I want to thank Rachel Lynette for giving me the opportunity to share with you how I set up my Writer’s Workshop and some of the methods I use to encourage and engage students in the writing process. I teach 2nd grade, but I have used many of these methods from 1st-5th grade.
At the beginning of the school year, I set up my writing center and make it as appealing and user-friendly as possible. Here is a picture of my writing center this year and the adjoining reading center:
I stock it with comfy chairs and lots of different paper and writing implements. Fancy scissors are also a hit when making cards and books. My fifth graders loved to create their own books, bind them, and share them with the class.
The two most essential things that I use for Writer’s Workshop are writer’s notebooks and author studies.
Writer’s notebooks are just as much fun at 5th grade as they are at 2nd grade! They are personal notebooks that students use to capture their thoughts and ideas, and they serve as a platform to practice the skills needed to create wonderful pieces of writing.
After hearing authors speak about using writer’s notebooks, I thought, “Wow! How much fun would this be to use these notebooks with students?” I spent years teaching mini-lessons (interactive writing lessons based on Lucy Calkin’s ideas) about writing and then having students practice in their notebooks. Many loved it so much that they wanted to take their notebooks out for recess or take them home to write more! Now, I use a combination of that with my own set of Writer’s Notebook templates that are very multi-functional. (They are aligned to the Write Traits and CCSS, and they appeal to a wide variety of teaching methods and curriculum.) I like them because they are easy to use, kids love them, and they are skill-based.
One of my favorite things to do every year is to celebrate different authors and teach students about their style. I make sure I accompany any fiction author studies with lots of non-fiction books so that students that enjoy non-fiction can also be engaged. I used free author posters from That’s So Second Grade and made a few of my own that weren’t in the pack for my display.
For me, writing development is all about getting to know yourself and getting to know what you like and how to express it. Writing is risk-taking. You are putting your ideas on paper for everyone to see. I spend a lot of time at the beginning of the year on “getting to know you” writing so that students feel more comfortable not only writing but also about putting themselves out there as they learn more self-awareness. When students are lacking skills (e.g. spelling, sentence structure), it can be frustrating for them to be able to express themselves. Supplying students with junior dictionaries and word lists can take out some of the frustration so they can get on to the business of writing down their ideas and stories.
Using books as a springboard for teaching the Write Traits or other writing skills is a fun and engaging way to teach students the art of written expression. Sometimes I use the author that I am currently exploring with the students, and other times I find a fabulous book that I just KNOW would be great to teach a certain writing style.
So just how do you differentiate for so many different learners? For me, it’s taking the time to get to know your learners as writers. Some writers have trouble getting ideas onto paper, some struggle with using descriptive words, others write so much and so fast that their ideas don’t make sense. Once I have figured out the kind of writers I have in my class, I do one of two things: I teach mini-lessons at the carpet for small groups, or I go around on my wheeled chair and spend time with each student chatting about their writing – this is MY writing conference. It is a method of informal assessment that is assessment FOR learning.
Once students are involved in a writing assignment and understand that they can access their friends for ideas, feedback, or spelling things, it frees me up to circulate the room. I like to do it on a chair so that I am at their level. I conference with students individually about their writing and give them compliments and suggestions for approval. I like when students are able to self-assess, and when I am there to help the process, it works fantastically.
Another form of assessment is peer assessment. We will have an Author’s Circle, where students bring their writing back to the carpet, and we listen to each piece of writing. Students and I tell what we like about it and one way they can improve it. The writers often ask questions like, “What do you think my title should be?” or “Did you like the way I ended it?” This motivates students to make their writing better.
Finally, teachers everywhere tell me that the most frustrating thing about teaching writing is teaching about using punctuation and capitals letters – the conventions. Yes, it is definitely a struggle. I set up my schedule so that the language basics are separate. Students have spelling lists to practice, and we do language lessons a couple of times a week that focus in the skills they currently need based on my assessments of their writing and especially their journal writing. As they write for Writer’s Workshop, I remind students of a lesson that we had done on that particular skill so that they utilize that skill as they write. Of course, conventions are a part of the Write Traits, so I also use fun books, like When Punctuation takes a Vacation, to help the process along, as well.