Friday, June 24

Tips for a Successful Writers Workshop

Writers Workshop has been a important and delightful part of my classroom for well over ten years. My first grade students and I absolutely adore writers workshop! Yet - I'm still in a constant state of refinement and tweaking of my writers workshop.

Here are some tried and true tips for what has worked well for me over the years, regardless of the writing curriculum I was using...Let me know which tips you find most helpful!

Make sure to pin this post so you can come easily back to it when you want to add more layers to your workshop or have more questions. You might like this post about generating writing ideas, too!

Heads up - this is a MONSTER BIG post! Took me over two three months to write (#reallifefirst #thenbloglife) and there's SO much more I could say about each tip. #teachingiscomplex #whichiswhyiloveit #mostdays #somedaysijustwantjammies

There are some affiliate links in this post that take you to Amazon and I earn a small amount of your purchase at no cost to you. I use it towards more books and supplies for my classroom to benefit my precious learners.

Before I get started on the Writing Workshop tips, I wanted to point out how important stamina is...across the day. So each year we build a similar anchor chart together for stamina. It applies to stamina across the day... we go...

First and foremost....this is the absolute heart of writers workshop. It's the most important thing we can do. Especially the ALL writers part...this means each and every writer. Writers that view themselves as writers because they're able to come up with ideas for writing is essential for ALL.

This first writing workshop tip is a big deal that can have a far reaching impact, given that what you say is genuine and authentic...

All writers need to feel successful. As a teacher who ditched the deficit model decades ago, I am eagerly on the hunt for positive, genuine ways to compliment each writer as often as I can. Not only is this kind and humane, it respects the writer's developmental stage and builds on his/her strengths. And they ALL have strengths. This is ESPECIALLY important for writers that struggle.

In an effort to be strategic...

Compliment based on your teaching points...and do it in a loud-ish's another opportunity to reinforce what you're teaching. will benefit all who overhear it.

In order to feel more genuine, your compliments will often sound like "noticings."

If your mini-lessons are about including introductions, your compliments (noticings) might sound like...

"I notice you introduced your piece with a question!"

"You're trying out a sound effect in your introduction!"

If your mini-lessons have been about improving writing stamina, your compliments might sound like...

"Check out the way you're really sticking to it today! You're not letting anything distract you from your important writing work!"

"Wow! I noticed that you turned your body away from your friend so that you could stay on track with your work. Powerful decision!"

If your mini-lessons have been about editing, your compliments (noticings) might sound like...

"Look at you, going to town, editing your piece for punctuation!"

"I see you edited for using capital letters only for names and at the beginning of sentences!"

Several years ago, I had the chance to see Peter Johnston speak about Choice Words and it helped shape how I talk to a parent AND educator.

I was mesmerized the entire time he spoke and had countless take aways. (In fact, I got to see him again recently and it was incredible!!) 

The way we speak to children has consequences, positive and negative, on how they view themselves and the world.

To that end...

...because that's what they are. Address them as writers when you gather for writing workshop, during your mid-workshop interruptions, in individual and table conferences, and when you gather for sharing. You might sound something like this...

"Writers, in workshop today, I want to teach you about a strategy that can help you when you are stuck for an idea...."

"Writers, I'm interrupting your powerful work to share with you something I noticed _____ doing when she was figuring out her closing sentence."

"Writers, I look forward to hearing your work during our sharing circle today. Please gather around the rug for sharing."

This next one might make you a little itchy...or feel the urge to throw tomatoes my way. But please...hear me out!

If you've got a tomato in hand, please, before you throw the next pic, then come back up to this one. :)

Why content over conventions? For the same reason we want kids to spell using their very best approximation instead of just writing words they know how to spell correctly. 

Wanna read piece after piece that sounds like a laundry list of repetitive sentence formats where the writer knows how to correctly punctuate and capitalize that specific sentence format...written that way because it's safe? Me, either.

In order to "write like a reader" you have to "read like a writer" and be willing to take risks.

Laundry list writers described above are writers who don't want to take risks. And this has an impact on them beyond their writing workshop time.

To build risk-taking, authentic, meaning-creating writers...honor their content...frequently and enthusiastically. Our actions towards writers become writing partner's actions towards one another, too. Kids are always listening and seeing what WE do and it often becomes what THEY do.

Take a look at this first grader's's a review of an absolutely hilarious and adorable book by Eve Bunting...Frog and Friends. Quite possibly my class' favorite book series. Just. Too. Cute.

For sure, the conventions make it a bit difficult to read. This writer has made wonderful progress this year, yet I still needed him to read it to me. When he did, my writing teacher heart was SOOO happy!

Check out his content, written during our opinion writing unit...

How awesome is that? Talk about incorporating the teaching points of Opinion Writing:

Introduction that hooks your reader...Check

Details that keep your reader hooked...Check

Include facts and opinions in your piece...Check

Closing sentence that makes the piece sound finished (without using the words, "The End.")...Check

His parents gave me permission to type up the review and put it on Amazon, where many folks have marked it helpful and now it appears as the first review. Talk about exciting for this firstie! {Click here if you'd like to do that, too. Just scroll down to the reviews and mark it as helpful.}

This writer absolutely views himself as a writer and this has FAR reaching impact across his life.

My writers LOVE our opinion writing unit, which I use to supplement our Teacher's College unit. It's a great unit that, like all my writers workshop units, can stand alone or be used in conjunction with other curriculum.

This one is big. Mega big. Colossal, even.

When you (respectfully and honorably) hold your writers accountable for conventions that are appropriate for where they are at developmentally, you are communicating your belief in them. You are communicating that you know they are capable of what you're asking of them and that you won't accept less.

Developmentally appropriate accountability means you are working at the cutting edge of your students' learning.

How do you know what's developmentally appropriate for each child? Look at their writing and notice what they are doing sometimes, but not always.

For a child who is putting spaces between words sometimes to often, but not always, it would be developmentally appropriate to cheerlead them to put spaces between all words. Yet, if they are including spaces only occasionally, you'll want to pick a different convention to hold them accountable for...look closely at their spelling - are they including multiple dominant consonants for words, but not all words? Holding them accountable to sound stretching for multiple dominant consonants in most to all words would be more developmentally appropriate.

For a child who is including ending punctuation correctly sometimes to often with multiple sentences, it's appropriate to hold them accountable for correct ending punctuation at the end of most to all sentences. Yet, if they are using ending punctuation incorrectly, you'll want to look closely and find a different convention.

When, with respect and positivity, you hold students accountable for what is within their reach, not only are you helping prevent sloppy habits from forming, you are encouraging them to be more invested in quality work and their rate of progress will likely improve.

Even though it's not necessarily so, do what you can to....

In the opinion writing student sample above, you may have noticed the circles at the bottom of the paper. Those are editing circles. I have a blog post about how I use editing circles in my classroom - you can read it and download the paper as a freebie (there's an additional freebie in the post, too).

When we, as teachers, provide topic after topic to writers (especially reluctant writers), we are enabling the lack of investment of these writers in coming up with their own writing topics.

It is important to make it an expectation. They need to know it's non-negotiable...or they'll keep trying to have you (or someone else) give them a topic.

When writers know that each day they are going to write and that they will be selecting their topic for the majority of their writing, they are much more likely to be invested in their writing.

When writers see and hear all the time that ANY story (not just special things) can become a writing topic, the pressure is off and the floodgates open. For some writers it takes longer than others. It will come, as long as you stay consistent.

My class is always CRAZY about this book, Ralph Tells A Story, written by Abby Hanlon, former first grade teacher. It is absolutely PERFECT for launching Writers Workshop and also for rereads throughout the year.
Time spent together near the beginning of the unit (after immersion in mentor texts) with table groups generating topic ideas and listing/illustrating them on 12x18 construction paper is time well spent. It gets the ideas flowing and builds investment in the topics.


Some writers will need a scaffold for topic generation. And, all writers are stuck sometimes. (Hence the topic generation time described above...those 12x18 posters can be a scaffold throughout the unit.)

In my writing workshop, I will typically provide two topic ideas as a scaffold for "back up" ideas, because I want my writers to write during the time they are given (as opposed to sitting there feeling frustrated that they can't come up with something). 

But, I don't make them too exciting because I want them to come up with their own ideas that they are interested and invested in writing about. Topic generation is an expectation of all my writers, but I'm not unreasonable...all writers are stuck sometimes.

During a narrative unit, I'll generally say something three or so minutes into the work time like, "If you are still stuck on finding a topic, it's important to get started. If you haven't started, write the beginning, middle, and end of waking up this morning to get ready for school or the beginning, middle and end of your arrival at school today." 

Or if it's during an opinion unit, I'll say something like, "If you are still stuck on finding a topic, it's important to get started. If you haven't started, write your opinion about what you ate for breakfast this morning or for dinner last night."

Spending time at the beginning of any writing unit for students to have ample time to generate topic ideas is time VERY well spent!

Then, as I walk around the room, I'll be complimenting those friends who were slow to start that day, saying things like, "Check it out, Jonny - you had a hard time getting started today and now you're started and on a roll writing about your morning! Doesn't that feel so much better than sitting there not working? I bet you're proud of yourself for getting started!"

During sharing time on days that I've had a couple writers stuck for a little bit, I'll say something like, "As we listen to each other's hard work this morning, you will probably think to yourself, 'Hey, I could write about that topic, too!' because writers get so many ideas from each other all the time. Thank goodness for so many chances to be inspired by our classmate's writing!"

Another scaffold for building time management is to use a visual timer. In the past, I have shown timers on the smartboard, but I usually have a chart of some sort that I want the kids to refer to while they work, so I bought one of these babies and have it hanging on the wall.

I have the 12 inch one that you can hang on the wall or set up on a table or shelf. It's large enough for all to see & my kids and I love it every year. I've had mine for four years and it is so helpful at keeping everyone on track, including me. They also make 8 inch and 3 inch versions.

Taking Status of the Class has been a game changer in my classroom. It's a great way for the kids and I to know where each writer is at with their writing, which students might need support and what small or whole group lessons would be beneficial. I have two options available for you if you're looking for a way to take the Status of the Class - this one is free (not editable) and this version is editable.

Status of the Class

Something that has helped my writers as spellers a lot is differentiation.

One of the best ways I have gotten information about the specific word work my writers need is from Words Their Way.

The Words Their Way inventory test is SO helpful, providing specific skills that each writer needs to work on. Once you score the inventory test, you designate the stage of spelling the child is at and from there you can provide instruction specific to their needs. There are additional Words Their Way Word Sort books that contain assessments and sorts to help build skills. In my first grade class, I have spellers for these stages, so I have and use all three of these stage-specific books: Emergent, Letter Name and Within Word.

In addition to using these books, I've also used my ELA No Prep Printable packs for additional practice. Available by individual month, semester bundles or as a yearlong bundle, too. 

Once I've completed and scored the feature analysis from the Words Their Way inventories, I know exactly which work students need on which skill...this is the BEST! It's so easy to group students for games and small group lessons according to what they need!

For students needing more practice with Blends, I go straight to this Differentiated Blends pack. I'll use the pre-assessment to determine which students need which blends, and then I make my groups and provide individualized independent work containing pages from my ELA printables and also from this:

Currently in the works is a Differentiated Digraphs pack that will follow a similar format as the Blends pack - this is SO helpful in helping first graders be able to focus on the skill rather than the format and visual layout of the page.

Sharing has become a precious and essential part of writing workshop. When I first began writing workshop, this was the hardest part for me to make time for. I'd keep conferring until time was basically up and we had to clean up. Now, my students won't let me not share. AND, I don't want to miss it, either!

I was too intimidated in college to share my writing. I didn't want to put myself out there. I was not a good writer. Just think how much I could have grown if I'd shared my work with others and gained their perspectives? My confidence would have improved and so would my quality. I didn't feel comfortable writing until I had a few years of teaching writing workshop under my belt. Most significantly so when I was teaching third grade and we had a set of Lucy Calkins Units of Study for grades 3-5. THAT is when I started realllly loving to teach writing! And it the point where I created some writing units for Personal Narrative, Poetry, Opinion Writing and Friendly Letters. My students (and I) LOVE these units!!!

Why do we want students to share? 
Motivation...many students tell me their favorite time in writing workshop is sharing time. They enjoy sharing their own pieces, sure, but they also love hearing other writers' pieces, too.

Inspiration...we get ideas from others...topic ideas...illustration ideas...writers' craft/authors' move ideas

Accountability...for students who tend to avoid work, knowing that they'll be accountable to sharing their work helps them gitrdun.

Community...sharing builds a community of learners that can inspire each other. The playing field is leveled and includes and celebrates ALL learners. You might enjoy this blog post about building classroom community. It includes read aloud suggestions and a few freebies, too. responses to what the students have written articulate and reinforce any of the teaching points I've already connection to a current student's writing. I LOVE opportunities to re-state important teaching points to a captive audience.

How do I do it?
Partnerships - I have done partnerships a variety of ways over the years This year I tried trios (many students had kind of a lot of absences, and it made last minute pairing up a conversation I wanted to eliminate from our already busy days). It went so well, that I plan to continue. 

We spend a lot of time learning about Whole Body Listening so when we begin implementing partner sharing in writing workshop, my cuing sounds like, "Your listening should be such high quality whole body listening that anyone walking in the room can tell who is partners with who."

Partner sharing lasts for 6-8 mn. During partnerships (technically trio-ships), partners take turns each sharing a highlight from what they wrote that day. Maybe it's a sentence or two where s/he tried a writers' move from a mentor text; maybe a couple of sentence that s/he thinks the partners will enjoy. If the timer for sharing hasn't gone off yet, partners begin to work on coaching each other for editing conventions, especially ending punctuation & capitalization of names and the beginning of the sentence.

Sharing Circle - Once or twice a week I have a sharing circle in place of partnerships. We meet in our sharing circle for 10-12 mn, facing one another in an amoeba-ish circle. Everyone brings what they wrote that day but two to three students share their piece in it's entirety. The students listen to each other so closely during sharing circle - it is AWESOME! And it provides another opportunity for me to reinforce teaching points and also publicly (yet respectfully and positively) nudge a writer to work on a particular aspect of their work.

This is similar to an earlier tip, but goes a bit deeper. Rather than referring to what you say when you get the students attention or to make your teaching point, it shifts the lens more specifically and personally to when you're conferring directly with a student.

With my students, I'm transparent about the fact that I'll be complimenting and nudging each and every one of them throughout their day, for ALL their work as first graders (academics, habits & behaviors). 

When I'm teaching writers about what to expect in workshop (writing, math AND reading workshops), I tell them that there will be times I work with them one on one, in small group and in large group. That I get to be their "cheerleader" and their "nudger"

So, during a conference, after I've decided on the specific nudge, I'll state it using "writers" to make it less personal. 

Instead of..."You need to go back and edit for ending punctuation."...I'll say..."Writers make their work easier to read by making sure it has ending punctuation. I'm going to show you a strategy for doing that and then you can get started."

Instead of..."You don't have an introduction."...I'll say..."Writers hook their readers with their first sentence, written to introduce what they'll be writing about. Sometimes an introduction starts with a question like, 'Have you ever...' or 'What if''...What kind of introduction are you thinking about writing?"

Compliments during a conference may also use "writers." For example, I might say, "Writers use repetition carefully and on purpose. You did exactly that on this part right here!"

While I'm teaching a specific writing genre in a unit of study, I want my writers to get as skilled as possible within that genre and have the opportunity to apply my whole group mini-lesson teaching points in their pieces. It takes several completed pieces within that genre to grow in the nuances of that genre.

There are important reasons to focus instruction and practice on a specific genre for a period of time. All while building the undercurrent that writers write and illustrate with intention and purpose in all types and formats of writing.

On the other hand, I lovvvve when students (and students love it, too) have the opportunity to self-select their genre. Some students are reallllly passionate and motivated by certain genres. This year, I have a big crew of boys who are totally jazzed about writing informational books. They write incessantly about dinosaurs and sharks, specifically. They talk about their writing on the playground and in the halls, they research their topic by selecting books about the topic, they watch tv shows and youtube videos about their passion. Why would I want to squelch that?

My workaround is to provide a minimum number of completed pieces within our focus genre and then they can use writing workshop time for choice writing.

In addition, choice writing is one of the things they can select when they first arrive at school in the morning. It's also included in our Fun Friday choices (some writers choose to write over iPads, games, puzzles, math tools & building!).

I decide on how many pieces will be required based on how long our pacing guide gives us to instruct on that genre, how much actual work time there will be. When they get to choice writing, they can still write within the genre we're working on. Choice writing pieces, once complete, go home right away. I collect the required pieces and send them home after we've ended our unit with a mini-celebration.

I cannot speak enough to the value of mentor texts and weaving that we read like writers and write like readers throughout the day, day after day. With every topic. With every read aloud.

While I read aloud, a pause to reflect on the writer's moves might sound like this.

"I'm going to reread that part. Listen to how the author stretched out the importance of that detail by adding extra sentences about _____. It helps us know how strongly the character felt about ____. In your writing you can add extra details about the important and special parts, too."

"Check out how this author used three synonyms right next to each other to help put a picture in our mind about the character. It says, Anderson was strong. He was as mighty as three sturdy trees. The author really wanted us to picture Anderson's strength! Strong. Mighty. Sturdy. All synonyms.You can try that in your writing, too. When you want your reader to understand something really clearly, you can put three synonyms near each other."

That said, though, I have to give a HUUUUUGE shout out to Stella, written by my friend Janiel Wagstaff! She is AMAZING!!! My class literally CHEERS when we start a new writing unit. They want to hear how Stella writes in that genre. Stella is the cutest, spunkiest character and she does an amazing job teaching about the different writing genres. You DEFINITELY want to check the Stella Writes Series out.

I am THRILLLLLLLLLED to FINALLY post this post!!!!! 

Hope you're just as excited to try out some new tips!!!!

Let me know what works for you! And...don't forget to PIN it so you can find it easily.

© Growing Firsties. All rights reserved.
Design by Laugh Eat Learn // Theme by Pipdig