When I began teaching, Mark McGwire was breaking the home-run record in major-league baseball. We sat in the stands and cheered home runs 67 and 68, awed by the consistency of the record-breaking power hitter. A few months later I began my student teaching experience. I remember feeling frustrated because things didn’t always go as smoothly as I’d planned. My first few years of teaching I felt the same frustration. One evening I said to my husband, “I just want to get it right, but there are so many aspects of writing workshop, it’s hard to make them all work together.”
My practical husband said, “It’ll just take some time to gain experience.”
“But I want everything perfect now.”
He chuckled. “Ruth, no one is perfect.” And then, because he is an avid sports fan, he made a comparison. “Think about major-league players. There are mechanics and timing they have to make work together in order to get a hit. It’s so difficult that they get struck out more often than they get on base.”
“McGwire hit 70 home runs last season.”
“And he struck out 155 times. He struck out more than twice as often as he hit a home run. Even though he’s a great hitter, he wasn’t perfect every time. He’s spent years refining the mechanics of his swing to hit home runs. Maybe you should cut yourself some slack.”
All these years later, his words still replay in my mind. Like hitting a baseball, there are many parts of writing workshop that must work together to be successful. In our book, Day by Day: Refining Writing Workshop Through 180 Days of Reflective Practice, Stacey Shubitz and I identified components of a successful workshop. We noted six pillars: assessment, choice, conferring, mentors, minilessons, and routines and procedures, with celebration wrapping around them all. Through years of blogging about teaching writers, we realized these seven topics were the ones we wrote about again and again.
Many components need to work together for writing workshop to run like a well-oiled machine. No wonder I was feeling overwhelmed in my first years of workshop teaching. I am not alone—others feel this way too. The secret to moving from frustration and chaos in workshop to a successful well-oiled machine is to refine some of the workshop pillars. It is impossible to perfect them all at the same time. If this is the goal, then everything will come crashing down. Imagine working on several pillars of a building all at the same time—catastrophe would be waiting to happen!
Instead, begin with reflection. The attached table will guide you through this initial reflection. First identify what you do well in each of the pillars. Beginning with the things we know makes our learning more effective. It is important to build a workshop on a solid base, so take some time to consider what you already do well in each of the areas.
Complete the third column by considering the things you are curious about when it comes to the pillars of writing workshop. In my early years of writing workshop, I was curious about establishing an environment where it was possible to confer with a single student while the rest of the class continued working. I was also curious about having a meaningful conference where I helped individual students grow as writers, as well as using assessment to design small groups to guide a handful of students in learning together. You can download a blank copy of the table by clicking here.
These are all solid goals for writing workshop. However, failure was waiting for me if I attempted to focus on them all in a single year. The next step after reflecting is to determine the most critical goals. Since the pillars are often entwined, it is important to consider which goal will have the most impact on writing workshop.
By asking, “What has to happen first to make my other goals possible?” we are able to identify the key goals. For me, this meant I began with the routines and procedures of establishing an environment to make conferring possible. Once that was established, I knew I would be able to hone my conferring skills. This is a goal I worked on for several years. Just recently, I’ve begun using assessment to design small groups.
Over the years I’ve followed my curiosities, studying many different aspects of writing workshop. To focus my energy, I allow questions to guide my study. This year, my focus is on student choice. Because choice is necessary for young writers, it is often a part of the writing workshops I’m involved in leading. This is something I already think about in writing workshop, and I’m ready to build on this understanding. I’m curious about how choice is going to survive as teachers feel more pressure to teach to standardized assessments. How do I maintain student choice while meeting standards and district demands? How does choice remain a core part of writing workshop when teachers feel pressure to create lockstep units? These are a couple of the questions guiding my study. I will continue to generate questions as I study and reflect on choice in the midst of mandates.
How about you? What will you focus your energy on learning in writing workshop this year? Begin by considering what you already do with confidence, as well as your curiosities. Then choose an area with potential and begin generating questions to guide your study. This allows writing workshop to be a place where everyone is learning—students are becoming stronger writers, and their teachers are refining their craft.