Sunday, December 11, 2011

Building Writing Stamina: The importance of writing workshops

There are many good reasons to implement daily writing workshops in any classroom. Probably most important amongst these is that they offer the opportunity for children to experience writing as process. That is, to understand that writing is something that has to be worked on if it is to communicate with and engage readers. Young writers need to experience writing as craft, something that requires hard work, revision, research, planning, careful use of language and a sense of purpose and audience. But Katie Wood Ray reminds us in this short video that there is something even more basic that writing workshops offer - the chance to develop stamina.

I had the chance to observe this in detail some years ago when team teaching on a Grade 1 class with an outstanding teacher, Inta Gollasch. The language story that I share below also illustrates a number of other good reasons for having daily writing workshops in classrooms.
I spent most of the year in Inta's class observing the literacy behaviour of her children (I have written about this in detail on my book 'Pathways to Literacy'). Inta's approach to writing workshop was simple, she provided:

  • Time each day when children were encouraged to write about topics of their choosing.
  • Folders in which they kept their draft materials and lots of writing materials.
  • Opportunities for the children to share their writing with others when the need arose.
  • Individual teacher conferences for children when needed (but at least weekly).
  • Varied opportunities for the children to publish and share their writing with larger audiences.
  • Help with publishing when the young writers wanted to pit their work into some more permanent form.
On the first day in the classroom I observed a boy named Brock eagerly writing in a "magic cave" constructed as a retreat area.  I stopped to ask how he came up with this idea for his story.  He replied:

"Well, it was like Chlorissa. (She wrote about) that book (The Enchanted Wood) that had children who moved to the country.  I changed it around."

Brock's piece based on the The Enchanted Wood (Blyton, 1939) was primed (at least in part) by the fact that Chlorissa had done this earlier. 

I quickly observed a preoccupation with Enid Blyton's Faraway Tree books in Inta’s class.  The teacher had read two of these books ('The Enchanted Wood' & 'The Magic Faraway Tree') in the first 4 weeks of school.  The third ('The Wishing Chair') was read over a two-week period some two months later. 

The teacher's reading of these books had a strong influence upon the writing of children in the classroom.  This showed itself in the students' narrative writing, in playground games, in letter writing and even at home.  In all, ten 'Blyton type' stories were written in this classroom during the year.

Chlorissa's writing that had inspired Brock and others to write their own Faraway Tree stories was begun in June (mid school year in Australia). She was still writing it at the end of the school year (December).  By this time the story was 20 pages long and Chlorissa had stuck each of the pages together to form a scroll, that could stretch almost across the width of the classroom (something she liked to do at the end of sessions).

Chlorissa's writing demonstrates what Katie Wood Ray was talking about; daily writing workshop can help children to develop stamina. This is stamina of two kinds, first, the ability just to stick at a task for a long period of time (30 minutes each day). Second, the ability to keep coming back to the same task day after day. This is one of the key skills of the writer, sticking with the writing task - stamina!

But I think the language story also demonstrates a few other things:

1. Writing workshop can encourage children to learn about the craft of writing.
2. It offers opportunities for young writers to write for 'real' audiences.
3. The sharing of writing can inspire other young writers.
4. Books are an important source of inspiration for young writers.

Other posts on writing
'Writing that Matters' HERE
'When do children start writing?' HERE
'Ten ways to encourage preschool writers' HERE

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