Writer’s Workshops Part Two: Let’s get Messy.

photo-1461344577544-4e5dc9487184This is part two in the Writer’s Workshop (WW) series. If you missed part one, I mean really, how could you have missed part one?! But if you did, you can check it out here first. Go on. I’ll wait.

Here’s the grand segway into part two: They put words and ideas down on their GDocs. Now what?

I’ve got two words for you: Messy Multiple Drafts.

For those of you that follow the writing process, we spend the next few weeks (3-4 weeks, depending on the purpose) on the same piece of writing, traveling in and out of the revising and editing stages. It is within this cyclical process that I bring out the mechanics lessons that I discerned/discovered from their writing samples collected at the beginning of the year that would be the most beneficial to their writing now. For the record and the sake of the length of this blog, I’m going to assume that you understand that the process laid out in these WW blogs continues all year long, with the only substantive variations being the piece of writing and the mechanics lessons used.

Anywho, this is where all the messy fun takes place, right in the middle of fighting over multiple drafts. My students, maybe like yours too, are natural One-Hit-Wonders. Say, if an essay is due Friday, then they would write it on Thursday night/early Friday morning; no other eyes but theirs have been on it, no proofreading, no editing, no formatting checks, nothing. “What do you mean I should have reread/rewritten/spent more time on this?!”, they ask disgustedly.Sound familiar? Anyone, anyone?

Sound familiar? Anyone, anyone (Bueller)?

We don’t play that in my class, this One-N-Done crap. They are forced, kicking and screaming and (sometimes, true story) crying into revision/editing/proofreading/rewriting mode while I sit back and relish all the pain and anguish that occurs every period of the day. Well, not as maniacally evil as that, but you know, a little bit.

It’s important, though, not to take the pain away. Not to step in and take away their discomfort just because something is hard to do or time-consuming, or whatever. Growth involves pain and struggle. To get better at something, you have to do that something over and over and over: sports, video games, cooking, reading, writing, whatever.

The sooner they realize that you won’t accept their first piece of (crappy) written work, the better.

Depending on the piece of writing and its purpose, we’ll do 2-3 drafts before they submit their final piece for review. This process is messy and it stinks (literally and metaphorically). Let them know it will be messy. Assure them that Messy is okay, that Messy can be cleaned up. I tell it to them like this, nearly word for word:

A draft is like throwing up on the page. You gotta get it all out of your head in order to know what you have. And, you always feel better when you get it out. But it stinks and it’s a mess, sometimes a pretty big one. It’s during the revising and editing that we begin to clean up that mess. You gotta get in there and root through all that stuff to find the pieces you want to keep and the pieces that need to go. And there will always be pieces that, with just a bit of elbow grease, could be amazing. Time to get to work; start vomiting!

Sorry for the visual and the overly extended, forced metaphor. The visual works, though. It sticks with them when they write and when they revise and edit. And for the three weeks after the first “vomiting”, that’s exactly what we do.

We focus on no more than two grammar/mechanics skills per draft. Any more than that and the students get lost. We can’t catch everything at once (we do lots of writing, we’ll catch other things later), so let’s drill down to the big things that matter: Active/Passive voice, Run-Ons/Fragments, Confused words (their, they’re, there), Word choice, and Sentence structure (varying lengths, beginnings, middles, and ends). We also dig into concepts that are a little bit more abstract and elusive too: Voice, Writing flow, and Ideas.

Fear not, we hit spelling, formatting, capitalization, punctuation, and the like, we just do that later. Those are the easy(ier) fixes. For two out of the three drafts, I explicitly state, nay command, that any reader or writer or proofreader of these drafts are NOT allowed to correct or point out ANY of those basic mechanical writing issues. Those are not the fixes that will make their writing any better, trust me. Think about it, a perfectly spelled, masterfully formatted, horribly written, nonsensical essay does not proficient writing make. And because these are easy(ier), we do the hard work up front, then come back on the final draft and deal with the little red squiggly lines, paragraph indenting, sentence punctuating, word capitalizing, etc., etc.

Well, I’m pretty sure that all of this came out jumbled, filled with a lot of plot holes, and conjured up more questions than answers. But then again, that’s basically any normal teaching day for me 🙂 So, as I read and reread this before I published it, it felt warm and homey to me.

Connect with me on Twitter, @theteachingjedi, if you want to further this discussion.

And may the Force be with you.


Writer’s Workshops: What I do probably doesn’t count, Part One.


So Twitter happened the other day, and here I am writing about Writer’s Workshops. That’s right, Writer’s Workshops. An idea/process/program/whatever that I’ve really never thought about more than just writing those two words on my board to denote a quiet time for my students to write. In the classroom. Quietly.

Aside from that, the idea has never really been more than that. At least not in real life practice.

But thoughts were forced out of my head after reading an article about a Writer’s Workshop Station Rotation model that a friend of mine (@CoriOrlando1) asked me to comment on.

Anyway, I’m grateful for the forced metacognition about my idea, my version of a Writer’s Workshop. So, without further adieu, here we go…

I don’t do anything remotely related to a Writer’s Workshop (from now on, WW) until I’ve collected at least two or three pieces of writing from my students. I collect one on the first or second day of school in the form of a hand-written letter to themselves, that will be handed back during the last week of school; then a few weeks later I collect their first Article of the Week response using the They Say/I Say argumentative response template.

Once I get a broad overview of the writing they are coming to me with, I then formulate a strategy to hit the main/major/most-often-made writing/grammar/mechanics mistakes I see as an overall group of writers. At that point, I’m looking for a few basic skills that will give us the most and quickest change right up front. I’ll choose a series of mini lessons from Mechanics Instruction That Sticks that fit what they need for their writing right now.

During the next writing assignments, and on to the end of the year, we will work with the lessons that they need through mechanics work in isolation, examples of good and bad writing, and their own authentic writing. As the year progresses, and as they produce more and more pieces, the writing instruction becomes more and more tailored to each writer’s individual needs.It’s within this broad overview of what my version of the WW looks like that I will break down the steps and spend more time illustrating them and what they look like in my classroom as best as I can.

I know, this is a very broad overview of what my version of the WW looks like. I told you already in the title, what I do probably doesn’t count as an official WW, as laid out in the many articles I’ve read. And it’s definitely NOT a station rotation model. However, and in spite of, I will break down my process as best I can and spend more time illustrating the stages and what they look like in my classroom.

Stage One:

They need to write something.

A narrative is usually their next writing assignment. It’s attached to one of the stories in our Short Story Hyperdoc. We have block days on Wednesdays and Thursdays (105 min each class), and I devote 50% or more of that time to them to begin drafting their story. Drafting is the easy part, no instruction during this time, they just need to get the words out of their head onto the page, all nice and messy.

Before the drafting phase, they’ll spend about 30 minutes in class brainstorming ideas with themselves first, and then in groups of four or five. Collaborative idea-gathering is great for those who might not have any ideas on their own, might not think their ideas are any good, or just need some good old-fashioned group encouragement. We’ll do this with a shared doc or pencil and paper, student’s choice.

During the drafting phase, I make the rounds to every student to see what it is that they’re writing, to hear their ideas for their story, and to point out any egregious errors I see on their screen while I’m visiting. I’ll usually extend the writing to the Friday of that same week. About 30 minutes into class on that Friday, I’ll section them off into groups to read what they have of their drafts out loud to three or four other people, editing their own writing as they read.

The reading out loud is more for them than it is for the listeners. It’s good for them to hear their story verbally for a few reasons. 1) It’s easier to see/hear errors and fix them in the text when it’s spoken aloud versus reading it silently to themselves. 2) They can hear their ideas come to life for the first time since they began drafting. It’s probably the best way for them to know if their story makes any sense. 3) The get an authentic audience reaction from their peers, not from a teacher whom they think will listen to it too critically. They need and want some sort of validation.

I make the draft due the following Monday. That gives them the weekend to work through it some more if they need/want to.

Let’s recap. At this point, they’ve spent approximately 30 minutes brainstorming and talking through ideas, 50 minutes of a block day in WW Drafting Mode, plus an additional 30-ish minutes on a Friday, and 20-ish more minutes reading their drafts out loud. Little guidance, little instruction, just ideas becoming words becoming sentences becoming paragraphs becoming a messy first draft of a narrative.

And that’s when the fun begins!

Part Two and the Mechanics instruction coming soon.