Going Deeper into Writer’s Workshop One Layer at a Time

Workshop presenter – Matthew Glover: Literacy

Designing Responsive Units of Study in Writing Workshop – Skillful teachers design sequences of instruction based on the needs of their students.

Having worked with the writer’s workshop framework for about 6 years, I am always looking for opportunities to advance my skill set and knowledge base in this area. Mathew Glover is a leader in his field and I found his presentations to be very insightful and they provided me with some strategies to instantly better myself as a writing coach. In this paper, I will outline the key process of running a good writer’s workshop.

A writing workshop is split into three important stages. They are the projecting (planning) and the carrying out of the mini-lesson with conferring. The term projecting refers to flexible planning. All good teachers must be flexible and responsive to their students’ needs. In simple terms, it sometimes means that we need to be able to change on the fly – such as when they already know the chosen teaching point or if it is not appropriate for them at that time. This is crucial as every moment we spend with the child is a learning moment. Our inability to be flexible makes us an ineffective teacher. On this note – administrators, please remember that setting up a good writing program takes time, and you must give your teachers the time to do it well.

Stage One: Projecting Units

The first stage of projecting is planning out units or writing projects that align with your curriculum. Being at an International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program School, it is vital our writing units align with our units of inquiry to fit the PYP transdisciplinary approach. When planning out units, we need to take care that our writing types are authentic and apply to the real world. A good litmus test for this is to see if you can find published mentor texts to go along with your writing piece. For example, how many published book reports can you find? Probably none – so why not have your students write a book review? It is very easy to find stacks of reviews to use as mentor texts for your students. At this point, it is best to look at past units and brainstorm new ones if they don’t fit this model. Once our units have been chosen, we need to find stacks of mentor texts that go along with them. This can be easily done with a web search and brainstorming session (e.g. for a book review mentor text use movie reviews from kids magazines or newspapers). After our mentor texts have been chosen, we need to sit down and look at the standards that we will be using for the unit and think about how we can display them in our own writing.

At this point, we produce a piece of our own writing that displays the main 6 plus one writing traits that align with our curricular outcomes. This will help us produce a list to focus our mini-lessons. This is the second piece of your conferring kit. A good conferring kit is made up of three kinds of mentor texts. They are published examples, teacher’s examples and students’ examples. For this first run through, you will need to start collecting student’s examples. Our last two components to collect for our conferring kit will be a writer’s notebook and a way to collect our conferring notes. All teachers have their own way of taking notes, but it is important to have them record the following points of their conferring meetings with each child: what was your praise (what can they do), your teaching point and what the student needs to work on next.

Stage Two: Immersion

During this stage, a teacher needs to become very familiar with their mentor text stack. If they are not familiar with their stacks, they will take too long to find an example when conferring with a student. So, as a rule of thumb, it is better to have fewer mentor texts, but know them well. During our immersion stage, we introduce our stack of mentor-published texts to our students. We explore them through inquiry or teaching them explicitly. During the immersion process, we want to take two or three days to walk them through the mentor text with read-alouds and self-exploration, pointing out specific characteristics of your chosen text type.

Stage Three: Projecting the Mini-Lesson and Conference

In stage three, we need to decide what our mini-lesson should focus on. This can be done in two ways, the first being to take a look at your curriculum scope and sequence and chose your next teaching goal. This approach is good to start off the unit, but should be changed once you have a better idea of your students’ needs. The second is to look at a large sample of your students’ writing and then look at your scope to find out which aligns with your outcomes and the needs of the students. Remember review lessons are important, but teaching points are more important when doing one-to-one conferring. The full penetration rate of a mini-lesson objective for a small class is only about 40-50%, as all students are working at different levels. Your most effective teaching will be done during the conferring where you will meet the students at the level of instruction they need. After you have given your mini-lesson it is time to start conferring. It is usually a good idea to pick the people you plan to confer with during your planning process. As teachers, we tend to spend more time with the strugglers. A good set of records reminds us that all students need our help. At present, I use a system using Google forms and spreadsheets that allows me to take notes quickly and plan who I need to see next. It is always a good idea to do a bit of pre-conference research. Before the lesson, quickly browse through the chosen student’s writing to get an idea of what you can praise them on and what they need to learn next to advance their writing. Always remember that we want to teach them a new point to help nudge their writing ahead. Sometimes as teachers we get caught on reminders and forget to teach a new point. A reminder does not help nudge them forward and correcting them has zero impact! During a conferring session, lead with telling the student about their strengths, do your research to find your new teaching point and always teach them something new. It is best to go straight to the student’s working area and speak in a normal voice. If another student is eavesdropping you are in luck, you are getting a two-for-one deal as they will also clue into your conferring point. In your notes, make sure to record what they did well, what the teaching point was and what they need to learn next. It is best to try and keep your conferring meetings at 6 to 8 minutes. Remember you want to give them a small nudge, not overwhelm them. If you follow these steps, you should help nudge your students along to being better writers.

Some mentor text resource sites

Writing source

Writing traits

Mentor Text Bibliography 

Mentor text Lessons (see side bar)


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