Imagine an artist's studio or an active science laboratory. Various activities are going on simultaneously in the studio – one artist painting, another sculpting, someone else on a potter's wheel. A scientist at one end of the lab is wearing goggles and working with a Bunsen burner, a second may be using a microscope to find microorganisms, a third might be measuring and mixing. A level of energy reverberates in these environments with each participant working independently, but in a collaborative style, as they share their findings, seek advice, or celebrate successes. Now imagine a room such as these filled with writers participating in a studio or laboratory for writers.
Writer's Workshop is an instructional model that embraces writing as an ongoing process, with students following a set of procedures for planning, drafting, revising, editing, and ultimately, publishing their work. Students in one classroom are likely to be at various stages of this writing process at any one time. The collaboration with peers and teachers is an integral component of this model, with the writing focused primarily on what the children want to communicate as opposed to responding to prompts determined by the curriculum. Student choice is important.
In the primary classroom, Writer's Workshop has a certain look and feel. Students are generally in small groups around the room, possibly conferencing with a teacher, maybe designing the cover of a soon-to-be-published personal narrative, revising a piece from their writing folder, sharing with a response partner. Students have easy access to materials they need – pencils, sketch pens, various paper choices, dictionaries, crayons. Writing process posters are available for reference, and student writing is visible around the room. In this setting, students are encouraged to converse with each other about their writing, creating an active and energy-filled environment.
The elements of the Writer's Workshop demonstrate how this can, and does, work. There is a predictable pattern of a ten-minute mini-lesson on a timely writing technique, a quick-status-of-the-class check, at least 30 minutes for the workshop's main business of writing and conferencing, and a few minutes at the end for a sharing session. Students determine the topics and form for their writing, which is kept in a folder to organize their "in progress" writing. The teacher's role is that of a facilitator: monitoring, encouraging, conferencing, and providing help as needed. Students have response partners or groups with the purpose of helping each other improve their writing with instruction provided by the teacher based upon student needs. With partners or within groups, students have an opportunity to share their work with peers as they focus on a particular issue, such as including describing words in their text. The accompanying drawing is a great resource for the partners to use as they brainstorm together – details from the drawing can be added to the text.
Lucy Calkins developed the idea of the mini lesson, which is essentially a brief instructional session that addresses some element of writing.
It might be using vivid verbs, punctuating dialogue, or discussing process or technique. Often the mini lesson is based on writing conventions or possibly a problem that has occurred in student work.
Inherent benefits to the writer's workshop model are many. There is no lost time with students waiting for others to finish. Each student continues on to the next topic or piece at his or her own pace and on his or her own level. A development of writing independence occurs, and students consequently students become motivated writers as they take ownership of their time and talent. Students write to learn and learn to write by working through the process of prewriting, drafting, response, revision, proofreading, and publishing. Great accomplishments occur naturally as the students work toward completion of their projects. The more the children write about what really matters to them, the greater their chances of becoming higher-level thinkers.