Powerful pedagogies, part 2: The classroom as a workshop for young writers

Dr Jessica Cira Rubin, University of Waikato


This is the second post in a three-part blog series highlighting two pedagogical approaches that are increasingly popular both in Aotearoa New Zealand and internationally.

  • The previous post, by Judy Bailey, focuses on mathematics teaching that centres on rich tasks and problems. Judy shares an effective lesson structure plus findings from a NZ-based research project exploring the use of workshops within the problem-based approach.
  • This second post, by Jessica Rubin, focuses on the “Writing Workshop” approach to teaching writing. In this approach, students spend time daily doing the real work of writers – making choices, exploring interests and problems, and using writing for a range of worthwhile purposes.
  • The third post, by Katrina McChesney, brings Writing Workshop and problem-based mathematics teaching together. Katrina considers the connections between these powerful pedagogies and how both approaches align with important goals for education in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Teaching writing is complicated, so we must all commit to continually inquiring into our practices and developing our expertise and confidence as writers and teachers of writing. This is particularly important given national data showing that literacy achievement, including writing, in Aotearoa New Zealand is problematic due to low equity and high variation. What many of us are currently doing in classrooms is not working as well as it could for about a third of primary-aged students with children from Māori or Pacific families over-represented in groups being underserved. This echoes broader issues in our education system.

Overcoming these persistent challenges is often more complex than simply adding new practices to our repertoires. It can require a paradigmatic shift in how we view writing in school, how we view young writers, and how we view our role in supporting them. 

In this blog post, I introduce the writing workshop approach as one research-based pedagogy that not only raises achievement in writing, but also helps grow enthusiastic and engaged writers as we make in-school writing purposeful, meaningful, and personally and culturally sustaining.

What do we mean by “teaching writing”?

First, I should clarify what I mean by teaching writing since this is a slippery term. The New Zealand Curriculum acknowledges that we use writing in schools for many different purposes, including as a medium for responding to texts, and displaying knowledge across the curriculum. We should keep doing that. But, young people in schools also deserve space and support to learn and experience the curriculum of writing itself, writing to compose ideas that come from the writer’s own thinking. That is the kind of writing I’m focusing on here. 

In teaching this “curriculum of writing”, what if we committed to thinking critically and realistically about what writing is for, what writers do, and how writing connects us? What if we met all of our students as already-writers who might need different kinds of support to keep developing their skills and voices? What might classroom writing instruction look like? The writing workshop approach is one powerful possibility.

The Writing Workshop

The central idea in a writing workshop is that there is writing instruction happening daily, and that students spend most of “writing time” actually writing. Young people need to spend time writing (not to be confused with listening to adults talk about writing) to get better at writing – yet data shows that most classrooms do not have enough instructional time devoted to writing. 

A writing workshop session typically involves three phases: a teacher-delivered minilesson, student writing and conferencing time, and share-time. While guarding ample time to write is essential, it might be better to start small and build up writing stamina. For example, young students might start out writing independently for 5 minutes and work up to 20 or 25. Older students or adults might start with 10 minutes and be able to build writing stamina to work on their writing for 45 minutes. But, in an hour long writing block, a minilesson might be 10 minutes, share time 5-10 minutes, guarding 40 minutes for writing and conferencing; there’s room for variation

1. Minilesson

As part of writing workshop, there needs to be deliberate and thoughtful teaching to support students’ use of independent writing time; implementing writing workshop does not just mean assigning writing tasks with no teacher input. To move their writing forward, writers need a repertoire of strategies to draw on, and the skills to choose the best one. This takes practice and teacher guidance.

Writing skills and strategies are often the focus of targeted direct instruction that precedes the daily writing time, a teacher-delivered minilesson. Keeping lessons ‘mini’ can be a challenge, but workshop teachers know that streamlining whole-group direct instruction guards time for students to write. Minilessons should focus on just one thing and be only about 10 minutes long, meaning that learning will be manageable for students and build over time. The minilessons do not dictate what students have to do in their writing time that day, instead they offer strategies for writers to practice together and then activate independently when they need them. 

2. Student writing and conferencing time

In writing workshop, writing time is not about producing a response to a teacher-generated topic or learning copy-editing rules, and it is not simply “freewriting” without purpose or direction. Instead, writing workshop is about students doing the real work of writers — making choices, exploring interests and problems, and using writing to entertain others, create art, and join conversations in the world with their unique voices. There also needs to be a real, time-sensitive purpose to be working toward, like a publishing date or celebration

While students are writing, the teacher has a chance to confer with individual students about their writing or work with small groups. Circulating through the class over a couple of days, the teacher meets each writer where they are, learns about their work, and supports them. Conferences are non-evaluative and everyone gets to have them; the teacher sits alongside each student as a more experienced writer coaching a younger writer forward.

3. Share-time

At the end of workshop time, the group comes together for a share-time of about 5-10 minutes. This is a short time for students to talk about, and teach each other about, their process, and a chance to bring closure to writing for the day. There are different approaches to making share-time purposeful and authentic.

Aspects of Writing Instruction to Consider, Inside and Outside a Writing Workshop

As I mentioned, there are significant aspects of instruction that using a writing workshop approach facilitate. I would encourage curious teachers to consider these ideas, even if not within a writing workshop model.  

Notebooks

A writer’s notebook is a deceptively simple tool, and still my favourite way to teach some of the most important skills a writer needs: learning how to decide what to write about, learning how to keep going, tuning into our own thoughts and following them, and paying attention to the world around us. 

Building students’ identities as writers

Building students’ identities as writers is key to teaching them, honouring who they are and what they know, and reinforcing that their voices matter. From this perspective, we also need to think about the timing, quantity, and quality of our feedback to young writers and the repercussions of “stomping through” their writing. 

Writing topics and priorities

Writers deserve to spend their time writing about topics that matter to them, that they choose, for purposes and audiences that matter to them. We, as teachers, should not be in the business of telling young people what is important to them (though we might structure a study of a certain genre, and do some teaching around what makes a good topic). School is a place where writers can build their skills and write, with teacher support, toward authentic purposes that don’t end at compliance and conformity. A commitment to building curriculum forward from students’ diverse strengths and experiences guards space to honour their cultures, their languages, and their knowledge without always holding those things in relation or response to the dominant/colonial culture. 

Classrooms as communities of writers

A classroom should be a vibrant community of writers. Writing is inherently a social activity, and work time can be independent without being silent or isolated. In a community, there is space for everyone’s different strengths to be valued, not just a narrow set of replicable writing skills. We must support students’ learning about receiving their classmates’ writing generously and graciously, and teach about giving meaningful feedback. Students should feel welcome to draw on each other’s expertise as writers, work together to solve problems, and celebrate each other’s success and joy. As members of a thriving community of writers, teachers should also have their own rich and authentically-driven writing lives, which will be a goldmine for curriculum.

Closing thoughts

We cannot be content with a system that continues only to serve the same 70% of students year after year. And if our system is marginalising the voices of their classmates and community members, I would say we aren’t truly serving the “successful” 70% either. A writing workshop structure makes space for student-focused and culturally relational practices, but does not eclipse the need to think about and address the systemic violence of having educational structures that consistently lift up some young  writers and not others.
Teachers of writers have an amazing opportunity to support young people as they learn to use their voices in the world. Discourses of linguistic hegemony, a teacher-only audience, and a myopic focus on inauthentic school-genres threaten to not only suck the joy and excitement out of writing, but undermine our responsibility to the young writers we meet. Growing young writers is a responsibility here and now, a service to the future, and essential in a democracy that truly values all members.


Jessica Cira Rubin is a senior lecturer in literacy at the University of Waikato. Her work as a teacher educator and education researcher builds from ten years experience teaching secondary English language arts. She thinks about literacies broadly and inclusively, and uses conceptual frameworks that inspire and require critical reflection of ourselves, educational institutions and other systems. Her work is primarily energized by her deep commitment to values of collaboration, nonviolence in its many forms, and social and ecological justice. 

4 comments

  1. Hi Jessica, I really admire your posting. It’s very touching and motivational. I really like the fact you mentioned about honoring cultures, background in children’s writing. A great idea as our country is increasing of it’s diversity, an authentic way to encourage their cultural writing in our learning environment. The symbols and the text they can exchange will a great world of social writing.

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  2. Kia Ora Jessica,
    Thank you for the clear outline of what I truly think is best practice in writing – using the notebook, creating a community of writers and the importance of writer identity (amongst other things!) I’d love to explore more about how teachers self-perceptions of themselves as a writer and what that looks like in their classroom.

    Like

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