How to Have the “Fun”, Free-Choice Writing Workshop of Students’ Dreams

In spite of my protestations to the contrary, I want to be the fun teacher. It’s just that often my definition of fun involves annotating or revising or learning etymology and that doesn’t consistently align with students’ definition of fun.

After four months of what even I deemed to be not-fun work (various iterations of personal essays an on-demand writing strategies in the name of high school admissions prep), I promised my students a free-choice “fun” workshop.

Ask the students.

Even “fun” still has to be English class fun. So, I began by surveying them a few weeks before we were ready to start a new unit and asked “What kind of reading or writing would you like to do next?” I dumped those ideas in a Google form and let students vote on their top three.

Food writing came out on top, but I decided to save that for a unit later in the year (when there are fewer germs, I hope, and we can all do it together), which left us with a top three of “something involving making a video”, “zine-making”, and “free-choice writing”.

With such disparate modes of creation, I had to figure out my job and how to bring these kinds of writing together.

Choose a Process-Focus

Since I couldn’t really teach whole-class mini-lessons for these three different kinds of writing, and I didn’t want to create three different mini-lessons each class, I focused on processes instead of teaching them skills for their final product. I chose two they really needed:

  • Knowing when they need feedback and then following through by asking for it.
  • Long-term project planning

To help students move toward my dual goals, they completed a project planning calendar (and we began class each day by first looking at the calendar and then revising the calendar — because our initial plans never account for the way projects naturally evolve) and a conference log.

Be brave. Let go.

Here are a few things worth noticing about the assignment:

  • Every project required a written element and a mentor text.
  • It really was WIDE OPEN. I didn’t try to get into the nitty gritty of what “good work” would look like. Honestly, I didn’t even know what good work would look like. I simply required that they be in conversation with me, knowing that if they were, we would end up with a good product.
  • A big part of my conferring was helping students find mentor texts. A few had a mentor text in mind instantly. But a lot of my early writing conferences involved students telling me their ideas and intentions and me helping them find a mentor text that would meet them and then help them do more.
  • I’m not grading products. There is no way I could grade the quality of a western movie, a Super Bowl commercial, a Greek mythology zine, a series of zines about strange astronomical facts for young children, and a review of every Pokemon game on Nintendo Switch. And that was never the point, right? Students (who are turning in their final products tomorrow) will reflect on their relationship with the project planner, on how successfully they conferred with me, and how they got to the due date finish line. Do they reflect thoughtfully? Did they learn something about the creation process? If the answer is yes, they can have a 100. That’s perfectly okay with me!

How do you structure “fun” writing workshops that are full of even more choice than usual? What process-focused workshops have you taught? Leave a comment here to join the conversation!

MORE Resources from Moving Writers!

Join Sam and me MONDAY, JANUARY 30 at 7pm EST (or the next day on-demand) to walk through a graphic novel writing workshop. See our greatest (accidental) successes and learn from our failures! Participants can add-on our complete unit plan with materials, too!

Check out our latest video writing lessons on Mini Moves for Writers!

Check out the Moving Writers Community! Ready to go deeper in writing instruction? Looking for connection with other like-minded teachers? Members receive one complete reading / writing unit per month, a monthly slow-chat where we share resources and support, free professional development from Moving Writers, a monthly Q+A post, and access to our complete archives!

ChatGPT (and other AI) doesn’t have to be the enemy of the writing teacher; we can welcome it into our workshops to help students do more! Join Brett for a recorded course + then join him live to continue chatting about these ideas and your questions on Voxer! This course is only available until March 15!

1 Comment

  1. Hi there – I’m interested in Brett’s course about ChatGPT. The link takes me to registration for a course about teaching Graphic Novel writing. Is the ChatGPT material covered in that course as well, or are there two separate ones?

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