Writing workshop is a tricky thing. When all is going well, there is a sense of calm purpose in the air: the minilesson does not stretch into a maxilesson, and students have the time they need to write while I have time to confer in a measured way.
When all is not going well, the scene is fraught with tension: time seems short, and there is a long line of students waiting for a conference without which they simply cannot write.
The difference between these two scenarios, I think, lies in one thing: student independence. The more our workshop structure allows for and scaffolds independence, the more smoothly things seem to run and the more writing work gets done.
Here are some tried-and-true practices in my sixth-grade classroom that foster student independence:
A Clear Structure
The first two weeks of school are spent figuring out our writing workshop routines and then practicing them day after day, without fail. A chart with the routines hangs in our classroom all year long, even when every single one of us knows exactly what it says and how it works, as a reminder of our hard and fast “order of operations." Our workshop depends on each component of it being followed every day, and in the same way. The only exceptions are our writing celebration days, when all the thinking and writing the chart represents is rightfully honored.
Editing Sheets and “Plan of Action Sticky Notes"
At the end of every workshop, my students have two tasks to complete, which allows for a smooth start to our next workshop day. If they feel “stuck” or in need of a conference before they can get back into the writing groove again, they fill out an editing sheet identifying their writing issue, place it in their writing folder, and turn their folder in to me. These editing sheets allow me to make some suggestions so that the student can get to work right away the following day without having to wait for a writing conference. It also gives me a conference agenda for the next day, as this is another way for me to learn who needs help the most. If they are “on a roll” and feel they can keep going the next day, they return their folders to the writing crate.
The last few minutes of workshop are also spent creating “Plan of Action Sticky Notes”: students tag their thinking about where they want to go with their writing piece the next day on a sticky note. This helps orient and focus their thinking the next writing workshop day.
I have found it helpful to create writing toolboxes for them to easily access minilesson strategies and reference tools. This toolbox includes
handouts to help students remember grammar and punctuation conventions,
photographs of anchor charts pertaining to the specific writing unit of study we are working on,
copies of mentor texts we have analyzed in preparation for the unit, and
genre-appropriate writing checklists we have compiled to keep our writing focused.
Access to Anchor Charts
It goes without saying that all the anchor charts we create in our minilessons with our students need to be visible to them when they are writing. But it also goes without saying that sometimes these anchor charts can be a distraction. So, I cull four or five important ones and make sure they are displayed in the same place every day (the whiteboard in front of our classroom works best) so that my students know where to turn their attention when they feel the need to.
Annotated Process and Mentor Text Charts
I believe that annotated process and mentor text charts are invaluable to our students. A quick glance at a chart through which we worked at creating meaningful dialogue tags, for example, often leads to better recall and transfer of that lesson to the writing work in progress. Very often, my students consult them in place of requesting a writing conference, which is just the type of independence one wants to see in a middle school classroom.
The most distracting thing in a writing workshop can be a set of students who can’t write because they are waiting for a conference, although even one student who is waiting for a conference (and complaining) is enough. I’ve found it helpful to have a simple system in place and follow it consistently. In our classroom, all students are expected to keep working even as they wait for a conference. Once they’ve put their name on the board to let me know they need to meet, they are expected to use the tools above to keep working on other sections of their writing piece until they are called. Because they turned in editing sheets the day before, all students who needed immediate help had at least a starting point to begin working with until their conference—no one, therefore, is just sitting around and waiting. What a waste of writing time that would be!
Some time ago, Nancie Atwell wrote this on the Heinemann blog:
Students who are asked to take initiative as readers and writers need a predictable setting if they're going to develop habits of mind, produce and complete work, and make plans. Rather than a stimulating or creative environment, they need a regular one they can depend on as they get the job done.
Predictable settings keep our writing workshops a productive place in which to work, and they also help our young writers develop the independence they so need.