Author and writing coach Angela Stockman on redesigning writing workshops
I remember my first introduction to writing workshop. I was a junior in college, completing my final seminar before student teaching, and the professor who I admired most throughout my undergraduate career assigned the book In the Middle: Writing, Reading, and Learning with Adolescents by Nancie Atwell.
He told us that our class would function as a writing workshop that semester. The experience was transformational. That semester, I became a writer because my professor positioned himself as a learner who sat beside me, spoke with me at length about my work, and helped me realize that my words were worthy of a wider audience.
He encouraged me to publish, he connected me to other professors who guided my path, and he ensured that I became a teacher who wrote with my students.
After that experience, I remember preparing my first classroom, greeting my students, and launching my first writing workshop. I channeled both my professor and the great author Nancie Atwell, plus every ounce of my energy I could muster.
But despite all that, my new curriculum and my practice failed rather spectacularly.
Soon after, vendors started packaging simple writing workshop units that I could purchase and follow line-by-carefully-scripted-line, and at first, I was delighted.
These lift-and-drop workshops served me well for some time (they are fine for beginners), but there are two problems with these prefabricated units: their over-reliance on what the past has taught us about writing and young writers, and the way they typically position teachers at the front of the entire process.
Today, Pinterest is full of writing workshop units, and when teachers ask me if these units are worth their time and money, I suggest that they proceed with caution.
While lift-and-drop workshops expose us to tried-and-true structures and help us adopt important research-based practices, they’re not enough anymore.
If we want to create future-ready writers who sustain real influence inside a fast-paced and unpredictable world, we must learn how to treat teaching as a learning process and how to make our students our greatest mentors.
Traditional writing workshops position teachers as experts who guide the study of common forms. Future-ready writers mix, remix, and create their own, and they invite their teachers and peers to learn beside them. This typically requires far more than words. In my experience, it inspires the use of different mediums, modalities, and processes that look like making.
Design thinking is a very human endeavor. It helps writing teachers make decisions about curriculum, instruction, assessment, and process based on evidence from their current and rapidly changing realities.
Rather than relying on outdated scores or our own biased instincts, teaching writing by design empowers us to develop timely insights about the strengths and needs of the writers we support and to provide far more relevant responses.
Design thinking makes us agile teachers, and agile teachers produce agile writers who can sustain their influence in the world.
So, how might you begin to explore the relationship between design thinking and the writing process?
Design thinking isn’t a linear process, and it isn’t sequential; there are many ways to work each phase to its fullest potential. This image is a simple illustration of a process that can be delightfully complex and include vast opportunities for creative application.
In my world, design thinking involves five distinct phases:
Consider how this process compares to others you’ve used in your work. In my experience, most teachers practice some of the elements of design intuitively, in much the same way beginners teach themselves distinct guitar chords without much thought or intention.
How might you begin to choreograph the whole of your practice? How might you blend these single chords into a beautiful piece of music?
The ideas that follow will give you a quick start (is tomorrow quick enough?) to will help you carry your work forward.
Start by practicing empathy. Survey your students about their interests in writing and other creative expressions.
Help them define their strengths and uncover their needs. As much as possible, start to immerse yourself in their worlds: Spend time in their communities and get acquainted with the issues that matter most to them.
Eventually, use what you discover to transform your curriculum and your practices, and solicit their feedback on the changes along the way. Here are five quick ways to gather real-time, relevant data that can help you create and sustain a future-ready writing workshop.
What would you rather be doing if you didn’t have to write right now? What do you like to make? What do you like to read? What are your favorite television programs? Which movies do you like best?
What activities do you enjoy participating in outside of school? What are your favorite subjects? What do you want to get better at as a writer? How do you want to grow as a learner? How can I help you? How can you help us?
Invite writers to thoughtfully reflect on questions like these before sharing their responses with you or the group. You’ll find creative ways to do so in the supplemental resources folder for this Hack.
Define what you feel you “must do” in order to teach the requisite content and skills for this unit.
Many teachers will define at least one element of craft that they want to help writers perfect. Craft includes ideas, organization, word choice, sentence fluency, and voice. Writing teachers are also eager to teach skills that support each phase of the writing process including brainstorming, drafting, revision, and editing skills.
Finally, teachers ensure the quality of the work produced by teaching specific lessons about the form of the piece itself.
What must be taught about narrative, argument, or information writing? Are you supporting a different form or a multi-genre piece? What do you feel responsible for helping your students learn? Define these “must do’s” clearly for your students.
Then, invite them to share their expertise about any of these concepts or skills.
Create a living document or display that allows writers to name, share, and tap into each other’s strengths rather than relying exclusively on you for guidance and support.
In traditional writing workshops, teachers use mentor texts—the works of other authors—to model specific craft moves.
Writing by design challenges writers to curate a wide collection of multi-modal mentor texts, including the integration of diverse mediums. The examples writers collect align with their personal interests and the kinds of work they’re most interested in making themselves.
You’ll find my favorites in the supplemental resources folder for this Hack. Encourage your students to create a collection of their own favorites.
How might you use their collections to inform what you teach, how you teach it, and the kinds of work you inspire your students to create?
It’s very helpful to ask the writers I support how I might make our next session even more worthwhile for them.
How can I best help you? What do I need to change? What do you need to do more often? What should I do less? What helps? What hurts? How can I do this better?
These are the questions I share at the end of every class, and I often collect student responses on an exit ticket before they head out the door, or digitally using apps like Kahoot! or with Google Forms or Mentimeter.
Great writers know their readers well enough to satisfy their interests and needs. Invite your students to define topics for their writing that interest them, but then, teach them to consider which of those topics might be meaningful and relevant to others as well.
One of the easiest ways to do this is to invite writers to post a list of potential topics in a space where classmates might provide feedback on them.
Rather than diving into a project that centers solely around a topic of their own choosing, they might invite their classmates, friends, and even family members to share the topics that are of most interest to them.
When teachers position themselves as design thinkers and coach their students to do the same, the learning that emerges is directly aligned to real-time experiences and the authentic needs and interests of the audiences they serve.
Practicing empathy and prototyping our plans stands in stark contrast to teaching and writing that is driven by traditional orthodoxies and prefabricated programs.
Encouraging writers to translate print through diverse mediums and modalities increases the value of their work and the likelihood that they will be of real influence in the world.
None of this looks like the writing workshop my beloved college professor introduced me to, but I’m certain he’d be okay with the shifts I’m recommending.