Our Top 3 Tips for Using Your Summer to Plan Next Year’s Writing Workshop

My summer to-do list is LONG. In addition to around-the-house projects that only get done during the summer, trips to take, friends to see, and books to read, I have planning to do for the upcoming school year. I bet you do, too.

A lot of writing workshop can’t be planned for — we have to meet our students, get  a sense of their needs, find the engaging mentor texts that have just been published this week. But we can accomplish some of the big picture planning — the kind that creates the shape of your year-to come — in advance.

Here are some tips for you as you enter your summer:

Sketch out the writing studies you are hoping to teach Genres

In general terms, I know which writing studies I absolutely want to return to next year, which I want to ditch, new studies I’d like to try.  I also know that I will need to hold fast to the requirements of my curriculum, incorporating narrative, expository, analytical, and digital writing.

In no particular order, I start jotting these down (I do it in my notebook where I keep all of my thinking.)

These might change. I might run out of time. Or my new students might move more quickly than this year’s bunch, so I will need to add a genre or technique study.  But now I have a place to begin my thinking.

As you move throughout your summer vacation, jot down ideas as soon as they hit you. This preliminary list will give you a framework.

Sketch out a calendar of the year

As I think ahead, even though I know things will shift and change, it helps me to begin Yearcalendarthinking about my total amount of teaching time and where studies might fall on a calendar. I begin with a very general sketch of a calendar and start laying my studies against it.

This starting point gives me a visual guide for my thinking as I consider what I’ll be able to squeeze in, what might have to go, and how I can make the very most efficient use of my time.

Start collecting mentor texts

We favor mentor texts that are just-published. They engage our students and connect them to the real world of writing right now. Still, as you are reading this summer (particularly in genres like poetry or narrative that aren’t as immediate as journalism), you can start to file away some mentor texts — whole or mini or even just mentor sentences — for the fall.

Develop a storage system. We like our Google Drive-based Mentor Text Dropbox (which you can always use and contribute to!) But Evernote or Pinterest or Learnist or Diigo also have a lot of potential for helping you stay organized!

Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 10.47.01 AMAs soon as you read something that might prove useful in the coming school year, file it away. Make a copy. Take a picture. SAVE IT. This will not only save you time down the road, but it will also help shape your preliminary planning of your individual writing studies.

As I’m reading online and at the pool and on vacation, I will be reading for pleasure but with an eye for what can help my students take their writing to new heights, too.

What are your top 3 tips for summer planning? What would you add to our list? Comment below or find us on Twitter @rebekahodell1 and @allisonmarchett. 


A Visual Guide to Planning a Writing Study

“You can’t teach writing this way if you’re not organized.” – Donald Graves (Atwell 2014, p. 26).

Before I immersed myself and my students in writing workshop life, I heard other teachers say things like, “Oh, writing workshop is organic. The writing happens. It just works.” They advised me that conferences with student writers gave birth to mini-lessons — that seeing what my students needed would teach me how to teach them. That we would all engage in a process of discovery. That there are some things a great workshop teacher just can’t plan for.

And all of these things are true. But what I quickly found out is that we were all adrift if our writing studies didn’t have the foundation of some serious intentions.

A thriving workshop can’t be all organic, in-the-moment discovery. The learning can’t be entirely student-directed.  These elements are truly vital to the life of a workshop, but like a boat rocking and swaying on the whims of a wave, a workshop also needs a firmly-rooted anchor.

So, what? and how? How do we get from the very beginning places to the launch of a workshop that will have the appropriate balance of structure and freedom to go where the learning leads us? Today, I’m going to take you on a visual tour of my planning process — one that I’ve tweaked and honed over the years, and one that works for me.


My first brain dump of the year in my new sketchbook! No more losing Post-It notes.

Brain Dump 

Time FrameAnytime (1 year-1 week before teaching)

I have trouble thinking digitally, so virtually all of my conceptual planning takes place on various pieces of paper. This year, I bought a sketchbook  to keep all of those Post-Its and scraps of paper together.

When I begin planning a study — either a genre study or a technique study — I turn to a blank piece of paper in my notebook and start a brain dump, writing down everything I might want to teach.

In truth, this brain dump page evolves over time. I start a page the first time I think of something I want to remember to teach in that particular writing study — sometimes that’s months before I will actually teach it. Sometimes it’s the week before. Sometimes it’s a year before. (I just finished this year’s poetry study, and I immediately created a “Poetry Study: Next Time” page for ideas I want to remember for next year’s poetry study.

Brain dump for a poetry study

Brain dump for a poetry study

This includes:

  • New processes I want to implement / process lessons I need to teach : For example, in my current writing study, I know I want to introduce the process of working with feedback partners. In early writing studies, process lessons might include what happens in a writing conference, what to do when you get stuck, or how to respond to the status of the class roll call.


  • Craft lessons I know that I will need to teach: In each writing study, there are a handful of craft lessons that I know I will need to teach. When I do a study of poetry, I will need to teach about where poets break their lines and why. When we study commentaries, I know students will need a lessons on developing claims and supporting them with evidence. In a technique study on voice, I know students will need a lesson about how punctuation creates voice in a piece of writing. Now, that said, there will be mini-lessons that crop up organically as students made their noticings about the mentor texts, as I teach (and need to reteach), as I conference. These are just starting points!

    Brain dump for a writing study of narrative scenes

    Brain dump for a writing study of narrative scenes

  • Ideas for Mentor Texts: While nearly every writing study I teach includes brand new, hot-off-the-presses mentor texts, there are a few I know I will return to. I jot these down in my notebook so I can remember to investigate them. Again, this list is fluid — I often add mentor texts to the initial cluster as I teach. These are just starting points.

  • Possibilities for In-Class Activities or Extensions  –

    In workshop, writing

    is the activity, so we don’t do many extra activities. I want to give every second I can to crafting and conferencing. Still, some activities can greatly enhance the writing experience or give life to a mini-lesson in a particularly evocative way. For example, in my current study of narrative scenes, students brought in the first sentence of their independent reading books. Using these leads, we created a graffiti wall to help us examine trends in hooking readers. When this popped into my head, I jotted it in a bubble on my brain-dump page.


Time Frame:  1-2 weeks before launching a study

After playing a bit and dumping out the contents of my brain, I then try to find a logical order for the initial mini-lessons — the ones that I know I will teach. I list these in my notebook, too.

Organizing the lessons for the narrative scene study.

Organizing the lessons for the narrative scene study.

At this point, I also consider which mentor texts I will introduce and when. On occasion (particularly for shorter genres like poetry or scenes), I will give students the whole mentor text cluster in one big chunk at the beginning of the study and circulate back through them individually or in pieces as we work through the mini-lessons. For longer pieces — commentaries, analysis, for instance — I give them the mentor texts one at a time as they pertain to the mini-lessons at hand. (This step also helps me see where I have gaps in my mentor text cluster — lessons for which I don’t have a strong mentor yet!)


Monthly Calendar/ Broad View

Time-Frame: 1-2 weeks before launching a study

I print out a monthly-view calendar and lay my mini-lessons on top of it so that I start to get a sense of how long this writing study will take. I don’t set firm due-dates in advance, but I do like to let students know a general timeframe they can plan around — “This study will wrap up in about 4 weeks.

The big picture of our narrative scene study.

The big picture of our narrative scene study.

On my monthly calendar, I label our Reading Fridays (all independent reading and conferencing during class) and any holidays that I can anticipate. I also label period places for checkpoints along the way — little moments of writerly reflection built in to our schedule.

Of course, things happen. Assemblies get scheduled. Snow days happen (and happen, and happen). I have yet to have a calendar work out exactly as planned in advance. Still, this gives me the broad strokes I need to keep the writing study moving at an appropriate pace. It’s a roadmap for knowing where we are headed.


Detailed, Weekly ViewFullSizeRender-8

Time-Frame: Week by week as we go

Finally, as I teach, I transfer that big, monthly view of lessons into my real, daily lesson plan book. (For the last two years, I have used the beautiful, fabulous, affordable, personalized teacher planners of Plum Paper. They even offer an option to have your classes or subjects pre-printed on each page!)

I only write this in one week in advance because so much can change. And this is the place I do my detailed planning — the notebook time invitation or book talk I will share, any homework I will assign, etc.

A week of writing study

A week of writing study



FullSizeRender-6There you have it — my process. Maybe there is something here that you can use to help you get the big and small picture of each writing study you teach.  Planning is very individual and specific to the personality of the teacher, so I would love to hear other systems you use!


How do you plan for a unit of writing workshop? Do you have any go-to methods of organization? Do you sketch it out on paper or do you plan digitally? Share your thoughts in the comments below or with us @Rebekahodell1 and @Allisonmarchett.


Reader Mail, Part 2: How Do You Plan for a Year of Writing Workshop?

We love reader mail! On Monday, we began our answer to Cassie’s brilliant query. Here is the second part of our answer:

How do we build our workshops & the lessons that go in them?

When we first started writing workshop, we religiously referred to a chart on page 13 of Write Beside Them: “Writing: Increasing Skills and Learning the Habits of a Writer”. This chart gives a continuum of skills and products to move students through different types of writing during one school year.

Over the years, we’ve adapted and modified. In fact, every year we adapt and modify the order of our workshops, the genres we study, and our lessons.

In ninth grade, we generally move students through seven to eight workshops beginning with narrative/memoir and ending in literary analysis. With older students, Rebekah has done a whole year of workshops focused only on different kinds of literary analysis.  While every year is different (because we can never stop ourselves from tinkering), here’s how our 2012-2013 school years went:

Screen Shot 2014-06-06 at 5.37.27 PM

By contrast, here is what 2013-2014 looked like:

Screen Shot 2014-06-06 at 5.39.12 PM

While we’ve only begun planning for 2014-2105, some new plans will include:

  • compressing writing workshop into one semester (due to maternity leave)
  • using a continuous portfolio for assessment rather than end-of-the-year portfolios
  • integrating standards-based assessment of writing
  • adding technique-driven, rather than genre-driven, workshops
  • exploring new genres, such as humor writing, writing as gift, writing as forgiveness, etc.

As we’re planning mini-lessons for each workshop, we start with this recipe:

1 grammar/mechanics/usage skill


1 argument skill


4-5 content/organization/style skills


1 stretch skill (for extra credit)

To figure out what to teach, we study dozens of mentor texts and look for patterns across these texts on our own. While we may refer to the Common Core, school curriculum, etc. we feel that the mentors themselves are the most reliable, authentic sources of curriculum.

We don’t always know the traits of the genres we will teach, and this is what makes workshop exciting and real. We learn along with our students and create lists of noticings as we go. We also add mini-lessons based on the needs we see in student writing as we confer with them.

In terms of writing down actual plans, we like to use Google Calendar to plan units of study. It’s easy to tweak and move things around as plans change. Here is an example of the initial planning of a study of infographics:

Screen Shot 2014-06-06 at 5.36.59 PM

We write a simple phrase/trait like “Smart searching online” to help us remember what we need to plan for. Then we keep our actual mini-lessons in Google Drive folders where students can refer to them throughout the workshop. The rubrics we use to assess student writing come directly from the mini-lessons we teach; they are essentially a list of traits/features of that genre, with levels of achievement next to each trait (Mastered, Approaching, Developing, Not Present).

Finally, when thinking about the sequence for the year, we keep a few questions in mind:

1). Which genres are most accessible? These genres are placed at the beginning of the year. (The answer is almost always memoir, although Nancie Atwell has had a lot of success with poetry. This year we began with critical reviews, building on a summer reading assignment).

2). Which genres complement one another and share skills we can build on and from? These genres are placed next to one another in the year-long plan.

3). Which genres will require more practice and stamina? These genres are placed at the end of the year.

Cassie, we wish you and your colleague the best of luck. We have truly leaned on one another and grown in our teaching together over the past few years. The inspiration and strength we’ve drawn from one another, coupled with our passion for writer’s workshop, actually lead us to launching this blog in December. We know that you and your partner will do great work together! Let us know how we can help!


Allison & Rebekah