Monday, January 5, 2015

Introducing Writing Workshops for Children

There are many good reasons to implement daily writing workshops in classrooms. Probably most important amongst these is that they offer the opportunity for children to experience writing as process not just as product. 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 writing stamina.

I had the chance to see such 'stamina' demonstrated as part of a research project when team teaching on a Grade 1 class with an outstanding teacher, Inta Gollasch. 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'). The language story that follows illustrates a number of other good reasons for having daily writing workshops in classrooms. 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 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.

Above: Chlorissa's story
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 demonstrate at the end of every writing session).

Chlorissa's writing demonstrates what Katie Wood Ray was talking about; daily writing workshops 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 as well:
1. Writing workshops help 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.


Rachael Fernandez said...

I enjoyed reading this post and always love when we can combine the love for reading and writing. My little one is only 3 but I offered her a journal to write about anything she likes or to draw in for now. Yesterday after we read our routine bedtime story she was very interested in how books are made. I think we have a new project.... i look forward to reading more and I would love to share it on my blog

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks for your comment Rachael. Sounds like your little one is very interested in language and story. You are welcome to offer a link to this post from your site. I hope the 'new project' goes well.

Rachel Chaston said...

Great post. This one has made me think about the teaching of writing for children in their first years of school. Your point about young writers "experiencing writing as craft" ..."revision... careful use of language and audience and purpose..." made me think how I use social media and how I can assist children I teach do the same. I often respond and comment to posts on social media. Sometimes, and without thinking, I'll type the first thought that comes into my head, forgetting my audience and sense of reasoning. Lucky, we have the ability to edit and delete. Although, as quick as we type and submit, someone is on the receiving end reading. On one occasion, I received a reply I wasn't prepared for. My use of language did not express clearly my point and I had offended a friend. Now, I read a response a couple of times, change and edit my language as I think about my audience and the purpose for my response, before I submit. I don't want to stop responding to posts through fear of offending. Social media is a common way to communicate. I want to do it sensibly - with passion and honesty. But with a process for writing I take comfort that my posts and responses may support, empathise, provoke, and gently oppose.
My thoughts are these:
What if we instill a sense of 'stamina' in young writers as they start school? Would this help the way young adults (and new users) navigate the potential for exposure on social media? Can the concept of stamina in writing, built upon over the early years of school and onward, ignite the neural networks in the social network user (prior to clicking submit) to take a quiet moment to re-read a post...revise, research, plan and think about the language used, the audience and the purpose for such comment? I think so.
Thanks again for a great post.
(I did re-read and revise this post)

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comment Rachel. Even social media requires craft to use it well. Of course, it doesn't have to have it but few of us enjoy following blogs, or even reading tweets that have been punched out with little thought and revision. I find my 140 character tweets to be as hard to write as many long posts. Many elements of revision and craft can be applied as much to social media. However, I still see stamina requiring the reading and writing of longer texts. Thanks for responding, very interesting.