If you had been able to walk around our classroom last Friday, you might have paused to see Sophie sketching a picture in a comic strip panel. As you glanced down, you might have seen a proposal next to her that showed she was working on drafting the next section. Glancing to your left, you would have seen James with a Chromebook flipped open, carefully creating columns in a Google Doc to begin publishing his feature article on whales. Across the table, brow furrowed, Roman was carefully studying a travel brochure and jotting some bullets in his notebook. It was obvious that all of these students were somewhere in the writing process. What was not obvious was a common genre. That’s because this was an independent project day.
In an earlier article on the reasons why independent projects in writing workshop are so valuable, we discussed the term independent projects as a reference to the time during our writing workshop when students are working on a writing project of their choice: choice of topic, choice of genre, choice of how to publish, choice of who to work with, choice of mentor texts . . . Yes, there is lots of choice! Our ideas stand on the shoulders of Colleen Cruz and her book Independent Writing. She is the one who turned us on to the idea of independent projects for our students, and although there are challenges, we haven’t looked back.
When launching a unit like this, we have a lot of logistical questions as teachers. How can I find the time to fit this into my already busy schedule? How in the world can I keep track of my whole class with a potential for as many forms of writing as there are students? And how can I make sure that projects don’t drag on and all writers finish and celebrate?
Where can I find the time?
If you’ve made the decision that independent projects are valuable to your writers, the next obstacle that you’re facing is, most likely, time. We have never met a teacher who has said the words, “There is just too much time in my schedule for writing.” Time is a commodity in short supply, but let’s try to find some anyway.
Even if your writing units are mapped out for the year and schedules are pretty full, most maps allow for some wiggle room if you look across the year. There are usually a few extra days tacked on to give time for publishing and times before or right after breaks that have some room for adjustment.
Can you designate one day a week to dedicate to independent projects? This is the model that we’ve found the most success with. When we’re planning a unit, we factor independent projects in by planning Fridays as “independent project day” with the understanding that this will make our units stretch out a little longer. Can you schedule a couple of days between units?
Can you dedicate a block of time between units? For example, if you’ve just finished your personal narrative unit, you can plan for a mini unit—perhaps four days—where kids work on an independent writing project.
Can you plan an entire unit? Is there a block of time available for an entire unit dedicated to independent projects?
Whatever you decide is the best way to manage time, we recommend treating it as an important day in your week’s workshop, because in our experience, kids are very disappointed when these days are canceled.
How can I keep track of who’s writing what?
We use “project proposals” (one of the many ideas that we’ve borrowed from Colleen Cruz) to help kids plan and organize independent projects. We model how to choose and plan a project and fill out a proposal. Choosing and planning includes rereading notebooks, planning what will go in the notebook, finding mentor texts for their chosen genre, and using a calendar to set a publishing “deadline.”
Writers submit their proposal to the editors (us, the teachers), and it must be approved before they launch their projects. This approval process helps us confer with students and set them up for success. Maybe they’ll need help finding mentors, or maybe they’re not sure how to use their notebook. Sometimes they choose a scope that’s too big, such as “I’m going to write a book all about New Jersey.” We help them zoom in on something more like, “I’m going to write about the best ice cream stores in our area of New Jersey.”
The proposals help us provide individualized feedback and also help the students stay on track and move through the writing process independently. Students can check off parts of their proposal as they move through to show what they’ve done and where they are, which helps them easily pick their work back up if they haven’t worked on it since the Friday before.
How can we make sure that projects don’t drag on forever?
Deadlines, of course. Project proposals contain a place to put a deadline for the editor. This deadline isn’t hard and fast because we know, at first, that students need to figure out just how much time they’ll need for each part of the project. The deadline has helped students from letting projects drag on indefinitely and also helps keep them motivated. We know that we often need deadlines to stay productive, and our kids are no different. Without a deadline, it is a lot easier to put off what needs to be done. A deadline provides a sense of urgency.
Although we’re pretty flexible with deadlines, we do have a couple of times each year when we have more formal writing celebrations specifically for independent projects and expect everyone to have met a deadline for publication. And those students who have published multiple independent projects by the time of the celebration choose the one they want to highlight and share.
If you have made or are planning to make independent projects a part of your writing workshop, thinking across these challenges and how you’ll address them right from the start will help make things go more smoothly. That scene at the beginning of this article doesn’t happen right away, but with the right planning, all of our students can achieve that level of independence.