Writing Workshop, Part 2

WritingIn my previous post about Writing Workshop, I explained what an In-Depth Critique looks like in my class. Logistics and tools may be a concern, especially for teachers with a large number of students.

My school has Google Apps for Education, but as we do not use the Gmail feature, Google Docs/Drive is probably the most frequently used Google App at our school. I am piloting a tool called Hapara that works with Google Drive (and also Blogger, Gmail, and Google Sites, if you like) to make it easier to track student work and push documents out to students.

What I like about it is that I don’t have to remind students to share their docs with me; their docs are automatically shared. Google Docs has an excellent commenting feature that I much prefer to track changes in Word. If you haven’t used this feature, this video gives a succinct demonstration of what it looks like:

As you can see in the video, if a student clicks on the comment, the highlighted text changes color so that the students can easily see what the comment is referring to. They can use the feature themselves to make notes to themselves about what to change. I have a student, for instance, who uses it to talk to himself about areas where he knows he needs to do some more editing or thinking. Once the student addresses the comment, he or she can mark it resolved, but the history is still visible if the student clicks on the large Comments button at the top.

Google Docs makes it much easier for me to conduct Writing Workshop because the student whose paper we are workshopping can have it open in Google Docs and make suggested edits on the fly as we discuss the paper and can take notes on others that he/she needs to consider.

At this stage, we are not sharing our documents with each other. Rather, one student’s essay is projected on the screen, and both the student and I have the doc open so that we can both add the peers’ comments and suggestions. Later, we may decide to share docs as we build our community of writers and gain that trust.

Today, we workshopped a student’s paper. He did a fabulous job integrating quotes, which allowed us all the opportunity to learn. I mean, it really was masterful. His title was clever, but we wondered if it really fit the ideas expressed in the essay, which was an analysis of John Updike’s short story “A&P.” The image of the customers as “sheep” mindlessly pushing their carts through the aisles really appealed to this student, and he wanted to work the image of the sheep into the title. In his paper, he argued that the protagonist, Sammy, made an unwise decision in quitting his job. I should mention that each trimester, all students taking a particular course, in this case World Literature II, write on the same given prompt, which we call a common prompt. The common prompt for this trimester asked students to determine whether or not they felt Sammy made the right decision in quitting his job, and yes, either yes or no can be argued successfully based on the text.

We began, as before, by asking the student to identify his goal for the writing and what, in particular, he especially wanted feedback on. Then we read the essay as a whole, commenting on what we liked and noticed and on what questions we had. Then we read almost sentence by sentence.

The student had an amazing breakthrough when were looking at a sentence in which he described the girl Sammy dubs “Queenie.” My student described her as “bossing” the other two girls around, which is how Sammy realized she was in charge. Another student suggested we didn’t really see any “bossing,” and I agreed. But we all agreed it was obvious she was the group’s leader. How did we know that? Well, the students said, the way they walked around. She was in the middle. She was directing them around the store. Wait! One student had an idea. Why didn’t the writer tie the way the girls walked around the store back to the image of the sheep? And the student writer said, maybe he could revise the sentence to describe Queenie as herding the other girls around the store. It was brilliant! I actually jumped up and down and then gave a student a high five.

I am telling you that this is the kind of thinking we WANT students to be doing about their writing. And it worked because one student suggested a word change, another had an idea about a way to think about the word choice, and the STUDENT HIMSELF came up with the best word to use.

In addition to word choice, we were able to talk about commas and why they can be problematic, but also how we can figure out when to use them. Students were able to see an excellent model for integrating quotes and clever word choices. Students had an opportunity to help a peer think critically about his word choices and correct a few grammatical issues. I can’t even tell you how much easier Writing Workshop makes writing instruction. The kicker is that the writing instruction is much more meaningful because it comes from the students’ own writing. We are establishing ourselves as a community of writers with the goal of improving everyone’s writing.

After class, one student hung back to ask a question about using a semicolon, as it came up when we examined the essay today. Another student asked about integration of quotes in literary analysis as opposed to the kind of writing she does in history, which was a great opportunity to discuss audience and writing for different purposes.

I only offer a couple of examples here. In truth, I do not think I could cover nearly as much writing instruction in a traditional writing assignment graded with comments, which the student might examine for the grade. Perhaps the student might read the comments, but certainly I would see the same problem areas in the next paper, ad infinitum, mainly because the comments alone really don’t help the student understand how to improve. And frankly, I am as guilty of this as anyone, but such feedback never seems to celebrate what went right with the writing. Putting the essay up on the screen and taking a period to discuss it hits all of these common problems in writing instruction. What I like to see in Writing Workshop is the way in which it encourages the students to think about what makes good writing.

Do you have questions regarding logistics? Please ask in the comments.

15 thoughts on “Writing Workshop, Part 2”

  1. Love this idea. I'm totally stealing it.

    Two questions:

    1. Would you see this as something you would do regularly throughout the year, or do you plan to do it once or twice at the beginning of the school year to model techniques that they can then use on their own?

    2. Do you have specific things in mind before workshopping the pieces (fluency, using evidence, mechanics)? Did you look at their papers before workshopping them so you'd have an idea of what to discuss and "correct" with the class, or was the process more organic?

    Thank you so much for posting this. I've been struggling with revision, peer editing, and all of that for a long time. I gave one group some class time earlier this quarter just to read the comments that I wrote on their first papers, because I know that they rarely do so themselves. Like you said, they'll make the same errors again and again despite my notes. Hopefully, this whole-class revision will stick with them better.

    1. Tim, our school year is divided into three trimesters, and I plan to workshop at least one paper per trimester. I didn't have anything specific in mind prior to workshopping other than to make sure the citations and Works Cited were correct. This has been a great opportunity to teach integrating quotes and proper citation (among everything else). So, I would say the process was more organic. It was AMAZING! I don't think I'll teach writing any other way, though it is time consuming. I think it will cut the repetition of errors and do more to convince kids to revise/read their comments. I was worried they'd be self-conscious about it, but they do not appear to be. They appear to love it.

      1. Hi – do you only ask for volunteers or do you at times pick student work to workshop? I can envision some students feeling very uncomfortable with this process and others being breezy. Thanks for your thoughts!

        1. Hi Amanda. I do ask for volunteers. Once students see how it works, they all want to have their writing workshopped. The key in terms of "breeziness" is is modeling, I think. I also think you need to probe students. If they say something is good, well, why? What's good about it?

  2. Dana,

    Who are you? I love you! I just stumbled on this blog — thinking at first it was some Huffington Post partner site — and read your posts about the Writing Workshop. Perfect timing, too. My current methods of writing instruction are, frankly, ineffective for most of my students. It works for the top 30%, but for the bottom 2/3s, it doesn't. And I've also come to terms with the fact that peer review simply does not work. It takes a particularly savvy group of writers in order for it to work effectively. (But even at the college level, my students struggled with it.) I did peer review with my 9th graders with the fully realization that while, yes, they wouldn't get valuable feedback from their peers, the activity would at least engender a closer reading of their own papers. In any case, it took too much time and was ineffective.

    And so I'm so glad to have read about your workshop model and I plan to use it as we embark on our second unit. I was already modeling writing in front of them, and so I can integrate this easily. A question though: What sort of credit do you give to the students for this? Is there something the other students are doing as your workshopping, other than offering comments? Are they recording the edits? I can imagine a situation where only 3-5 students are participating and the rest are zoning out.


    1. No connection to the Huffington Post.

      In answer to your question, I forgot to mention this in the posts, but my students created a Writing Workshop rubric and will be graded on their participation in it. They came up with the criteria they thought was important. I did give them a model rubric my Dean of Faculty shared with me. I would need to ask her permission before posting it here. So they do get a grade for participating in workshop. I have an interesting mix of students. Some of them are international students who are translating as they listen, and it can be hard to ask them to participate at the same level as native speakers, but I still think they are getting a lot out of workshop. I don't ask that student record the edits, though I do see some of them take notes or pull up their own essays to examine.

  3. Excellent post Dana. Thanks a ton for sharing. This is really helpful and awesome. Going to install Hapara tools for my school.Thanks again 🙂

    1. Swati, my experience was that it was not easy to set up, but once it's up and running, I love it. Also, keep in mind it costs $4/student. Hope you like it and share your experiences with it!

      1. Hey Dana,

        Thanks for your valuable reply. Actually cost doesn't matter when it is about my students.And I'll try my best for it.

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