Monday, October 29, 2012

Introducing Writers' Workshop

After many years as a 4th Grade teacher, I returned to school this fall as a member of the English Department, teaching three sections of 5th Grade English. The change was exciting for me, as it was both a new challenge and an opportunity to focus on a single discipline. As a 4th Grade teacher, my typical day consisted of 45-60minute periods of several different subjects (Math, Reading, LA/SS), and the virtues of this program were not lost on me. It was an opportunity to gain a really holistic perspective on my students; weaker readers soared as mathematicians; quiet, introspective students transformed in feisty historians; a student who struggled while writing her personal narrative might easily produce an account written from the perspective of a fictional character.

As a 5th Grade English teacher, I have the luxury of teaching every student in the grade, though in a much more constrained context. I've lost a strong sense of who excels at division or asks the most challenging questions in Social Studies, but what I've gained is the knowledge that every single one of these kids is a writer. A good writer. A writer with an interesting story to tell. My school has launched a pilot Writers' Workshop program in Grades 2 and 5, and so I have been the beneficiary of many meetings with an expert consultant, Mary Anne Sacco, who comes to every meeting with a 5lb bag of literary resources, and Maureen Burgess, world's most supportive Department Chair. We are developing a Writers' Workshop that is inspired by and heavily rooted in the Lucy Calkins model, and I have been consistently blown away by the experience. 

After several meetings to prepare for the school year, Maureen and Mary Anne suggested I create my own Writer's Notebook, complete with cover decorations and sample entries, both as a model for the kids and to fully immerse myself in the experience I would soon be introducing in my classroom. Initially wary ("It's the first week of September, you have a million critical things to do, and decorating a composition notebook is not one of them!" I thought to myself), I soon found myself digging through old boxes to find ticket stubs, photos and other memorabilia to personalize my notebook. I painstakingly laid out my design, overlapping this image just so, tilting that postcard ever so slightly, until I had a Writer's Notebook I felt strangely, maybe inordinately, proud of. I wanted to fill this book with my writing, and although I've since transferred that desire to write to this blog, the motivation stems from the composition notebook sitting on my desk at school. I think this was the moment when I realized how powerful the program could be. This is the moment everything clicked for me, the teacher. 

My students had a similar process of discovery as I introduced them to Writers' Workshop during the first few weeks of school. Although they required far less convincing when it came to decorating their notebooks, producing beautiful and personal pieces of work, the writing aspect of the program was still ambiguous and uncertain, the phrase 'mentor text,' unfamiliar and intimidating. However, as we read aloud from and dissected our first mentor text, an excerpt from Hey World! Here I Am, I had this eerie feeling that everything was going splendidly, perfectly, absolutely according to plan. My students pulled out interesting or clever lines, made inferences about the narrator based on her tone and word choice, and eagerly offered up their own similar experiences. 

When the time came for them to actually sit down and write, I figured there would be at least a few students who expressed doubt or, at the very least needed some cajoling to get started. Instead, I had a room full of silent 5th Graders, heads buried in their notebooks, staring pensively out the window, or furiously scribbling away on the page. My curiosity over how these kids would fill 10 minutes with nothing but independent writing quickly shifted to the realization that convincing them to stop after such a short period of time would be the greater challenge. The groans one might expect to hear at the start of such an assignment came only when I forced my students to stop writing.  Pacified only by the news that they would now get to share their entries with their peers, they reluctantly released their pencils and left their cozy writing nooks for our class circle. 

The brilliance of Writers' Workshop, the magic, I think, is rooted in the notion that the students are being asked to write about themselves. There is no wrong way to do it, as long as they are putting thoughts down on the page. In class we spend a lot of time reading mentor texts, discussing ways in which published authors play with language and literary devices to make their work more interesting, but the task I give my students at the end of these roundtables is simple, without spelling rules or topic restrictions: write

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