Setting Writers Free: Fostering Independence in Writing Workshop
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. I have often watched kindergarten students plan their narratives through drawings. Kolleen, a kindergarten teacher in Upper Moreland Township School District, was always a great model of teacher as writer, showing the students how she used color to add details to her drawings. Part of her instruction was to teach her students how to ask questions about the pictures she drew. 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, they asked each other 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 repeated 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 Mitten by Jan Brett, Chicken Sunday by Paricia Polacco, Ralph Tells a Story by Abby Hanlon, 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.
In 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 wrote about a variety of topics: snow, a rhinoceros, swimming, their house, their family, butterflies, becoming the first woman president, camping, building a treehouse, begin a flower girl in their aunt’s wedding – just about everything they thought about, talked 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. Everyone’s a teacher in the writing community!
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?