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Teacher to Teacher: Promoting Greater Independence in Writing Workshop

By Lynne R. Dorfman

It is always a challenge to teach writing and run an effective writing workshop, but part of the problem may be our reluctance to set our writers free. We must trust that they will make good choices, use materials and their time appropriately, be able to offer advice to each other, and assess their own writing and set goals.  It is important to realize that we are not the only teacher in the classroom. Our classroom is a giant think tank, a community of writers that can come together in many different formats to assist, advise, critique, and challenge.

For the teacher, planning needs to be stressed to our student writers as one of the most effective strategies they have for process approach writing.  The other day, I watched kindergarten students plan their narratives through drawings. Their teacher, Kolleen, was a great model, showing the students how she used color to add details to her drawings. She told them to ask her questions about the pictures. Some of their questions centered on setting, character actions, and character feelings. Then the students sketched, colored, and naturally shared their pictures. Some talk evolved naturally. As they shared, sometimes they asked questions. “So what did it feel like when you did a cannonball?  Did it hurt?”   And “What was your baby brother wearing when he came home from the hospital? How did you feel when you held him?”  Their teacher asked the kindergarteners to find a partner and share their story through the pictures. After sharing, they broke apart to find new partners and repeat the process.

This oral rehearsal helped students in several ways. Partners asked more questions, helping writers add interesting and important details. The rehearsal gave all the students more confidence as well as helped to fix the story in their mind.  This way, when they tried to write the words, they could concentrate on letter-sound relationships to approximate the spelling of the words they needed. I made note of the fact that students were not asking Kolleen, “How do you spell ______?”  They read the room, helped each other, or blended sounds outloud. A quick mini-lesson before they started was based on Kolleen’s clipboard cruising – hearing many writers string sentences together with “And then I….” After listening in to the oral sharing and recognizing that the young writers could benefit from a reminder about transition words that help move a reader through a story from beginning to end. Read alouds like The Paperboy by Dav Pilkey and Happy Like Soccer by Maribeth Boelts were helpful. So was a simple anchor chart about words that show time: in the morning, later that day, when night came, finally. After the lesson, Kolleen told the students that they probably need a punctuation mark – a period or question mark – when they wanted to say “And then I…”   Students began drafting  in earnest. Not one student asked, “How long does this have to be?” or “How many sentences do I have to write?”  They were still writing when I left.

PAWLP T2T March 2016In another kindergarten classroom, Shelly explained how important it is to have materials ready for her students to use. Right away I noticed how accessible everything was for a five or six year old. The bins were eye level for them, filled with different kinds of paper, writing instruments, paste, paperclips.  Shelly explained, “The only thing I don’t give kindergarteners is a stapler. They paperclip the pages of their books together, and I staple it later. Of course, no sharp scissors either.”  I asked Shelly about their nonfiction books they were writing. I commented on the different sizes and asked her if she decided that for some students.  Shelly assured me that all of these decisions belonged to the writer.

The gradual release of responsibility model, referred to the “Optimal Learning Model” in Regie Routman’s Writing Essentials, certainly helps teachers move students to greater independence, especially when we ask them to do some reflection at the end of workshop. “What can you use again?  Where, do you think, could you use this craft move?”  Perhaps, we will have to understand that it is okay if our writers are all writing about different things, using different materials, and working through the process at different paces – and that it is okay.  If children are to find their own voices and truly be engaged writers, not just compliant ones, we need to urge them to find their own writing topics. Hence, Shelly’s kindergarteners are writing about a variety of topics: snow, a rhinoceros, swimming, their house, their family, butterflies – just about everything they think about, talk about, and read about.

Upper elementary school students and secondary students continue to grow as writers who are capable of choosing a topic and establishing a sharp focus, conferring with peers, holding a self-conference, gathering more information through research before and during writing, and initiating new writing projects. We need to give our students opportunities to lead, make decisions, engage in reflective practice, and teach each other. Growing independent writers is a goal for all of us, regardless of the age of the students we teach!  We must believe that we are not the only teacher in our classroom.

Some Questions to Explore

  • How do you promote greater independence in your writing workshop?
  • Do you ever invite students to co-teach or teach a writing lesson?
  • Do you provide access to different kinds of writing material?
  • How do you promote writing throughout the day?

Lynne R. Dorfman profileLynne Dorfman is a 1989 PAWLP fellow, a PAReads editor, and a board member of Chester County Reading Association. Currently, Lynne is working on a book about formative assessment with her co-author, Diane Dougherty. She looks forward to the PAWLPday on Six Traits Writing on March 19th at the WCU Graduate Business Center.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ashley Fisher #

    I think for me, as many teachers might agree, setting the students “free” to test out what they have learned and what I have taught them can be the most scary moment of my day as a second grade teacher. I want my students to feel prepared and ready for the task at hand and I don’t want any of them to be frustrated or confused. I realize that I fear the release of teacher handholding and the independent work because I am scared that all those feelings may arise in my students and also that it might demonstrate for me that I did not prepare them enough. I try to reinforce myself and my students that we are all writers and as long as pencil is going to paper with formulated ideas, we are writers with something meaningful to say.

    To try and decrease my anxiety of having my students be lost or feel unprepared to write, I will most always have them prewrite to a timer before they write, normally just 5 minutes or so. Sometimes I give them a graphic organizer to organize their thoughts or ask them to draw pictures, like it was mentioned in the post, or sometimes I just let them brainstorm how they choose. I feel that helps me to see their ideas formulate and also it gives my students the ability to feel comfortable and confident in their prewriting so the actual writing does not feel so overwhelming.

    In terms of collaboration, I do try in my classroom to allow my writers to collaborate with each other and have a “co-author” on a story of their choosing. Some days, I will allow my students during daily 5 to free write or a pull from a prompt jar we have created together. From those stories, the students will buddy up and share their writing and offer ideas on how to edit, enhance or to “jazz” up their writing it various word choice or organization. When we do this, they do enjoy it and the co-author and the author will take the critiques and either change or not change their writing. I like the idea of sharing and hearing other writing and offering ideas. Forming that classroom of writers and also trying to have the students grow as writers in the same moment.


    March 28, 2016
  2. Michelle Polito #

    With any writing assignment, I inevitably am asked the question, “How long does this have to be?” Usually, I answer with a less than concrete answer to my students’ disappointment. I try to stray away from artificial constraints with a set number of sentences per paragraph, and a set number of paragraphs per page, and a set number of pages per paper. While there may be a variety of reasons for this quantity based questioning , I wonder if part of it is, as you say, a “reluctance to set our writers free.” I wonder how much of a part I am playing into their “just get it done with the least amount of writing” mentality by not giving them enough freedom. It is hard, yet necessary, for a teacher to let go of control. Your statements truly resonated: “We must trust that they will make good choices, use materials and their time appropriately, be able to offer advice to each other, and assess their own writing and set goals. It is important to realize that we are not the only teacher in the classroom.” Thankfully, at times I have seen my students make these good choices and provide excellent feedback to their peers. This post was a great reminder that I need to provide my students with the tools to revise and then to set them free to do so.


    March 28, 2016
  3. Amanda #

    As a future English educator, I found this post beneficial. I feel like writing workshops are sometimes hard to conduct, especially for students who are not similar with this style of teaching. I had my first authentic workshop when I was a junior college, and it was very much taught in this fashion. Each student created their own topic and was at their own pace. We had to include pictures, videos, and our own thought into the assignment. This experience helped me grow as writer and a teacher. I plan to take these techniques to my future classroom.
    Last semester I enrolled in another writing workshop because of my positive experience with the last one. Unfortunately, it was nothing like the prior class. So, reading this was refreshing. It is nice to know that teachers are utilizing this skill in their classroom, especially at such a young age. I hope this workshop movement integrates its way into more classrooms!
    Also, I want to take the creative idea with pictures you discussed in this post and integrate it into my own future workshops.

    Liked by 1 person

    March 15, 2016

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