Breathe Life and Adventure into your Writing Workshop

In his children’s book, The Painter, author Peter Catalanotto purposefully chose to put the title of the book on the back cover. He felt that in his book about capturing love through art, the front cover should feature a painting that was unblemished by a title. When he shares this story in classrooms during author visits and turns the book over to show them, the children’s eyes grow wide. “Can you do that?” they ask, “Are you allowed?”

As teachers in primary classrooms, we think of our writing workshop as a way for children to explore their thoughts and feelings and transfer their ideas to words. We teach them to collect, analyze, synthesize, and compare and contrast information. As teachers, we want to encourage children to make decisions and take creative risks in their writing, so they won’t become passive and disengaged. We want to create a climate of opportunity, of writing to discover, of finding out what’s worth writing about. We search for ways to empower children to uncover genuine passion in story, and help shape their writing identity. And all through the lens that sees writing as adventure!

Across the nation, as teachers grovel for literacy block time and work to keep the standards in the forefront, many a writing workshop may feel unbalanced. We feel that we have to choose between structured, pre-set, linear pieces of writing and the personal, passionate, playful types of writing that we want children to engage in as well. We spend time checking off the “required” pieces only to feel the energy squeezed out of the workshop. We feel disappointed when left with identical published works soldiering the hallways…pick an opinion, write three reasons, add a concluding sentence. “Where is the joy?” teachers wonder. “Am I instilling a love of writing that will lead to lifelong positivity toward communicating through words?”

Here are some ideas that breathe life into our workshop time and allow children to explore their own sense of identity and adventure:

  • Give children a real audience for their writing
    Lucy Calkins, Units of Study author, suggests that children writing for someone, rather than writing to fulfill an assignment, can allow our young writers to write for an audience of readers, not just for their teacher. Have children write for others: a poem for classmates, a book to a grandparent, a persuasive letter to principals. Put book reviews in the school or classroom library where they will be read for just that purpose.
  • Give children real choices around materials during workshop time
    As teachers, we find comfort and motivation in composing with tools that inspire us. Whether it’s using a flair rollerball 2.0 in a leather bound journal, or a freshly sharpened pencil on a legal tablet, something feels good about the act of drafting. Search the custodian closet for different types of paper, gather various writing tools in a can, add booklets, writing spots, and teach lessons on respecting the stapler. Believe that children are capable of making these choices.
  • Give children opportunities to feel a true sense of ownership
    Tom Newkirk, author of Minds Made for Stories shares, “Ownership is not about fulfilling a task imposed from the outside, but rather about investing in a project that has real personal meaning.” Real excitement about writing starts when we trust that they have something to say.
    Trust that children have real topics to write about that matter to them and give them practice in doing so.
  • Place value on originality and voice
    Respond to children’s thinking that veers from the well-worn path. “Did you see the way that Leah created a new word, “stalk-spindle” in her poem about flamingoes? No one has ever said it just that way!”
  • Gift your children a consistent segment of time, expect that they’ll write every day
    When we know that we can pick up right where we left off the day before, children compose at moments other than workshop: on the bus ride home, right before they fall asleep at night. When the workshop time is a valued, predictable, routine practice, children can truly invest in their work as a writer. Teach children that writers make a plan for writing time. What will I finish today?
  • Explore mentor authors, get children talking
    Read quality literature books to spark an interest in their own craft. Ask questions, “How did he use words to make us feel, what part helped you understand, why will you remember this book?” Ask your children those same questions at share time about their own work.
  • Join children in finding laughter, joy, and a sense of adventure during workshop time
    When was the last time you wrote with your class? Have you smiled, clapped your hands, asked for a suggestion this week? What would it feel like to hang your personal narrative in the hallway? Now that would be brave! Make yourself part of the community of writers in your classroom.

We can invite and teach young children to engage in writing that reflects the wonderful uniqueness of sounding like themselves. We can create, build, and shape the poems and stories and songs that children laugh, and cry, and sing about. And inside these spaces, we can still give guided practice in shaping organization, tone, meaning, and voice.

Teachers and children alike adore the children’s book, Chloe and the Lion, when the author and illustrator become characters arguing over the pictures. The author, Mac Barnett, gives us a perspective we hadn’t thought about before. Jason Chin’s books, Redwoods and Coral Reefs, are fantastical and nonfiction at just the same moment. These books are written by authors who embrace adventure. They delight us with their truths and they know exactly who they are as writers. Maybe, just maybe, they had a teacher who let them.

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