Getting Started with Writing Workshop: Guiding Principles and the Writer’s Notebook

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I am working with a couple of new teachers who are trying to implement writing workshops in their middle-school classrooms, so I thought I would put together a few posts to collect my thinking and favorite resources about writing workshop and to invite my readers to chime in. If you’ve written a blog post about writing workshop in your classroom, please share the link.

One of the challenges with writing workshop for my students is that they’ve never experienced a writing workshop classroom themselves in their K-12 educations. What they know comes from books, and while many excellent books on workshop–including my three favorites, Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle, Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them, and Katie Wood Ray’s The Writing Workshop–take you step-by-step through the theory, principles, routines, and structures of effective workshop classrooms, it is still challenging to start teaching in a way that you yourself have never been taught.

For new teachers, it can also be overwhelming to “visit” the classrooms of teachers like Atwell, Kittle, and Ray. While all of them write openly and engagingly about their classroom failures, it’s also clear that their classrooms run smoothly and they themselves are master teachers. How can a new teacher possibly “do” all the aspects of workshop well when there is so much to organize and orchestrate?

Guiding Principles

Most books about workshop focus extensively on the details, but it helps to be very clear about the guiding principles, as effective planning and teaching will emerge from those principles. These are mine:

  • The teacher writes.
  • Routines and classroom structures are key to making workshop work. Predictable routines and structures lead to the development of writing habits and make creativity possible.
  • There is time daily for writing, sharing, learning from and teaching each other.
  • Writers choose what to write. Teachers support choice by teaching the kinds of choices writers can make and why and how they make those choices. Unlimited freedom in what to choose often feels like no choice at all.
  • We read as writers, gleaning knowledge of writing craft, strategies, and techniques from mentor texts.
  • Curriculum develops organically from the observations of the writing teacher and from the needs of the students.
  • The teacher reads and responds to student writing as a writer.
  • Writers have real audiences for their work.

The Writer’s Notebooknotebooks

The writer’s notebook is the foundation of my writing workshop. I didn’t keep a notebook consistently until I became a workshop teacher, and now I can’t imagine the point of living life if I couldn’t also be writing it. Of course it’s handy to have ten years’ worth of notebooks to use for teaching, but it’s also possible to start your notebook very shortly before your students start theirs.

I suggest to my new teachers that they find a notebook they want to write in and then try out a few prompts. Here are a few that I especially like.

My students and I use our notebooks to live and work like writers: generating ideas, playing with language, developing our thinking, revising short pieces. As a writer, I know that I have to plant a lot of seeds (to borrow Ralph Fletcher’s metaphor) in my notebook before I know what I want to write and share or publish. I usually ask students to work in notebooks for 2 weeks or so before they identify a topic they want to work into a polished piece. During those first couple of weeks, I am also teaching the routines, structures, and expectations of workshop as well as sharing mentor texts (some written by me, some by favorite authors, some by former students).

There are also daily invitations to share snippets of writing with the class. I urge students to jot down any ideas, topics, or words they want to “steal” for their own future writing. I do the same.

I use my notebook throughout the process of writing a polished piece. I usually find the seeds of an idea in my notebook. I then use my notebook to generate more focused writing on that idea. At some point in the process, I move to the computer to begin drafting, but I will return to the notebook for more quickwriting or freewriting if I get stuck on my draft.

Ralph Fletcher’s book, Breathing In, Breathing Out, is my favorite book about writer’s notebooks. Online, you’ll find his Tips for Young Writers, with a short list of ideas for notebook work, and a blog post for teachers, The Writer’s Notebook.

Tara Smith shares her strategies (plus more successful prompts and quickwrites) for launching the writer’s notebook in her blog post, Sharpen Your Workshop Routines: Setting Up the Writer’s Notebook for a Year of Writing.

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6 thoughts on “Getting Started with Writing Workshop: Guiding Principles and the Writer’s Notebook

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  3. Great post! I know I’m a little late, but I am finally getting my students into their notebooks even though it’s three weeks into school. My question for you is about time. I’ve done writing workshop in my class for a few years now, but I’ve always done it sporadically. I teach 9th grade ELA, so I’ve always gone from a workshop unit into a reading workshop unit. I want more consistency, but I guess don’t know how to organize my time. Can I really do writing workshop every day, and still hit all the required reading skills too? I teach 60-minute blocks and see students 4 days out of a 6-day cycle.

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