Writer's Workshop in Middle School

One of the most frequently asked questions teachers ask me is How does Writer's Workshop work in a middle school class?

Middle school ELA teachers only have so much time in which we must cover a lot of material. I only see my students for 42 minutes a day. (Crazy, I know!) So I completely understand why teachers wonder how they can successfully use the writing process in a middle school setting. Teachers often feel that if they spend 2-4 weeks on a single writing task they are NOT addressing reading skills, grammar, and all of the standards that we are required to squeeze into the all-too-short time frames we have with our kids. 

First, let me say that I've tried everything over my 20-year teaching career, and I can say with total certainty that the workshop approach is superior to any other model. 

Middle school writer's workshop works for three reasons. 

1. Students learn to write best through practicing writing. 
2. Students will write more and be more invested in a topic of their choosing. 
3. Workshop models enable students to begin taking control of their own learning and think of themselves as writers.

Through our workshops we don't only address writing, we also address punctuation, sound sentences, capitalization, and a host of other skills. To a lesser extent, the peer conferencing we do helps kids practice reading and communication skills. 

That's not to say there isn't a time and a place for specific writing prompts for which responses are rapidly written, collected, graded, and returned. Kids do have to learn how to write for a testing situation. But for honing the craft of argumentative, informative, and narrative writing, the workshop model can't be beat.
Because I'm limited to those 42 minutes, I run writer's workshop differently than others with a
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more generous schedule. While we don't have the luxury of using weeks on end, we do have just enough time to make it work. 

A typical day in writer's workshop looks like this:
   


Mentor Texts

A week or two before we actually begin our workshop, I'll take 15-20 minutes at the beginning of each period to start introducing mentor texts. Although I will sometimes use picture books and excerpts, I LOVE to also use texts that are written by kids who have come before them in class and resemble the texts they will be writing. Some teachers only use professional texts, but I like to show kids that what they have to offer can be as awesome as the pros. We discuss those passages as readers and as writers, and we use them to generate seed ideas.

Prewriting and Idea Gathering

After discussing the mentor texts, we turn inward and do some prewriting based on a related prompt. During our personal narrative unit, the related prompt might be, Write about a time when you... or Think back to a time that...

We do this for a week or two, and by the time we're ready to get serious about writing, many kids already know what they want to write about. But that doesn't mean they can just get started, because I still have everyone fill out some idea starter pages. Many times, kids will want to take the easy route and write what they have already started writing about. Having everyone explore ideas using an idea page ensures that they've really examined their life's stories.

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Drafting and Mini-Lessons

Then it is time to choose an idea and make it grow. I like to give everyone one period that's solely for writing with no mini-lesson to interrupt.

Writing is a messy business and after that drafting day is when the mess starts. By mess, I mean everyone works at a different pace, so one person is revising while another is rebounding from a false start. There are also times when a mini-lesson has to go over the ideal time allotment. Flexibility is key. After a while I learned to embrace the mess, and so will you. :) 

From here on in we try to follow the chart above. We go over revision mini-lessons for several days during the drafting phase. I pick these lessons carefully, depending on our writing genre and the needs of the students. Most of the revision mini-lessons will be geared toward the entire class. For example, I might teach the class how to use vivid, concrete verbs. Then they will immediately highlight some of the verbs in their paper and come up with more effective substitutions. 


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As some of the kids move more into editing, there are others mini-lessons- that are focused and are meant for small groups, depending on need. Sometimes I determine the need and sometimes I let the kids decide if they need to join in on the mini-lesson. It's always good for a chuckle when the lesson begins with a small group at the back table and then grows as the others hear what we're doing and decide that they need the lesson too.


Conferences

While the kids are working on revising for the mini-lesson, I grab a clipboard, sticky mailing labels or post-it notes and I make my way around to confer. 

Let me explain how I do this with 22-29 students per class and our measly 42 minute periods. And me. Just me.

Cue the long sigh.

When I say "confer," I mean I do one of two things. 
1) I ask the kids to ask me ONE specific question about their work. They learn quickly not to ask me if something is good, because good is subjective. 
Or 
2) I look specifically for evidence that they are addressing the skills from the mini-lesson.

There is no time for the type of lengthy conference there might be in an elementary classroom that
Writer's Workshop is the BEST way for middle school students to learn how to write argumentative, informative, and narrative essays. Find out how one teacher manages to fit it all in one short period. #writersworkshop #writingworkshop #argumentessays #narrativeessays #informativewriting #writingteacher #middleschool
can bend the time constrictions. There is no time for a total read/thorough list of suggestions and comments. There is only time for a partial read with one or two quick comments. During our personal narrative unit, I might suggest that Bixby include some dialogue to advance the plot. Or I might ask Buffy if she can find a place to slow down the action and dig deep into some descriptive writing.

That's it. They get a quick comment that I jot down on the mailing label and I move on. When kids submit their final draft they also turn in any labels I give them so I can see if they heeded my recommendations. 

While I would love to have more time to discuss each student's writing, this works for us. In fact, I actually think that it forces us to get down to business quickly. The kids benefit because they can't lean on me too much for assistance and I am forced to be laser focused and get right to the point. 

Sharing

If time allows, at the end of class I'll ask kids to share a specific snapshot of their writing before and after the revision they made based on the mini-lesson. They are usually eager and proud to show improvements, and even the kids who don't want to read aloud often admit that the revisions went a long way in improving their writing. 

Peer Revision and Editing

Prior to the peer revision step, I discourage kids from handing their papers over to another student to read, especially with creative pieces like narratives.Kids will often add tips and suggestions about the direction of a story, and then the story doesn't belong to the writer anymore. When a student has already spent time revising their own work and is ready for the next step, they find a partner who is also at the same stage in the writing process, and they use a peer revision checklist.

Following the list, kids are required to read their partner's paper over several times, once for each set of criteria on the checklist. For example, they will read once to see if they can find places where adding details would enhance the piece, and again to look for unnecessary details, etc. It is much more effective for kids to have a specific focus for each reading; they are much less likely to give vague recommendations on their partner's work. 

After the revisions have been made, students can move on to the editing checklist, this time with a different partner. The editing works the same way, with peer editors looking for one type of editing mistake at a time.  

Sharing and Publishing Final Drafts

After all of the hard work, kids are eager to share the fruits of their labor, but for a long time I was stingy about giving them time to do so. I always felt so much pressure to move on to the next unit, read the next book, or begin the next writing assignment. These days I see the value in celebrating a job well done, so I like to give students a full period of celebratory sharing.

Our publication parties are different depending on the task. They usually look like this:

Argumentative Essays: They become authentic and purposeful when we turn them into letters to government representatives, as discussed here

Feature Articles/Informative Writing: These are usually digital, so it's easy to give every student their own copy of a class magazine. These magazines are very popular with the kids!

Fictional Narratives: We break up into small groups and kids volunteer to read their stories aloud.

Personal Narratives and Memoirs: Stations seem to work best with personal pieces. Groups go from table to table reading the work of others. I attach a blank page to each one, and I have the kids leave one positive comment and one question for the writer.
Please be sure to always ask students if they want to share. Sometimes kids are shy about sharing, especially if the piece is personal. 

Writer's Workshop 

If you are still in doubt about using precious classroom time to engage in a writer's workshop model, consider this. What do professional writers do when they want to practice their craft? They don't attend lectures or classes in which they are all assigned the exact same task. They attend workshops that give them a chance to practice and share the projects they are driven to explore. Why should young students of writing have a less valuable experience?

These writer's workshop units include everything you need and they're ready to go!

Argument writing is best taught using a writer's workshop approach. Find out how it can be used in the middle school classroom.

Narrative writing is best taught using a writer's workshop approach. Find out how it can be used in the middle school classroom.

                                      Informative writing is best taught using a writer's workshop approach. Find out how it can be used in the middle school classroom.

2 comments

  1. Love having kids ask you a question when you confer. I hate when kids just say "Can you read this?" I also love your mailing label idea. How long do your units usually last?

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