The Writing Corner: How To Do Writing Workshop With Your Classes
The idea of a whole class of students quietly writing, revising, peer conferencing, and working on writing that they care about is an image that I dreamt about for years.
I admit that although I started doing reading workshop with my classes over twelve years ago, it took me another nine years to get up the courage to try writing workshop. Something about the lack of control, I guess.
But over the past few years, I have conducted many successful writing workshops. I also made many mistakes with my classes, but I have learned from those errors.
Here are my tips for conducting a successful writing workshop with your classes.
- Start with mentor texts.
Whether your students will be writing descriptive essays, creative poems, or research papers on the history of World War II, you should always start with mentor texts. Find some good examples of what you are hoping that students will achieve in the workshop, and then spend some time analyzing them as a class. Make sure that they know what you are looking for, and that they can put those expectations into words.
- Spend at least a day prewriting.
Never ever start a writing workshop by instructing students to start an essay. It will be the least productive day you will ever experience and probably the death of the whole workshop. Instead, start with some kind of low-pressure prewriting. This could be a brainstorm list, a freewrite, or a creative writing prompt.
- Go over the process and then give them a grade for the process.
Make sure that students know what you mean when you say draft, revision, peer conference, teacher conference, and editing, and then give them a grade for what they accomplish before the end of the workshop. In my experience, students who complete all of the required steps end up with the best essays (shocking, I know). I usually count the process grade as 50 percent of the final draft grade.
- Make a process checklist and update it constantly.
Rather than requiring students to turn in evidence of their process at the end of the workshop, just make a spreadsheet and check it off as they go. At the beginning of each new class, remind students about what they have left to accomplish. As they complete any new steps during class, check them off on the chart. But be picky—make sure that they are truly revising and not just adding a few commas, for example.
- Check in constantly.
I am all for grading whenever you get a few minutes in the school day, but writing workshop is not that time. Instead, you should be reading drafts, checking student progress, and monitoring peer conferences from near or far. It can be exhausting, but in my experience, students need that pressure to stay on task. It also makes it easier to assign a final grade when you have an idea of progress students have made towards the goals.
- Model any new expectations.
If your students are new to revision or peer conferences, do some together as a class. Project some examples of true revision on the board, or hold a whole-class conference. If you can do this on a piece that you have written yourself, it will be even more authentic and impactful.
- Don’t collect anything but the final draft.
The first year that I did writing workshop with my classes, I made the mistake of collecting everything at the end—draft, revisions, edits, peer conference notes, all of it. Truthfully, if you have been checking in with students and reading their drafts all along, you will probably have a pretty good idea of what their final grade will be too.
Writing workshops take some preparation and they definitely don’t run themselves, but when you see the quality of writing that your students produce as a result of them, you won’t regret the decision to take a risk and try something new.
Need ideas to get your students excited about creative writing? Check out this resource with ten fun creative writing exercises, forty writing prompts for longer assignments, thirty nine suggestions for poems, non-fiction essays, and short stories to extend the discussion, and ready-to-go slides for each exercise and set of follow-up question.
Christina Gil was a high-school English teacher for sixteen years, but she recently left the classroom to follow a dream and move with her family to an ecovillage in rural Missouri. She believes that teaching creative writing helps students excel on standardized tests, that deeply analyzing and unpacking a poem is a fabulous way to spend an hour or so, and that Shakespeare is always better with sound effects. When she is not hauling water to her tiny home, she can be found homeschooling her two kids or meeting with her neighbors about the best way to run their village.