Adventures in Writer’s Workshop: 5 Takeaways from Personal Narrative Unit

I sit in the back of my room, with 28 thirteen-year-olds huddled around me. The stale, summer air is thick with beginning of the year nerves. They are squished together, with pencils at the ready, for our first day of writer’s workshop. It’s new to them, it’s new to me. Some are rapt with attention, eager for a challenge. Others are wary of change. My goal? To improve writing instruction in my classroom.

Writer’s Workshop is a method of teaching that allows students to immerse themselves in writing, with opportunities for volume writing in multiple genres. Each session of the Writer’s Workshop begins with a 10-minute mini-lesson in our meeting area (ie my teacher’s desk). Once I send them on their way to work independently, I mingle, working 1:1 with students on their writing craft.

I finally have one unit down in the books. At the suggestion of Mary Ehrenworth, I began not with the Units themselves but in the If…Then book. I had my 8th graders write personal narratives. Here are five takeaways that were important, and unexpected.

  1. Students were shocked at the sheer volume of writing: And so was I. It is incredible what my students can produce when I push them. Each session they wrote a piece in class, and they wrote a piece for homework. I felt a little guilty each time I said “write another moment.” For some, this was easy, but I felt for the kids who could barely put together a sentence within the hour.
  2. Students loved having 1:1 discussions with me about their writing. And this was my favorite part. It ranged from helping a student to spell the word “was,” to guiding a student to use symbolism to express their emotions. There is a special connection that happens when you speak to a student personally about their writing. Especially with personal narratives, I learned some unbelievably heartbreaking and also heartwarming things about my students. It was nice to give them guidance in a conversational way. It feels like I am speaking to them as fellow writers, and not as an authority figure.
  3. Organization is not included: This is unfortunate since organization is not my strong suit. The books don’t talk about ways to have students organize their work. Or if they do, I didn’t see it. Granted my style is more fly by the seat of pants and see where it takes me. I learned quickly I needed to have students date and title each day’s work. I had them use the actual session titles in the book as their headings. Each teacher must develop a system that works for them. Moving forward, I will be stricter about headings for each entry, and really encourage digital notebooks, since they are easier to manage for me. I have the students use google docs, and they share their notebook with me. For notebooks checks, I have them highlight each item I am assessing so I can easily locate. At the end of the first unit, many were on 8 or 9 pages of typed material.
  4. Some students claimed they had nothing to write about. Students. would say, nothing interesting has happened to me. They might even ask me to give them something to write about. At first I worked to encourage them, but after the 3rd day of whining from the same kid, I just put my foot down and said part of the assignment is to generate ideas. That seemed to end the conversation. And they had a hard time writing without strict guidelines. I can’t tell you how many time I was asked, “how long does it need to be”, or “can I do this”, or “can I do that. “ My mantra became, do whatever you want as long as you write.
  5. Low classes need a lot of differentiation. Oh boy! I was not ready for my co-taught class. Most of the kids constantly stopped me to ask, “am I doing this right?”, or “is this good?” That was a tough habit to break. In addition, the behavior problems in this class meant I spent significantly less time conferring and more time managing the class. I was lucky to be able to split the class with my co-teacher to thin the herd, but it was still easy to get sidetracked. The hardest part is I have at least 4 students in that class who really need 1:1 for the entire period, and I struggled with abandoning them, but I have 25 others who need me, too.

As with any new material, you adjust. I will use all of this information to change how I attack the next units. I am already through Bend I of Investigative Journalism. Looking forward to sharing that with you!