Most television viewers have seen at least one cooking show in the past decade. There is one common thread throughout them all- the secret ingredient. This secret ingredient can make or break the meal or the cook, but all in all, it’s the most important element of success. That’s how I view writing as part of the literacy instruction my students receive. Lately it’s practically taboo for the students to have structured, focused writing instruction within the school hours, but yet it’s the secret ingredient to their success in literacy.
Recently I gave my students a survey about what their favorite part of the day is. Over half of them wrote that they enjoy Writer’s Workshop the most. Writer’s Workshop is one of those “dusted off teaching strategies” I was trained in back in the late 90’s and recently brought back into my classroom. It provides the students with an organic sense of autonomy as they independently maneuver through the steps of the writing process, creating a fictional story, informational article, poetry, persuasive paragraph, and/or functional text (such as travel brochures, posters, etc). With this ticket to the Land of Writing Freedom, I have observed students using their imaginations to a level that would fill any accomplished author with envy.
Although I teach a weekly mini-lesson about a trait of writing, the most influential part of Writer’s Workshop is the Author’s Chair. The students share their completed writing with the class on Friday mornings. It is an hour of celebration as 30 students listen attentively to very creative and inspiring pieces of written art. This last Friday, one of my students read the introduction to her informational article about pet cats, “Fuzzy kitties are more interesting than pet rocks, and I should know.” Amidst the giggles, the students learned that they can make informational articles as fun as fictional stories. This valuable lesson from a peer will most likely be remembered longer than a mini-lesson from me!
Every year I begin Writer’s Workshop with a sense of anxiety, wondering if my special needs students and struggling readers will feel overwhelmed with the independent nature of the requirements. And every year I end Writer’s Workshop with a sense of relief and pride, wondering why I felt so nervous to begin with? Something magical always happens when Writer’s Workshop is used consistently in a structured classroom—the children who struggle with reading and writing find a happy place to explore literacy without feeling like a failure in front of their peers. That’s what I love so much about it—the level of freedom encourages the children to push themselves to become better writers. Also, it provides time for me to have “teacher conferences” with the students, which gives us one-on-one time to go over their writing strengths and make goals to improve specific writing traits. When the students find that they can succeed through perseverance in writing, their academic self-esteem rises, which positively impacts their reading skills. Also, creating accurately-spelled words with the phonics rules, implementing grammatical structures, and using sight words helps struggling readers apply what they are learning in reading instruction. Reading fluency and accuracy increase as the writers are reading and revising their work with peers. It’s a win-win situation for everyone!
Yet through this testimonial of my success with Writer’s Workshop, it is somewhat hidden in my classroom. I feel like Miss Honey in “Matilda,” hiding away the Writer’s Workshop posters, binders, and organizers as soon as we are done for the day. Somehow I am supposed to teach two tiers of reading instruction and two additional tiers of phonics instruction before lunch, and guess what? Writing isn’t a requirement. As stated by the district, “just include it in your reading instruction.” Yes, we do write sentences with our phonics words and complete graphic organizers about our stories with writing, but is that enough? I can tell you from the testimonials of frustrated middle school and high school Language Arts teachers, NO. Is it enough to write a compelling essay to gain entrance to an Ivy League school? NO.
As I learned from my National Board candidacy work, an accomplished teacher should always be asking themselves, “What is best for my students?” I have taught long enough to know with certainty- writing instruction is best for my students. So please join me in my Writing Revolution. Let’s impact the students’ literacy skills through purposeful writing instruction. It is the secret ingredient to success.