An important note, ahead of today’s post: There are different kinds of writing workshop teachers, in my experience: Those who are wanting a clearer path, those who are walking one (often in very good company), and those whose rich and varied experiences have called them to wander a bit, even as they carve a careful course for their students. And in an ideal world, with their students.
Those are the workshop teachers whose wisdom inspires my own.
I’ve been teaching writing for a very long time. I’m a workshop girl at heart, and I spent twelve years using this model in my own elementary, middle, and high school classrooms before I became a staff developer. I supported 26 school districts in that role for four years before I decided to go out on my own. As an independent professional learning facilitator, I’ve supported many, many more writing teachers and their students in workshop design, implementation, and improvement over the last ten years. My visits to districts and buildings are typically sustained now. I coach a great deal. I’m still teaching almost weekly, too. The only difference is that now, I don’t have the privilege of knowing the writers that I serve very well, and a bunch of other teachers and their administrators are watching me as I teach.
No pressure there.
I also founded a writing studio that existed outside of the public school system. Teachers and K-12 writers came together inside of that space to study writing and writers together for over ten years. We did our own action research within that professional learning community, too. I miss it. Desperately.
I share this information for a reason: I’ve been teaching writing and doing my own research for a long time, with different people, and in different ways. None of what I’ve done is perfect, and in fact, some of it is still probably bad. I will say this, though: I was once a teacher who wanted a clearer path, I became one who was dedicated to the path she was given by the giants whose shoulders she stood on, and now, I tend to wander.
I’ve learned a great deal along the way, and I find that when I share it, it often helps people. I learn more this way, too.
I have no desire to be right. I want to do right, though. And in my world, right means that if writers and teachers are gaining confidence in their skills, exhibiting greater enthusiasm and joy about their learning and work, and producing higher quality stuff, we’re on to something. When that’s happening, I wonder why, and I lean in closer. I listen. I pay attention. I don’t care how experienced the teacher is or whether he or she is doing it “my way.” And when what they’re doing isn’t helping, I want to figure out how to support everyone better.
Knowledge matters, but how I facilitate learning is everything, I’ve found.
Know that the ideas that I’m about to share are based on my own lived experiences and those of the teachers and kids in the schools that I support. Most of them were born of frustration and concern over the writers we called resistant and their failure to thrive inside of our carefully constructed workshops. Much to my surprise, all of these ideas have inspired even the most print comfortable writers that I know to move through the process and produce a level of work that they may not have otherwise as well.
What I’ve learned by wandering off the tried and true path has challenged my biases and created better equity inside of wildly diverse spaces, too.
That’s why I’m sharing these ideas with you.
And it’s why I’m inviting you to do the same, in your own writing classrooms and schools. Find a path. Find company, too. And once you’ve traveled it well, wonder. Wander. And share what you’re learning.
This is how we get better together.
Socrates was not a fan of the written word. He had a whole bunch of worries about our transition from orality to literacy, and many of them stemmed from the concern that when we humans turn away from one another and toward the page, our relationships with one another change. Socrates taught us that all learning is social, and that effective communication requires more than words and certainly, more than the alphabet or the use of text.
He knew that the oral mind was a beautiful, complex, and brilliant thing. He also knew that writing would change it.
And he wasn’t wrong.
The shift from orality to literacy was impossible to contain, of course. The alphabet is the ultimate set of loose parts. Open ended and easy to mix and remix, as it began jumping from one culture and country to another, it didn’t change much because it didn’t have to. It’s stood the test of time.
Writing enables us to keep and share our memories. It’s how we record history, the purchase and sale of goods and property, our promises to one another, our stories, our arguments, and our most important teaching texts.
Socrates knew that no amount of warning would slow the proliferation of print, and this could be why he charged Plato with recording so much of what he said.
I don’t know this for certain. It’s cool to think about, though.
And I’ve been thinking.
I’ve also been learning a great deal about the history of writing and the differences between the oral mind and the chirographic (writing) mind over the last few years. I’m ready to start sharing some of that learning now.
I’m also a bit afraid to. My learning has challenged much of what I always knew about writing, writers, how I design workshop curricula, and how I teach as well. I wonder if what I’m learning might move you, too. I think it should, and I am one who is careful not to should on anyone. Here’s why I’m breaking my own rule here, though.
The oral mind is different from the chirographic mind. And here’s the thing: Many, many of the writers in our classrooms possess highly oral minds. Why? Well, because many of the world’s cultures are collectivist, oral cultures. Today.
America and Canada are individualistic, and those who have the most power in our cultures likely possess more chirographic minds, including those who might choose to become writing teachers, but the fact is that our current reality is comprised of many oral minds. It’s populated by many people who descend from more collectivist, oral cultures as well. That means that who people truly are and how they communicate and learn, at their very core, is not a little bit—but A LOT a bit--different. This depends on how much influence orality has had inside of their personal experiences.
This is interesting. It’s important. And I think that we should be paying greater attention and learning much more here because graphocentrism is a thing, all. At the risk of upsetting a few apple carts, I have to be honest: I also think it runs rampant in our schools and for our purposes in this space–our writing workshops.
I also think it might be at least partially responsible for the achievement gap we’re all worrying about so much. And our solutions may actually be a part of the problem. I’m not alone here, either. I’ve learned much by following the work of Zaretta Hammond Jones in recent months.
She taught me that culturally responsive teaching, while a very hot topic right about now, requires much more of teachers than we might think. I know I need to keep doing my own identity work in order to get things right here. I also know that the kids who struggle to succeed in our writing classrooms and workshops probably aren’t going to benefit from our traditional workshop approaches and interventions. We don’t talk about this enough.
I know that I need to learn much more about how oral and chirographic brains function and how the transition from orality to literacy influenced different cultures. I’ve spent a long time considering the implications for my own work as a writing teacher inside of an individualistic and chirographic culture that serves collectivist kids who possess gorgeous, oral minds.
That’s a problem. A big one.
There’s good news, though.
Writing isn’t Merely Text, but Text Matters More than We Might Know
Print often creates an impenetrable barrier for many writers inside of our writing workshops, and it’s not because those kids are somehow deficient or broken. It’s because we writing teachers are a fairly biased bunch.
And here’s something else: Writing changes our brains. It inspires dendrite growth and the development of neural pathways that help us do increasingly harder things, intellectually. Writing gives us the ability to analyze, evaluate, and organize our thoughts and ideas in complex ways.
That’s not a gallon of snake oil or my great, big opinion either. That’s neuroscience.
Those who don’t learn how to write remain at a serious disadvantage in our world because it compromises brain development. And that’s one of many reasons why it’s so important to bring kids to print.
Getting there can be tricky, though.
Twenty five years into this teaching writing thing, I’m learning to approach the process in a far more thoughtful and intentional way.
This required me to ask myself an obvious question that I probably should have been asking quite a few people all along:
Writing isn’t merely text or print, and writers aren’t writers simply because they know how to form letters and words on a page.
Writing is grounded in purpose. It’s meaningful to the writer and to the audience, and it hangs together inside of a structure that both can appreciate and understand. Text and print are a vehicle that enable the writer to communicate with the reader asynchronously. Print delivers the message.
The good news is this: We don’t need to wait on print in order to deepen our writing skills. We can explore and experiment with structure. We can develop powerful ideas. We can hone our message and our craft and influence audiences even as we wait for our print skills to come along.
We can, and I honestly believe that we should.
Because when we don’t, we run the risk of silencing the writers we support and slowing their brain development. We also run the risk of perpetuating the achievement gap.
Centering Structure in Our Unit Design
Historically, my writing workshop units placed the writing process at the center of the work. Here’s what I mean by that: The path through a unit was carved by the process, which Donald Graves consistently reminded all of us, was recursive. And I, like all writing teachers, have learned much from Donald Graves.
Only it never really looked that way in my own classroom, despite my very best efforts. It looked linear. And most of the units that I’ve watched teachers adopt, adapt, or design on their own center the process in a way that makes it linear as well. I know that I’m not alone here. We talk about this all of the time in the field.
The writers I supported always brainstormed, they chose ideas (usually too quickly), they planned and rehearsed, and they drafted. I gave feedback. They barely revised. We attempted to edit. It was too much, too late. Publishing looked like writing celebrations held for friends and family alone. We rarely if ever wrote real things for real audiences.
And then we moved on to the next unit.
Time was tight, my curriculum was hyper-aligned and far too detailed, and I marched myself and my students through each unit, draft by draft. I walked the path, often in good company, and I was a good soldier.
I also lost quite a few kids and most of my mind along the way, too.
Gratefully, no one ever spoke down to me about this. No one ever suggested I was doing it wrong. There was no “us” and “them” in my building, not really. My administrators and my colleagues were supportive. We all just wanted to learn more and do better, most of us, most of the time.
Maybe that’s why I’ve always been a problem solver.
That’s how I came to center structure in my unit design process. Ironically, it’s made for a far more recursive approach.
What do I mean by this? Here are two simple narrative structures. There are many ways to structure a narrative, but these are the blocks of a basic build and one that’s a bit more developed. They might ring some bells, but if they don’t, I think they’re easy enough to grasp and work with for our purposes here.
When I begin a unit by immersing readers in the exploration of forms and help them come to understand what narratives are and how they are structured, it’s helpful. And when I invite them to build their own using mediums and modalities other than print, it moves even the most print-resistant writers forward. Putting down our pens and pencils long enough to express ourselves using other tools elevates the work of print-comfortable kids, too.
We build each block of that narrative, often using loose parts rather than text or print. And we move those blocks around. We experiment and tinker and play. We consider different options and approaches, and we can–because we haven’t committed to print, and loose parts are easy to lift, connect, disconnect, remix, and play with.
What are loose parts? These are loose parts:
Loose parts are things we can carry, mix, connect, and build with. They are open ended rather than pre-cut. They invite making. They help us make writing.
And yeah, they’re pretty.
Don’t let that mislead you, though.
This make writing stuff is serious, not silly.
Make, Mess, Manifest
When we make writing, we widen our aperture and build our repertoire as writing teachers.
This isn’t about tossing traditional best practices aside. It’s about cultivating critical next practices.
I still rely on my traditional workshop structure. Writers still need mini-lessons, and I still labor over my teaching points. I still protect a lot of time for the independent production of print in the workshops that I facilitate, too. Every. Single. Workshop. Day.
Making doesn’t replace print in my world. It elevates the process and ensures that writers produce quality print. All of them.
Timing is everything, though.
When we make writing in my world, we gather together for a mini-lesson. I share a teaching point, and I use beautiful mentor texts to make the skills and strategies that I want writers to play with explicit. Then, we use loose parts to build a small bit of our draft.
I always frame this as a challenge. For instance, if I have just led a mini-lesson that empowers writers to describe the small body movements that a character in a story might display, I’ll send them back to their seats with this fire starter: “Writers, how might you use the loose parts provided and the next ten minutes to build your character? Remember to include the small body movements that will help us understand how that character feels at the beginning of your narrative. Go!”
I set a timer. Writers build.
And I walk the room to offer over-the-shoulder feedback. It’s quick. Targeted. Accompanied by a strategy that helps writers mess with their builds, in order to improve them.
And here’s what happens: Writers almost always build sophisticated ideas that they would not have otherwise chosen, because the print barrier has been temporarily lowered.
Once writers have MADE this small slice of their drafts and MESSED with it to make it better, we begin MANIFESTING print.
This shift from building to writing happens in every single workshop session, and it’s a critical shift.
When writers fail to transition to print, they often forget their ideas.The oral mind is all about immediacy. It rids itself of information that it isn’t absolutely necessary to hold onto. If we don’t shift to print, memory is compromised. That dendrite growth doesn’t happen, either.
We don’t make writing to evade print, we make writing to get there.
Writing matters, so we make, mess, and then manifest print in every single workshop session, bit by bit.
This is the most basic way to make writing.
Scaffolding with Intention
As we shift to print, some writers will put down an entire passage. Some will write a paragraph. Others will only scribble a phrase. There are writers who will struggle to make a list. Some will label. Some will not produce anything at all. I keep my teaching point close, and I assess each writer’s ability to attend to the learning target using loose parts as well as their abilities to put down print. This is important. It helps me better understand their strengths and needs and scaffold with intention.
I always offer the most challenging invitation to print first, then I try to notice where each writer is within this spectrum, so that I can provide a just-right scaffold. And it isn’t just the writers who are approaching but not yet meeting my standards who need scaffolds. All writers do. All must be moving forward.
If writers are able to label, I might use a cloze to move them toward collaborative sentence creation:
If writers are able to write a phrase, I might use a frame to move them toward independent sentence writing. And if they can write a sentence, I might offer a question or a prompt that helps them stretch into a paragraph. Mentor sentences are helpful. So are mentor texts:
And what about the kid who isn’t putting anything down?
I check myself and how I’m defining writing. If the writer is making marks–even if I can’t decipher them–I remind myself that the writer is writing. I ask writers like this to read their work back to me, and I jot exactly what they say on a sticky note or index card. They often copy this onto their own pages.
So How Does Centering Structure Lead to a More Recursive Process?
When we build the structure using loose parts, writers rapidly share their ideas. The ideas they share are typically a bit more complex than the ones that they would have chosen if I was demanding print. They also begin messing around with these ideas, fiddling with the loose parts, and tinkering with the meaning inside of that bit of their draft immediately. When I drop questions and feedback over their shoulders, they revise–multiple times–in one workshop session.
And when we transition to print, we write just one small bit of the draft at a time. One part of the structure. More feedback. Targeted. Concise. Offered in small doses.
And they revise that bit–often multiple times–in a single workshop session.
Rather than moving writers through the process once or just a handful of times in each unit (as many of us are apt to do due to time and curriculum constraints) centering the structure deepens the process, enabling writers to use loose parts to rapidly build it before transitioning to print. This inspires far more risk taking, higher level thought, and the likelihood of iteration. When they put down text, it happens one bit at a time, and we iterate on THAT loose part, too. We also tinker with structure. Sticky notes and index cards move, mix, and mingle. They aren’t static graphic organizers. They’re dynamic.
This approach builds their stamina, rather than depleting it, too.
Making Writing Harnesses the Power of Prototyping
When most people in other industries aim to design something new, they engage in rapid ideation and prototyping, using cheap materials. They invest little in terms of time, money, or sweat equity. They keep their commitments low and the parts of their prototype loose, so that they can tinker, play, and problem solve.
They fail fast, in order to make their work better. They mess with it bit by bit as well, in order to preserve their mental and physical energy and elevate their build one small, focused bit at a time.
I find that when writers shift to print, they commit. And once they commit, few are willing to make major changes. Writing long, draft by draft, makes for a less recursive process in my experience. It also saps stamina. But when we center structure and use loose parts to prototype our drafts and then shift to print bit by bit, we create a safe space for complex thinking and experimentation to occur.
When writers use loose parts to build their stories, they exhibit a willingness to take risks that they wouldn’t otherwise, if I put pens or pencils or screens in front of them first. This often results in the production of truly delightful, sophisticated ideas.
And kids will hold onto them, even as we transition to print, if we allow them to put it down bit by bit rather than draft by draft.
Getting it Right
This is just one way to integrate making and writing. The fact is that since I wrote my first two books, many teachers and kids have made these approaches their own and iterated on them in ways that I would have never imagined.
And as long as their approaches are moving writers and their work forward–as long as they are growing confidence and quality–they aren’t wrong. They’re just different. And that makes them that much more worthy of sharing, examining, and testing in our own classrooms and workshops.
This takes me back to Socrates, who wasn’t a fan of print. He worried that writing would compromise the intimacy that learners enjoyed when all knowledge was built and communicated face to face, through a shared dialogue. I get it. In fact, this is my preferred way to share this information with others.
Socrates knew that once we began putting our ideas down on paper, where they could travel the world separate from us, those ideas would be open to interpretation.
And mine, like all published authors, have been.
At a literacy institute last year, a consultant I’ve never met before reminded me of this reality. “It doesn’t matter what your intention was,” she smiled kindly at me. “People have interpreted your work in their own way. They do what they want.”
And I wanted to tell her that the same has happened to her own work–well, the work of the expert she speaks for, anyway. It happens all of the time. It’s part of the reason I’m often asked to visit with teachers–because something about teaching writing well got lost in translation. And it’s typically traditional practices that have gone off the rails.
Misinterpretation is the consequence of publishing, and it’s one that most of us who choose to publish accept and then work hard on the ground to compensate for.
So for the record: Making writing is not a free for all. It’s not about cute. And it’s not about allowing print resistant kids to evade writing by playing with LEGO all day. If your kids aren’t writing in workshop, it’s not a writing workshop.
When we make writing in my world, we distinguish print from structure and meaning in service to higher level thought and better written work. We don’t wait on the development of print to challenge writers to build and then deepen their understanding of structure and meaning because this moves them forward as writers. We build print beside these efforts.
When we make writing we do so because we know that when we put print on a pedestal, we perpetuate the achievement gap. When we center structure and help writers use different mediums and modalities to craft meaning, we grow their abilities to do hard and engaging work.
We help them have greater influence in the world, too. It’s true.
That’s one of the greatest things I’ve learned: The oral mind knows how to engage today’s audiences, and they often do it far better than print comfortable types. Text isn’t king anymore. And the kids who are most comfortable choosing it as the primary mode of expression will only have influence if they know how to translate their drafts into forms that actually travel and sell well in today’s multi-modal, digital world.
Making writing is fun, but it’s so much more than that.
Stick around if you want to learn more. I’ll be blogging some new thinking and work in the weeks to come. Or join the Building Better Writers group on Facebook. Those who are doing this work on the ground hang out there, and we share ideas and help one another. We’d love your company.