Three Ways to Manage Your High School Writing Workshop More Efficiently

Three Ways to Manage Your High School Writing Workshop More Efficiently

post by Heather Rocco, The Educator Collaborative Network Member

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Three Ways to Manage Your High School Writing Workshop More Efficiently

Teaching writing is hard.  Teaching writing to over 150 high school students is daunting.  Students have so many needs, so many ideas, and so many words! How can we possibly reach them all much less teach them all?  

Over the last several years I have explored how to effectively implement a writing workshop model into high school classrooms.  If you are new to workshop, the basic workshop structure is as follows: teachers present a mini-lesson; students work on their writing; teachers conference with students; students share their learning with each other.  

Now, I wholeheartedly believe in the workshop model, but it isn’t always as easy as this simplified outline sounds.  Sometimes, I ramble during writing conferences, overwhelming students with suggestions. Other times I cannot recall what a student and I previously discussed.  And so, so often, I repeat myself writing conference after writing conference. Over the years, though, I have discovered several organizational tricks to make writing workshop more efficient and effective, which, in turn, makes my students’ writing stronger.  Here are a few ideas that were game changers for me:

  1. List the key skills you are teaching and post them…everywhere.  I know, I know.  We list them in unit or lesson plans. But we teach students not the administrators who check our plans.  Students need frequent reminders of the skills they are developing, and they need to be bombarded with them.  Write the skills on posters and hang them in your classroom. Post the list on your class web page. Ask students to write them onto the piece they are writing.  Everywhere you can think of that students will see them, go for it. And…true confession time…teachers need frequent reminders too! Have you ever been in a writing conference when you realize you have discussed four different writing techniques, but none of them are skills you are teaching in this unit?  I have! I find it useful, then, to add the key skills onto the top of my conference notes sheet. As I meet with a student, then, I refer to the list and decide (or help the student decide) on one writing goal that is both relevant to the unit and the writer.
  2. Take good notes.  Speaking of conference notes, we need to take them!  High school teachers are guilty of meeting with students, making notes on students’ papers, and believing we can remember what we said to each pupil.  We can’t. Instead, we should reserve thirty seconds between writing conferences to jot down two things – the compliment given and the suggestion made. I prefer to record conference notes using pencil and paper.  However, many teachers utilize digital tools like Google Forms, Google Sheets or Evernote. Find what works for you and be consistent. These conference notes will inform future writing conferences, assist writer evaluations, and decide how to organize small instructional groups.   
  3. Teach writing in small groups.  Yes, we still present mini-lessons to the whole class…sometimes.  However, these whole class lessons serve mostly as an overview. The most impactful teaching happens in conferences or small groups.  As student writing gets underway, I typically meet with students individually for conferences for the first few days. I also review drafts and jot down my findings about students’ needs.  After approximately one week of this work, I survey my data and identify students who have similar needs. Instead of doing another round of individual conferences, though, I create small instructional groups.  Doing so allows me to provide students the instruction they need while avoiding repeating myself several times. The process is simple. I invite three to four students to the side of the room (gather some desks, sit on the floor, wherever!) and present what I call a mini-mini, a very short lesson, on one writing skill such as quote explication or integrating evidence.  Typically, this mini-mini reviews something we have previously discussed, though sometimes the mini-mini allows me to accelerate students who are ready to take the next step. When invited to the group, students bring their computers or papers with them. After I present a lesson and we discuss the skill in a mentor text, students remain in the group while practicing this skill in their own writing.  While students work, I briefly with speak to each group member, offering specific suggestions and encouragement. After a few minutes, students share their revisions with one another before returning to their writing spots to continue working. The entire process takes approximately ten minutes. If I met with the four students individually, I probably would have needed 15 minutes. Working in groups allows me to be more efficient and provides my students a peer group to whom they can turn if they need more support.  

Of course, the heart of the workshop is the teaching.  These ideas only help the management. But the more efficiently your workshop runs, the more time you will have to teach your students!      

1 Comment

  1. I’m also a high school English teacher and keeping notes on conferences is a huge challenge for me as well. This year, I developed a new strategy that has been successful. All of my students have writing or project journals. (I have kids use Google Docs to create a shared document with me.) During conferences, we open the journal and take notes there. Often, even if we’re working on my computer, I ask the students to type in what we talked about. This solution has helped me keep a record of our conferences and has released responsibility to the students since they are now responsible for writing down the lessons from the conference.

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