The National Writing Project‘s model of teachers teaching teachers depends largely upon the belief that teachers are professionals. Professional teachers collaborate with their professional communities to be responsive to their students, reflective in their planning, and to constantly revise their practices as they encounter new students, experiences, and educational research. They resist “we’ve always done it this way” habits of mind and push back on scripted curriculum by providing individualized, research-based instruction for their diverse student populations.
Last summer, the Heart of Texas Writing Project at UT Austin, a National Writing Project affiliate, conducted week-long mini institutes with Bastrop ISD’s K-12 teachers. During Heart of Texas Writing Project intensive institutes, teachers are treated as professionals, engaging in graduate-level work, reading professional articles and books, and using inquiry and debate to merge prior experience and knew understandings. Then, participants are challenged to design plans to apply this new knowledge through the implementation of writing workshop in their classrooms.
It requires courage to embrace the type of autonomy and responsibility that a Writing Workshop classroom expects of its teacher. Calli Caperton, a third grade teacher at Red Rock Elementary, participated in the HTWP institutes in Bastrop last summer. She had studied Writing Workshop in an undergraduate class but had yet to try it out in her room. The opportunity to process and prepare for implementation during this week-long PD, motivated Calli to put these practices into place in her classroom.
In the first weeks of school, Calli and her students began to set up routines and procedures for mini lessons, conferences, and share time.
Q: What are a few of the example routines you taught students that helped you get your writing workshop going?
Calli: The first mini lesson I did was how to come to the carpet and what it should look like when the kids are participating in a mini lesson. Then I did a mini lesson about “What is a mini lesson?” The next lesson was on “Ways to get started”. I shared my experiences with having trouble writing as a child. I also did a mini lesson on how to share stories. It was mainly about how to do the author’s chair because they were excited about sitting in my chair. We did mini lessons on how to share in other ways such as partner or group share and gallery walks as we came to a time that we were sharing in those ways.
As Calli describes above, a writing workshop teacher thoughtfully structures workshop time and designs mini lessons that lead to student independence and autonomy. Explicit teaching and practice of routines are the key to getting Writing Workshop going strong from Day 1.
This early work includes teaching students strategies for how to explore topics of their own choosing rather than depending upon the teacher to provide a prompt. In a writing workshop classroom, students are not given prompts. They choose topics about which they are passionate, knowledgeable, and interested. Calli designed a series of mini lessons that equipped students with strategies on how to get started.
Once students had spent the first weeks of school practicing many ways of getting started writing, including such lessons as jotting lists, looking around you for inspiration, or getting inspiration from their lives, students delved into their first unit of study to take through the writing process. Rather than putting their notebooks aside to start anew, students used these entries to unearth topics for more in-depth pieces of writing. The “choice” writing students had done in the first weeks of school now served as a treasure chest of ideas that could be used in a crafted piece of any genre. An entry about a pet could inspire a fantasy piece about talking animals. An entry about a farm could inspire a memoir about family working together.
Q: What are some of the mini lessons you taught that helped students to explore topics of their own choosing for their first published pieces?
A: I taught a mini lesson about flipping through my journal to find what I was writing the most about. We talked about how they could flip through their own notebooks and find a topic based on what they write most frequently about. I also gave them a lot of books that they could read and look at to come up with ideas.We also did a a lesson on jotting a list of things that we know a lot about because authors often write about the things they know.
For this first piece, students were in charge of choosing their own genre and topic for a piece they would bring through the writing process to publication. Students wrote fantasy, memoir, and informational texts inspired by their family, their interests, and experiences.
As is also crucial in a writing workshop classroom, students chose an audience for their work. For this first piece, they decided to have the administrators at the school read their publications and provide positive feedback.
As students were still publishing their first pieces during writing time, Calli began to prepare students for their next writing unit of study through the reading curriculum. She immersed her students in a study of poetry.
Q: In your unit of study on poetry, what mini lessons in reading and writing did you do to help kids study different type of poems?
Calli: We read different types of poetry and recorded on chart paper all the things we noticed and categorized the poems that we read by what they had in common. We looked at how poets organize their writing and how they used punctuation and then practiced that in our own writing. I also wrote a poem and shared that with my class. We also looked at videos of people performing their own poetry. I always left out a variety of poetry books out for them to explore and use during writing.
As you can see in this video, Calli used published poetry and also tried out writing her own poetry as students took on roles as poets. As she explains below, Calli’s mini lessons were responsive to the observations she made about students’ knowledge of various kinds of poetry.
Q: How did those mini lessons affect students’ poems? For example, what types of poems and authors’ craft did you see them trying out in their poems?
Calli: I limited the amount of rhyming poems that they could see, so I found that only a few kids did a rhyming poem. At first I saw that the kids were writing a lot of shape poems, so I pulled out a lot of narrative and other styles of poems and they began to branch out. When they saw a type of poem in a book that they hadn’t been exposed to in a lesson, I saw them modeling their own poems based off of the new ones that they saw. Most of the kids tried using onomatopoeia in their poems after I read my poem to them.
This type of responsive teaching challenged students to “branch out” as Calli says. When students are challenged to try new techniques and styles and to learn from a variety of poems, they form opinions and preferences, deepening their knowledge and ability to not only write, but also read and understand poetry. In the below clip that shows the rest of Calli’s mini lesson, we witness students’ understanding of the craft of poetry.
As Calli moved through the unit, she identified prior knowledge and misconceptions that students had about the genre. This way, she was able to be responsive in her teaching and design mini lessons that met students’ specific needs. As a professional teacher who reflects upon and revises her practices based on research and students’ needs, Calli was able to differentiate for every student in her room. She carefully crafted mini lessons and conferred with students to challenge them and move them forward in their work.
Q: What are some of the successes you saw through these units of study?
Calli: I saw that my students had a better understanding of the particular genre that we were studying. I exposed them to a genre in reading first for a couple of weeks before incorporating it into writing lessons and having them write. When they listened to different read alouds in one genre they were able to identify noticings and then apply that to their own writing. I found that the majority of the kids were able to find the main noticings and apply it to their writing.
Q: What are some of the things you had to troubleshoot or do some responsive teaching around in these units of study?
Calli: The main thing I had to troubleshoot were misconceptions about poetry and how poets format their poems. We spent a lot of time on punctuation in poetry and how to apply that to our own writing. I found that we had to keep cycling back in how poets use punctuation.
Before students had finished publishing and sharing their poetry, students began reading and studying various fictional genres during her reading block. Just as they had with poetry, students noticed the characteristics of various types of fiction and prepared for trying out fiction as authors. And after fiction, came a unit of feature articles.
And so it continues. Through each genre study, Calli continues to spend time immersing her students in a genre, guiding them to make observations and develop understandings, preparing them to write in that genre on a topic of their choosing for an audience who is anxious to read their work.
It may feel risky, at first, to throw out the script and trust in our professionalism and knowledge of our students to guide us through units of study. This year, in her first year as a teacher of writing workshop, Calli had to trust herself and the mentors around her. She allowed herself to be guided by the authors she’d read, the colleagues supporting her, and her students whose work gave her inspiration for each next lesson.
Each unit informed the next. Each mini lesson taught her something new about herself as a teacher and about her students. By the end of February, Calli’s students will have developed the confidence to fill their notebooks on topics of their own choosing and the knowledge to craft any genre–from poetry to feature articles–using as resources the guidance of mentor authors and their writing community. Audiences inside and outside the walls of their Writing Workshop classroom will continue to have the pleasure of reading and being affected by their work.
As professional educators we should thank other professionals, like Calli, for reminding us to trust in our professionalism, in the research and published authors that inform our teaching, and, most of all, in the belief that our students have important things to say and original, inspirational, ways to say them.