Crafting quality writing curricula that provides writers just enough guidance to consistently propel them forward without threatening their autonomy is no simple task. Many teachers consider their vision, standards, the writing process, the elements of writer’s craft, and the production of specific forms as they chart a course for their year and aligned, multi-grade level maps for their buildings and districts.
Day after day, year after year, these same teachers put their plans into motion, executing lessons with the hope that one day, they might discover the ultimate catalysts for writing, promising strategies to engage the most resistant writers, and processes that will help them sustain a state of flow once they’ve finally achieved it. Requisite to authentic learning and growth, engagement is the driving force behind every great writing teacher’s instructional plan.
Whether you’re preparing a classroom or a place within your community where people will come to make writing, considering how your space influences engagement is a critical first step. It’s also one that’s often overlooked.
Designing the perfect space can be daunting. It’s wise to approach this as a multi-layered design process rather than a short-term project. Building as you go will ensure that your efforts meet the unique needs of the writers who will work there. This is how we built our makerspace for writers at the WNY Young Writer’s Studio. It’s how our space continues to evolve too.
I find there are three layers of design:
- Building the substructure of the space, which is prepared before making begins.
- Assessing the needs and interests of your students during your start-up, which begins when the kids walk in the door.
- Working to specialize your tools and resources, which happens as individual writers begin to pursue unique projects that they are passionate about.
These considerations can inform this first of three layers of design:
• Making writing requires more room than merely studying or producing writing might. Tables, empty wall spaces, whiteboards, individual foam boards, tacks, scissors, tape, and chalkboards enable us to do more than merely examine mentor texts. They allow us to literally crack them open, unpack their working parts, spread them apart, and study how pieces work in isolation and in concert with the whole. Tools like these also enable us to make our thinking transparent to others, so that they can contribute to it or even question it.
• Making writing requires containers of all kinds. The most important containers are the ones that hold our ideas and our thinking. Index cards, scraps of paper, sticky notes, and chart paper enable us to capture our ideas, spread them out, and move them around purposefully. File folders, paper rolls, and cameras allow us to pack up our thinking and take it with us as we travel within and beyond the space. Social bookmarking sites enable us to bookmark and share the resources that best inform our learning and our work.
• Writers needed places to tinker independently. Some do this best at a desk, while others need to sprawl out on the floor. At the WNY Young Writer’s Studio, we hacked tables together out of two 30” bookshelves and a hollow core door that we covered in chalkboard paint. We added 26” stools instead of chairs, and now writers can choose to sit or stand as they work with the materials that suit them best. In addition to tables, we have several comfortable chairs and lap desks, a futon, a cushioned window seat, and a variety of bean bag chairs that remain a perennial favorite.
• While writers make a great deal independently and in groups, opportunities for direct instruction arise during nearly every session. You’ll need a place where everyone can come together for a bit of shared learning. A carpet can suffice for small groups or younger learners, or perhaps it makes sense to situate a whiteboard, easel, or chalkboard near a set of larger tables. You’ll need a steady supply of bright colored markers, chalk, or chalk pens. We use anchor charts to contain the best of what we learn together during each session. They line the walls of our studio, encouraging writers to interact with them throughout the year.
• Writers will need to become acquainted with the norms that govern collaborative and independent work. Distinguish separate spaces for each of these endeavors, and post the norms where they can be easily seen. Situate materials near the spaces that they will be used in most often, and teach writers to respect those who need to work quietly and without interruption.
• Whenever possible, provide writers the opportunity to travel with the technology tools their work requires. Laptops and tablets allow writers to group and regroup themselves in different areas of the space, as needed. They can map their writing across a table and move their device along the plan, making writing as they go. Portable hotspots help writers remain connected as they migrate between different rooms and even move outside, if they are compelled to.
• You’ll need a printer, a steady supply of copy paper, and abundance of writing instruments. Rather than expecting writers to bring these materials back and forth with them, it makes sense to create supply caddies that can live on the desks and tables in your space. Our include pens, pencils, Sharpies, thick and thin washable markers, colored pencils, white out, scissors, tape, sticky notes, a ruler, a hole punch, dry erase markers and erasers, chalk, a stapler, and tacks, which writers use to attach bits of writing to foam boards for closer inspection and precision drafting.
• Devote a corner of your space to the creation of a small lending library. In addition to mentor texts and writing resources, you might also begin accumulating DIY books that are of unique interest to the writers you serve and connected to the projects they are working on. Elementary fellows of the WNY Young Writer’s Studio love Ed Demberley’s doodling books. Some of our high school writers are inspired by Austin Kleon’s Newspaper Blackout poetry. As our collection has grown, writers have added copies of their favorite books and magazines to our shelves. The lending library supplements the digital archives and databases we rely on.
• The walls of a writing studio or makerspace are interactive tools. In addition to whiteboards and chalkboards, you may want to reserve a portion of your wall space for pin ups. Writers require feedback during all phases of their work, and most appreciate having a place where they can post portions of their projects in order to solicit it. Bulletin boards, ledges, shelves, and magnetic displays are good choices. When space is tight, stringing a clothesline might be a better option. I’ve seen writers add their work to clipboards that are filed inside of crates, and when I was in the classroom, I used a glue gun to attach clothespins to the metal ledge that ran beneath my white board. They snapped off cleanly when it was time to pack and move.
• Inspiration boards house quotes, images, prompts, calls for work, cartoons, and ideas that motivate, empower, and entertain writers. The collection is maintained by everyone who makes writing within your space. It’s often colorful, disorganized, and quickly overpopulated. When someone adds an artifact to the inspiration board, they’re giving a bit of themselves to the group. It’s a way to foster a quieter kind of connection between members—particularly the more introverted ones, who tend to gravitate toward it. You need an inspiration board.
Once you’ve established a foundation, pay close attention to how new writers use the space. What you learn will inform the second layer of design.
Early work typically involves establishing norms, setting up notebooks, exploring project options, and generating lists of potential topics. Writers are getting to know themselves and one another. There should be ample time for collaboration and independent thinking and work. Take time to notice how the space is facilitating these efforts and in what ways it might be hindering them.
- Who is doing what?
- Where are they doing it and how?
- Which materials and resources are used most often? Why?
- Which resources and areas are used in unexpected ways? What does this reveal?
If you’ve planned thoughtfully, you should notice that it’s not just your curricula but also your space that serves as a catalyst for collaboration, ideation, and creativity.
As writers begin to engage, they’ll nudge you into the next phase of your space’s transformation, too. This second layer of design settles into place as group begins to make, in response to what they discover about the way that writing works and the way that they work best as writers.
Working this phase to its fullest potential requires two things of teachers: patience and permission. Rather than anticipating your students’ needs as you preview curricula, simply clarify your instructional objectives and outcomes and rely on the writers you serve to maximize the tools at their disposal.
Be patient as they muddle through their first attempts at making writing. Encourage them to get out of their seats and diversify their tools. Give them permission to think about what they should do in order to plan and execute their ideas successfully, but wait on telling them exactly how to do this. Invite writers to suggest which tools might support their efforts best, but think carefully before you require the use of specific devices, resources, or writing instruments.
It may be important for all of the writers you are supporting to demonstrate an ability to make a claim and support it with evidence. Attending to this standard is fine, and so is facilitating a mini-lesson that explores multiple models and mentor texts. Expect writers to do more than sit and study these models, though. Encourage them to cut them open—physically. Provide them space to analyze their working parts. Let them lift a claim from the text it lives in and drop it beside their own. Invite comparison.
Allow them to tinker and test the approaches that other writers have taken before they choose one.
Don’t just walk them through a well-crafted example and hand them a graphic organizer to begin prewriting. Give them permission to use the space you’ve created and the full range of tools within it to plan and persevere in a far more physical and dynamic process.
Watch them as they tear down texts in an effort to write like the authors they are studying.
Listen as they reflect.
Ask questions that bring their needs to the surface.
Refine your space in ways that will meet them.
As you approach the second phase of the design process, you might find prompts like these useful:
- What do you like to do during your free time? What are your hobbies? Your favorite games? Toys? Activities?
- What tools do you use to generate new ideas at the outset of a project? How do you feel about the thinking and the work that emerges from this process, typically? Which new tools and resources are inspiring you to brainstorm differently? Why? What could we add to this space or change about it in order to enable even better ideation?
- What kind of research are you doing? What resources support you best? Which tools enable you to capture the evidence you gather and connect your thoughts? What could be better?
- How do you prefer to draft? What’s most difficult about this process? Which tools could help you overcome the challenges you face? How might you change the process itself?
- What’s helping the collaborative process? What’s hindering it? What do you need? What should we change?
- How do you ask for quality feedback? How do you provide it to others? How can we make this process more rewarding for everyone involved? Which tools can help us with this? What resources do we need to add?
- How do you tinker with your writing? Which tools and resources would help you tinker to your fullest potential?
- Describe the quality of the revisions you typically make. How are they satisfying to you? To your readers? How would you like to deepen your revision process? What tools and resources will you need in order to make this happen?
- Who is your audience? How will you share your finished work with them? What tools connect you to this audience most efficiently? Which ones connect you to this audience in the most powerful way? What do you need access to that we don’t have here?
- Most importantly: what are you making? How will it matter? How is it going? What are you thinking? What are you learning? What does that mean to you? What do you need?
The responses you receive to these questions will help you tackle the third layer of design.
This involves securing specialized tools that are specific to the writers you serve and the projects they are working on.
Luke needed LEGOs in order to make writing. Shea needed access to a digital camera. Teddy needed binder clips to make a fort, and Erin needed a sketchbook instead of a lined composition book. Allison preferred to write on her iPhone. Kerry liked to brainstorm longhand and draft in Google docs.
Each of these writers were pursuing the standards I prioritized and a common curricula. They just made writing differently. As I came to know them better, I gave them permission to use or find the tools they needed, and I added more as well. Our space continues to adapt to their shifting needs.
Finally, know that it pays to upcycle and hack furniture to meet your needs.
Upcycling can help you reduce your expenses and repositionable furniture allows for necessary adjustments that are an inevitable part of the making process, particularly if space is tight.
I often joke about the notion that the WNY Young Writer’s Studio is made entirely of Velcro, painter’s tape, and repurposed treasures we picked from the trash. This is mostly true.
The tables I referred to earlier are held together with Command strips. This means I can tear them down, change their shape, and fold them flatly against the walls when I need to.
Our window seat is made out of three kitchen cupboards that we spray painted black and topped with a removable cushion. I upholstered that cushion with fabric that can be easily removed and replaced, as needed.
Our printer table is an old stereo cabinet that my husband and I fished out of the trash on our way home from the grocery store one Saturday.
Our coffee table was a thrift store rescue.
One of our favorite planning tools is a huge wooden grid that hangs on the wall toward the back of our space. Writers use it as an interactive planning matrix now, but it once served as the frame for a recessed kitchen ceiling light.
Be willing to see what’s possible instead of what is.
Focus your eye not on how something looks, but on how it works.
Better yet, focus on how it could work if you tinkered with it in some way.
I’m sharing more of my learning here, too. Click on the cover to learn more: