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Focus On Basics

Volume 7, Issue D ::: September 2005

How Does the Writing Workshop Work?

The Seven Steps to Success

Step 1: Folders

Many students have never participated in a structured writing process, so it essential to incorporate such structure in the Writing Workshop. A multicolored folder system is used to organize and maintain the Writing Workshop’s many materials. The following are the four distinctive folders and their functions:

Step 2: Brainstorming

The instructors use two brainstorming techniques: Free Writing and Writing Territories. The only rule in Free Writing is to write. Students may write about anything they choose and are encouraged to be unconcerned with grammar, structure, or style. Afterwards, students review their writing to identify ideas that they may want to incorporate into a more formal, written piece. The length of time students Free Write increases progressively throughout the session, with students beginning at five minutes each day during the first week and increasing five minutes each week. During the last week of class, students Free Write for 35 minutes.

Natalie Goldberg’s concept of Writing Territories provides a more structured brainstorming technique. Writing Territories involve three areas: Topics, Genres, and Audiences. Students are asked to brainstorm ideas for Topics (e.g., an argument with a girlfriend), Genres (e.g., drama or comedy), and Audiences (e.g., teachers, friends, and/or family). Students then identify the topic, genre, and audience for their autobiographical piece.

Step 3: Mini-Lessons

This concept, introduced in Nancy Atwell’s In the Middle (1998), involves the teacher beginning each class with a 15- to 30–minute lesson that introduces a writing concept that students will incorporate in their autobiographical pieces. The mini-lessons fall into two categories: craft and convention. Convention consists of basic grammatical rules, such as complete sentences, punctuation, and paragraphing.

Craft consists of writing techniques, such as character development, defining a conflict, describing a setting, and figurative language. Jimmy Baca’s A Place to Stand is used as a context for many of the craft mini-lessons. Student can read Baca’s similes, for instance, and then see how they can develop and incorporate similes into their own pieces.

The following two memorable examples of student similes are from James, who wrote his autobiographical piece about the day he was sentenced to the Suffolk House of Correction:

The instructors typically spend two to three days for each mini-lesson and give students mini-assignments that reinforce the concept being taught.

Step 4: Drafting Process

The following concepts are incorporated to guide students through the writing process.

First Drafts
Anne Lamott’s book on writing, Bird by Bird, is an invaluable tool for writers, especially writers who don’t think they’re writers. In her chapter entitled “Shitty First Drafts,” Lamott writes, “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere . . . For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts. The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.” This concept is both validating and liberating for our students, many of whom begin the Writing Workshop believing that excellent writers always write excellently. Cahill says, “Sometimes students think they’re not good writers because they don’t get it right the first time. It’s a relief for students to know that professional writers don’t get it right the first time. It gives them confidence.”

Next Drafts
After the teacher introduces the mini-lesson concept, students revise their papers while incorporating concepts learned in the mini-lessons. For example, if the mini-lesson introduced dialogue, students would be expected to engage their characters in dialogue that is both interesting and realistic. “Students learn that writing is rewriting. Each time you tackle a draft, you improve upon it,” says Cahill.

Final Drafts
A student’s final draft is his best piece, not the teacher’s best piece: the major revisions need to be done by the student, not the teacher. As a result, a final piece may contain fragmented sentences, vague descriptions, and an incorrect use of quotation marks. This is fine. The objective is for students to improve in specific areas as they move through the drafting process. Since many of our students need significant improvement in many areas, it is not realistic to expect that students will perfect their skills in all areas.

Step 5: Feedback

Students receive feedback on their pieces in two ways: presenting the paper in workshops with the class and individually with the teacher. This occurs once per week. Students are taught to ask their audience to provide feedback on particular areas, for example, similes or character development. One particularly effective technique involves placing the writer in a Fishbowl. This means that while the writer’s classmates are commenting on his piece, he must remain silent. After his classmates have finished, the writer then has opportunity to respond. Placing the writer in the Fishbowl forces him to listen to all his classmates’ comments and provides him time to come up with thoughtful responses.

One of the challenges with feedback is that students frequently want the teacher to review every draft and “tell them what is wrong,” Carpineto says. However, the teachers reinforce that the students need to review and revise their drafts based on the mini-lessons. Teachers will only meet with students individually if students have specific areas that they would like the teacher to review (e.g., leads, dialogue, or plot).

Step 6: Evaluations

Teachers evaluate offenders’ autobiographical pieces based on the following criteria:

The above areas are assessed as (1) exceeding expectations, (2) meeting expectations, (3) barely meeting expectations, or (4) not meeting expectations. The teachers also provide specific and comprehensive comments explaining their assessment.

Step 7: Portfolio Presentations

As part of the Writing Workshop, students’ portfolios include the final draft of their autobiographical piece as well as an earlier draft. In addition, students must select a specific area in their piece (e.g., the opening paragraph), and compare the earlier draft to the final draft. Students must discuss specific revisions and their rationale for having made them. “The portfolio is an important part for offenders because they can see the transformation of their writing and share that transformation with the panel. They’re really owning their writing because they’re explaining it,” Cahill says.

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL