Moving Writers’ Top Ten: Moving Writers Tries Writing Workshop for the First Time…in May

Moving Writers' Top Ten

As is our habit, we are taking the summer away from the blog to read, write, and recharge. We’ll be back in late August with new content, but for the summer, let’s take a journey down memory lane as we visit our ten most-read posts from the previous school year! 


It’s never too late to start writing workshop.

Even if it’s May. Even if you only have a tattered, borrowed copy of Write Beside Them, the encouragement of a bunch of Twitter colleagues, and a twinkle in your eye.

Even if you’ve never made time for writing in class and you’re worried they might throw tomatoes if you change things up in the last weeks of the school year.

Seriously, it’s never too late to do a really great thing for your writers, for yourself.

Today we’re going to explore what it would look like to change course and try writers workshop tomorrow for the first time. If you already have a workshop going, don’t stop reading… you may be called on this week to help a colleague in need who wants to get workshop running in their classroom!

The Very First Step

Before you do anything else, tell yourself writing workshop is worth it. Here are a few reasons to ruminate on.

  • Writing workshop is a method of instruction that has been around since the 70s. It’s nothing new! It’s tried, tested, and TRUE.
  • Writing workshop focuses on growing lifelong writers–not students who are great at churning out papers the night before the due date, but people who think and plan and write with all the heartache and enthusiasm of the writing life.
  • Writing workshop invites students’ passions into the classroom. With a focus on writing for different audiences and purposes, students are given tremendous choice and authority in their writing work.
  • Writing workshop can simplify your job. With a basic format of invitation, mini-lesson, and time to write and confer, say goodbye to making daily decisions about tomorrow’s activity and spending precious minutes planning out different activities each day. The writing is the activity.
  • Writing workshop makes space for you to focus on your writing, too. This is something you’ve always wanted to do, but have never found time for. You’ll be writing next to your students–what a treat.

What To Do Next

1. Plan a super short talk.

Spend 30 seconds talking to your students about workshop. If you teach high school, maybe shorten that speech to 15 seconds 🙂

Do not plan a big speech. Do not give all your reasons for starting writing workshop in May. Keep it really simple. Here’s an idea of what you might say:

“Good morning! We’re going to do things a little bit differently in here over the next few weeks. Every day you come in here, you’ll see an invitation on the white board, and we’ll spend a few minutes noticing what’s there and writing into it. Then we’ll have a short writing lesson. And then we’ll write and talk and share. The only thing you have to do is show up with your notebook!

2. Make notebooks with your students.

You can always run to Dollar General and pick up a bunch of composition notebooks. But your students have seen those before. Lean into the freshness of what you’re about to do, and dedicate a class period to making quick DIY notebook, one for you and each of your students.  Here is a quick tutorial for DIY notebooks. This could be your lesson for tomorrow. Invite your students to personalize their notebooks: this is your first gesture of respect for their writing life.

3. Help your students see the different ways writers use notebooks.

A simple search on Pinterest or Google for “famous writers’ notebooks” will yield hundreds of yellowed pages you can share with your students as you begin to think together about how writing notebooks are used. Rather than planning a lesson about writing notebooks, create a quick slideshow of images and ask your students to do the thinking:

  • What do you notice about these notebooks?
  • What goes into a notebook? What doesn’t go into a notebook?
  • Which writer’s notebook are you drawn to the most? Why?

4. Pick your writing invitation for tomorrow.

Most workshop teachers rely on a simple format for workshop each day: invitation, mini-lesson, time to write and conferences. Our invitation is called Notebook Time, and we’ve written a lot about it. Check out this post and this post.

All you really need to know is this: Notebook Time is a simple 5-10 minute experience at the beginning of the class period that invites your students into their notebooks to do some writing work. The invitation can be a sentence or poem, an image, or a graph or statistic. We simply project the invitation onto the white board and ask our students, “What do you notice?” We also brainstorm the kind of writing the invitation might inspire, and then we give them a little bit of time to play with their noticings and ideas.

A few places to find tomorrow’s Notebook Time (NBT) Invitation:

  1. On Twitter using the #notebook hashtag
  2. In the Notebook Time folder in the Moving Writers Dropbox
  3.  Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry for wonderful NBT poems
  4. Five Thirty Eight for data, graphs, etc.
  5. National Geographic Photo of the Day archive
  6. Ten Ideas for Notebook Time

5. Plan your first writing lesson. I wrote on this topic a few weeks ago.

6. Show a few of Penny Kittle’s conferences.

Help your writers know what to expect when it comes time to confer. Here is an under-12-minutes Youtube video in which Penny Kittle confers with three different writers. Play the video for your students and ask them to think about:

  • What do you notice?
  • What excites you about this kind of interaction?
  • What makes you uncomfortable?
  • What questions to you have?

7. Then give yourself a pep talk about conferences.

Do not fret about what you are going to say. Do not worry about having to think on your feet. You only have to do two things: 1) Say “How’s it going?” or “Tell me about your writing.” 2) Listen.

The rest will unfold naturally. It may feel awkward at first. But most conversations in life that ever meant anything were probably a little bit awkward, too.

8. What do your writers want?

A lot of newcomers to workshop worry that their classrooms will fall to entropy during writing time. While they’re conferring with one writer, students will start talking and then yelling and then rioting.

So, make writing time attractive by giving them something they want. Say to your writers, “What do writers need to write? Some writers need a sunny window, others a crowded cafe. Some writers need coffee and snacks, others need a cozy chair. Some writers need absolute silence, some need music. It might take you a while to figure out what you need as a writer, but I think music might be a good place for all of us to start. For homework tonight, I’d like you to create a playlist of about 10 songs–music you’d like to listen to as you write in class tomorrow. If you’d like, you can create a few different playlists for writing time. My only request is this: set your playlists up now, so that when you come into writing time and press play, you can put your phone down and leave it alone for the remainder of the class period. I want all your energy going into your writing work, not into worry about what song you should listen to next. Don’t forget your earbuds.”

For those of you teaching in school where phones/music is forbidden, a few ideas:

  • If students are working with computers, check out Grooveshark, a free music streaming website.
  • Don’t ask your administrator permission to listen to music in class. Simply ask for forgiveness if it becomes a problem.
  • If music is truly forbidden, invite students to create a white noise playlist. Try this colored noise generator.

9. Dive in.

Rebekah and I share all the time Tom Newkirk’s wisdom (NCTE 2015) about beginning something new or unknown. What it all boils down to is this: Doing the thing teaches you how to do the thing. (For instance, none of us know how to parent until we become parents.) So take a deep breath, and know that you are standing on the shoulders of many workshop teachers who came before you, all of whom had a First Day of Workshop experience.


Rebekah first handed me Write Beside Them a few weeks before school started and I didn’t think I would have time to read the book let alone plan for something I had never done before at a school I had never taught at before.

But I did it anyway and never looked back.

The best projects and experiences I’ve had as a teacher are the ones I wasn’t quite ready for.

So go now, in all your not-readiness, and see what workshop can do for you and your students, even if it’s almost May.

Especially if it’s almost May.





  1. This is so exciting!! I would unequivocally say free-verse poetry. Most of my favorite poetry mentor texts come from Ted Kooser’s curated collection on his blog American Life in Poetry. I’d also add Carl Linder’s poem “First Love.” You can find it here:
    I don’t know your students, but I have used this poem as a mentor with middle schoolers, high schoolers, and adults. It’s so lovely for so many reasons.

    My second choice would be personal narrative. Narrative feeds every kind of writing; it’s a perfect place to start.

    Have fun 🙂

  2. I’m starting this week as well! Do you have thoughts on a good introductory mentor text genre to start with this late in the year? I suppose in other words, if you only had time to do one genre, which do you find most impactful?

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