Tales from Writing Workshop

writing photoWhile my students engaged in writing workshop with short persuasive speeches, this year’s workshop really began in earnest this week with essays about the definition of an American. My students have read the frequently taught and anthologized letter by Crèvecoeur in which he offers his famous definition of an American. I won’t link to any particular version because I used a condensed version I edited myself. My students compared their definitions to his. I imagine it’s a fairly standard assignment for that particular piece of early American literature. We workshopped two essays in each of my American literature English classes. My goal is to offer each student in my classes an opportunity to workshop their writing.

As we workshopped the first essay in one of my classes, I could hear the student next to the essay’s writer talking to the essay writer (and not in an out-loud-I’m-sharing-feedback-for-workshop way). I asked him what was wrong; he seemed if not exactly distressed at least a little uncomfortable. He said, “Oh, I just need to rethink my whole essay.” I said, “You won’t appreciate my saying this, but my reaction is: good! I’m glad. How much better is it to figure that out in this early drafting stage than get it back and realize you had some problems?” He agreed it was probably better that way and took my teasing—even if did contain a serious message—in good-humored way.

Because I’m nosy, I just checked his Google Doc to see what the revision history looked like. Check this out:Google Docs Revision HistoryThe pink icon belongs to the writer whose essay we were workshopping. I didn’t tell them to share. They just decided to help each other. I was able to see what the suggested edits were—a couple of grammar/mechanics suggestions. More important to me is the number of times the writer made his own edits, and the substance of edits. He’s not finished either. The end of his document contains quite a lot of notes and ideas for proceeding. In any case, the paper isn’t due until next Thursday.

The evening after this writing workshop class, I received an email from one of my students. He was requesting that we workshop his essay in the next class, if we had time, and he was hoping he could get some help with development and structure. We did look at his essay. It was well written. Some quotes were tightly integrated; others needed more anchoring. He used outside research. He developed his ideas well. He crafted a fine argument. One of my students (just so happens it was the same one who said he’d need to rethink his essay), remarked that he felt sure the writer would have earned an excellent grade without the help of workshop. I pointed out, “But we made it even better.” I could tell the writer was really happy with the accolades of his classmates:

“Please don’t grade my essay after his, Mrs. Huff.”

“Wow, that was amazing.”

“That was awesome.”

“Way to set the bar high.”

I would love to have a picture of his beaming face.

Today, a student in that class came by during our cooperative/collaborative learning time. “After reading that essay yesterday, I realized I need some help with mine.”

Students have an authentic audience of their peers in writing workshop. They learn to be much stronger writers and editors as a result of sharing their own work and reading their peers’ work. My student writers probably did more for helping their peers with their own essays this week than I could have done all year. I’m willing to bet quite a few of them turned to their work with a more critical eye after seeing the possibilities. And it’s only a few weeks into the year.

10 thoughts on “Tales from Writing Workshop”

  1. It is great to see the huge benefits of peer editing for students! I also think that peer editing can do wonders for student writing because not only will they see examples of other student's work, but they can also reflect on their own work. While I am teaching Spanish instead of English, I think the benefits remain the same, with the added advantages of discussing tougher grammatical structures as well. It is great that students are using their metacognitive knowledge to realize the strengths and weaknesses of their writing. Thank you for sharing your experience of peer editing in your classroom!

    1. Give it a try in your Spanish classes as well. I shared writing workshop with my colleagues, and many teachers in other departments—history, science—are giving it a try.

  2. Hi Dana! A master's student of education here (and future English and German teacher)

    That students use google docs to, assumedly, type their papers enables the teacher to track progress, it seems, more efficiently and accurately than ever. The evidence is in the screenshot you have posted in this blog entry. So often it is difficult for teachers to judge the efficacy of their practices, but based on the frequency of the student's edits, it seems safe to say that the workshop was a success. Moreover, it is apparent that the workshop positively affected student-to-student teaching, as the two students here seem to have collaborated outside the classroom. The workshop also seems also invaluable in that it gives students a chance to reflect on their own work by viewing that of another classmate, instead of turning in their material to you, the teacher, then only after receiving the grade realizing what they could / should have done differently. Students are often told to have a peer revise their papers, but I would bet that such peer review rarely takes place. In the workshop setting, students work is guaranteed to be viewed and reviewed by not just one peer but by an entire class. For these reasons, I find your workshop invaluable. I just have some questions. How long do your workshops last? Do you find that it is more beneficial to spend class time on them instead of teaching more or new material?



    1. Branden, I typically do two-day workshops. Our class periods are 75 minutes. We can typically do one student's work in a 75-minute period (sometimes more—it depends). I do find it beneficial to spend this time on writing. My most important goal is to help students improve their writing. I am willing to let other material go in order to achieve that end.

  3. Thoroughly enjoyed this Jessica. I totally agree with you re opaque academic writing – the use of language the excludes rather than includes. There's nothing wrong with using simple words to convey complex concepts or ideas.

  4. Dana, I am very interested in the nuts and bolts of how you make this work. In my opinion, workshop is an integral part of any English class and something that all English teachers must make time for in class. How do you build this into your classes? It seems like you set the tone very early on, that workshopping is an important part of the writing process and something that will happen regularly in your class. I am not sure where exactly you teach, or if that even has anything to do with it, but your students seem to respond quite positively to the workshop experience and I am very impressed. I am having trouble at my student teaching placement getting my students to write at all, let alone return to a piece of work, share it with their classmates, and rethink it. Even when the writing prompt is directly relevant to their own everyday lives and takes the form of a journal, they are incredibly resistant to writing. Do you have any ideas about how to go about this?

    1. Are you going to NCTE? I am presenting on this topic in session B-24 on this topic. I took the idea from Ron Berger's book An Ethic of Excellence. He describes the in-depth critique for student-centered editing and revision (and not just writing) in some detail in this book, and I adapted what he does for writing specifically. Posts here, here, and here break down the process in detail. Setting the tone early on is critical. As a student teacher, you are up against the problem that you are not their regular teacher. Students can be resistant to that idea, though sometimes they love it. I do teach in a private school, and students tend to be more motivated. You didn't say what the setting for your student teaching placement looks like, but the struggle many of us are up against the association many students have between writing and failure. If they have struggled to learn to do it in the past, they don't have a lot of faith that one teacher can help them turn that around. The students do really like writing workshop quite a lot, and it is evolving into a hallmark of writing education at our school, both in our English department and in our history department. The fact that it is becoming more systemic helps, but we also have students coming to us from all over the world with all levels of comfort and facility with English, and that can be a challenge. Some of the students worry about expressing themselves both verbally in class discussion and in writing.

  5. I truly appreciate your emphasis on continually improving works of writing, and helping students to always strive for higher, rather than being content. It's great to see how you've fostered students comfortability with sharing their work with others, and learning how to give good feedback. It was good to read what you wrote in the above comment, about starting a precedent of workshopping and peer feedback from the start, and being systematic in your instruction to build an inclusive and welcoming space. It seemed your students were at a very high level of writing in terms of their thought process about it, and the steps they take. You mentioned a persuasive essay in the start of this post, how have you fostered such high-level practice in writing and critiquing something like a persuasive essay? What steps do you teach?

    1. Kareem, if you follow my first link in the post, you will arrive at the first in a three-part series of blog posts that details the process in full with a persuasive essay. I run writing workshop the same way whether the piece is creative, narrative, persuasive, or expository.

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