“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.
Time Frame – Anytime (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
- 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
- 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.
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.
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 View
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
There 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.