Ann Marie Corgill, the author of Of Primary Importance, talks with Franki Sibberson about the launch of writer's workshop early in the year, and how her thinking has changed about instruction sequences in the first weeks of school.
Franki Sibberson: How long does it take you to launch a good writing workshop in the fall?
Ann Marie Corgill: I would say a good month to month and a half of school to put all those routines in place. You know, in primary I had to think about them as simple things that didn't seem like they would matter, but they were huge, like where to put the crayons and what happens when we finish a lesson at the rug; what do we do after that? And how do we get started on our writing? All those things that seem so simple and insignificant, but were so important. And I had to step back and give myself permission to take the time to do those kinds of lessons. So it takes a good month to month and a half, I'd say, to get the structures in place.
Middle school is a little easier with that because you don't have to explain to them, you know, where to put their pencils as much as you do a first grader, or how do you put the paper back in the folder. So those kinds of things weren't as difficult, but time to sort of get them thinking like writers and thinking, hey, writers take time, and they have ideas and the process is an ongoing thing, but I see similarities. It was a little bit easier with middle school just because they're older.
Franki: Easier, but not necessarily faster.
Ann Marie: No faster. I wouldn't say faster.
Franki: Are there times in the year that you find the energy, like when I read your books and your articles and things, it seems like your energy in writing workshop is always up. Is there a time during the school year that you need another jumpstart – that the energy is kind of dying out and you need to not . . .
Ann Marie: No. I've thought about that from time to time. I struggle with this because I'm such a big proponent for choice, and choice and topic is a non-negotiable, but for me, in order to teach well, I feel like I have to teach under the umbrella of something. So if we're studying poetry, I expect the children to all be writing poetry, and I tend to see sometimes that the motivation or the energy lags when we've been doing something for a while, and that's why I like having opportunities for multiple genres throughout the year, but also I've learned something from some teachers this summer.
Not just having choice in the beginning of the year like I do when I'm assessing them and learning about them as writers, but giving maybe many studies throughout the year where they do have choice, not only in topic, but in genre, and that, I think, would increase the energy and motivation.
Franki: Can you talk a little bit about the genre studies and how those help keep the energy for writers up throughout the year?
Ann Marie: I think in the beginning they have to be reading that genre before we're trying to write it. So that excitement for what writers of nonfiction or writers of poetry do comes first, because we're reading a lot of it, and then I talk to them about, hey, you know, we're not only reading this. We're going to write like these people and we have models for it. So I think that beginning energy of seeing books that we're actually going to make ourselves, or pieces of writing we're going to do ourselves, sort of gets that energy going, and then when they know that they've got that time every day to work on a project, and we're not rushing through things, I think time is huge for kids to keep their energy strong and their motivation strong. If they know that we're going to be writing for 15 minutes every other day or 20 minutes here and there, that's not going to keep them motivated. It's that consistency and that predictability that, hey, I've got this time to really dig deep into my work every single day, and that keeps energy high.
And the share, the teaching and the share. When they know that they're coming to the rug at the end of the period, not only to share their work, but to teach the class what they've learned either in a conference or in a small group, that gives them power as writers to say, hey, I not only have something to celebrate, but I also have something to teach you.
Franki: When you talk about share, is it similar or different to like the typical author's chair? Like how does that – can you talk a little bit about your share session?
Ann Marie: A couple years ago I thought share is important because it's a daily time to celebrate, but I felt like there wasn't much beyond that. So I wanted to take the work that I was doing in the conferences with the kids, and sort of move that out into the room so that all the children could be part of those two or three conferences I had a day.
What I do now is have the kids either choose part of a piece to share or read the whole thing, but they also have to do what I call teaching the class their teaching point, which is the one thing that they learned in the conference with me that day; that is something that could help them or their classmates as a writer. So they're learning at a very young age all the way up to middle school, I guess, how to synthesize the conference and really pay close attention to what it is that I've taught them, and then in turn show their classmates how that works or how that looks or how they might use it, and I think that sort of lifted the quality of that ending share time.
Franki: Right. And you talked a lot about predictability and counting on that predictable structure. How do you keep the workshop predictable throughout the year, but still interesting enough?
Ann Marie: The flexibility comes in how long do I work on my piece? Or what am I doing in this process? Or am I illustrating today or am I writing today? Am I part of the conference with my teacher today? Or am I working with a partner or am I reading?
So there are all these opportunities to do the things that writers do, and they don't have to be the same every day.
Franki: Okay. So your structure is the same, but what they're doing every day isn't the same.
Ann Marie: Exactly.
Franki: When you think about the beginning of the year versus the end of the year, or first half of the year versus the second half of the year, is the workshop different in the second half of the year than it is in the first half?
Ann Marie: I think the second half of the year is sort of like I can walk out of the room and the workshop can run on autopilot. My job is to put myself out of a job, to get kids feeling successful enough as writers to be able to do it on their own. Obviously, I want to be there every day to hear what they have to say and confer with them and support them, but like even with conferences the second part of the year, I'm not so much asking for conference anymore as they are signing up for them, because they know at this point in the year what they need to work on and where they have questions, and even in first grade with six year olds, they would sign up and say, "Hey, I need you today because I need to talk about my lead to my story," or, "I'm not sure that my picture matches with what I've written."
So I think that's the biggest difference the second part of the year.
Franki: They take more ownership?
Ann Marie: They take more ownership and they sort of see that they've grown. They see their growth and their progression because we try to document that with our folders throughout each study.