencing thing is a big topic. (If you want to dive into the teacher-student writing conference, please do yourself a favor and read Carl Anderson’s new, amazingly-practical A Teacher’s Guide to Writing Conferences.)

But “talk” in writing workshop doesn’t have to be just writing conferences. When you’re getting started with introducing talk as a skill of writing workshop, it’s easiest to do so in tiny, controlled doses. Here are three ideas to get you going:

  • Exit tickets 

Okay. Exit tickets aren’t revolutionary. But we can take this tool that frequently checks student understanding and move it into the writing workshop — creating a paper-trail (or Google Form) virtual conversation between writer and teacher. After letting students write for a bit, at the end of class, pose one or more of these questions:

  • What went well in your writing today?
  • Where do you need more help?
  • Where are you in your writing process?
  • What did you do today? What will you start with next time?

Ask students to jot the answers to these questions on a Post-It and slap it up on the board on their way out of the room (they love this for some reason!) or ask them to quickly type it into a Google Form.

What will this do for your classroom? You will find out a ton about what your students are doing and what they need. And they will get practice talking about their own writing process, becoming increasingly reflective writers.

  • Flipgrid check in

Ready for kids to actually talk out loud? Consider using the concept of the exit ticket but merging it with video technology through Flipgrid. Flipgrid allows you to create a discussion board on which students record 1-5 minute video responses. You can open it up so that students can see and respond to one another or leave it private between teacher and student.

Creating Flipgrid responses is fast and fun. It can serve as a one-sided writing conference when you can’t get to every student or just allow students to hear about the writing process of their peers! Pose one of the same questions from above and let students talk!

(If you want to see an example, here’s a link to one of my class Flipgrids where students were responding to their experiences teaching haiku to first graders.)

  • Author’s Chair

If you are ready to dedicate five minutes of class time to live peer-to-peer talk, consider regularly wrapping up class with an “author’s chair” feedback session. I have been super surprised recently by how much students like this, how valuable they find it, and how willing they are to share!

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Kate shares in the author’s chair.

At the end of writing time, set up a chair in the front of the room. (It DOES help when it’s a cool chair everyone wants to sit in anyway.) The writer begins by asking for one specific kind of feedback:

  • What stood out to you the most?
  • What do you connect with?
  • What do you want to know more about?

Then, the writer reads his or her draft aloud to the group. Sometimes it’s the whole thing; other times it’s just a portion. Either way, it’s the writer’s choice. Then, the class responds with the kind of feedback the writer requested.

To make this stickier, I sit in the back with a notepad and take notes for the writer about what is said. That way they can just listen during the feedback but still have a concrete take-away to help them remember what to do next.

Diving Into Talk

You already have regular writing conferences and a peer review system in place. What else can you do to take talk up a notch or add additional layers of talk into the workshop?

  • Allow students to Choose Your Own Writing Conference

We can elevate any workshop skill by elevating independence. And we can make talk more independent by giving students more choice. Let your conference records slide a little bit and allow students to choose when, how, and with whom they confer.

When: Writers don’t always need a conference at the exact moment I stop by their desk and offer one. And it’s good for them to get practice figuring out when they would truly benefit from discussing their writing. So, let the writers choose when they need a conference.

How: Do the students want a one-on-one conference? An opportunity for broader feedback from the author’s chair? Would they prefer a written writing conference in the form of comments on their Google Doc? Would they prefer audio comments on their doc (Check out the Kaizena add-on for Chrome! Or simply record a voice memo that you can email to the student!)? Allow the student to choose what their conference sounds like based on what they find most helpful.

With whom: A writing conference doesn’t have to be with the writing teacher. Students might prefer to confer with a peer or even a different teacher in the building. This is just as valid as choosing to confer with me. Open up the possibilities by increasing the range of people writers can confer with.

  •  Use Skill Consultants

But how will writers know which peer to confer with? To be honest, “peer editing” has never, ever been successful in my writing classes. But this year I tried something different.

After each mini-lesson, I post an anchor chart with that lesson on the wall, and beneath it I leave a space for “skill consultants” to add their name. Then, students who feel super-confident about that particular skill will add their name and class period.

(Who should be a skill consultant? They should be able to answer YES to these questions: Do you feel sure you can do this on your own? Can you help someone else do this, too?)

When work time rolls around, student writers can choose to confer with me or they can choose to confer with a “skill consultant” about that specific writing skill.

Almost every student finds at least one skill per unit on which they can serve as a consultant. It frees me up for other kinds of conferences. And with this, I’ve added so many more voices of “writing experts” to our class!

What else do you want to know about encouraging talk in the writing workshop? Ask me in the form below, and I’ll answer you next time! 

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