Writing Workshop: A Secondary Pilot

Lessons LearnedWriting workshop provides an authentic writing experience for students, while allowing teachers to create a method of organizing classroom time that fosters differentiation in composition and feedback. However, it poses several organizational challenges that are not manifest in the more traditional ‘prompt’ model of delivering writing instruction. Several of us at the secondary level undertook to pilot the implementation of an Atwell workshop in varying degrees to wrestle with these challenges, with the hope of raising the efficacy of our writing instruction. Here’s what happened:

There are varying degrees of choice that we may provide students, as well as variance in the number of workshop sessions during any given instructional week. One of the group pre-determined a ‘family’ of topics around pivotal moments in the students’ lives; the work was autobiographical in nature, fostering choice around significant events, both positive and negative, that the students selected. The workshop was run almost daily, with modification made to this schedule for a novel study. Another teacher ran her workshop every day entirely around genre requirements, while a third instructor mixed free choice with similar genre requirements.

One challenge faced in the pilot work was the synchronicity of feedback and instruction, both in connecting whole class instruction to feedback provided in individual conferences as well as the synchronicity between two of us who collaborated together in the same space; we were both reading and appraising student work. Another teacher in our group began her cycle of student conferences with more general, open-ended questions that were archived in a conference template. Questions such as, “What are you working on, what can I help you with, is there something I can help you with, can you read something you believe to be your best, what are your next steps?” guided the conversation. Later, in this same classroom, feedback became more specific and stemmed from previous instruction. When we got together to process all of this, she stated , “We’re working on a hook, and then the hook is attended to. I’m only paying attention to what I have taught the kids. If the problems I saw were not connected to the mini-lessons I delivered, I would skip over, unless they were glaring.”

Not only did this hone the feedback provided, but expedited the conference process as a whole. One thing to note in this particular version of the workshop model is that the teacher’s consumption of the student work happened in the moment, as opposed to prior to the conference itself. (This was a large distinction within the group—whether the conference flowed from prior exposure to the student work with a predetermined plan or in the moment with an emergent plan for the feedback.) One of the middle school teachers read almost all pieces that were submitted ahead of time—kids would leave a ‘finished’ draft in the “Teacher: read this!” box. She would read the piece and keep a record of notes in the class, workshop binder; the conference with the kid happened the next day. For this same teacher, “in-the-moment” feedback sometime happened on days when she was circulating while kids wrote, and they asked for feedback about something specific.

Another middle school instructor had several ‘look-fors’ determined prior to beginning the pilot; these look-fors were based on writing priorities that had been established in the first two quarters of the year. These conferences were held almost daily; in these initial conferences, students received feedback specific to use of figurative language, paragraphing with new speakers, varying sentence types and lengths, use of conjunctions and clauses. Another instructor had a similar system for engaging the students’ writing—following the class roll—thereby ensuring seeing each student’s work regularly, as opposed to when drafts moved to ‘teacher edit’ in the writing process.

An initial challenge was bringing focus to just a few elements when revising and editing student papers. One of us felt issues were too broad and students saw too much “red ink.” Also, this teacher wrestled with students who were not effectively self-editing, receiving papers that obviously had not been proofread well.

In terms of archiving feedback, there were varying systems present in the group. On this front, the two collaborators mentioned earlier created a google document in which they kept feedback given to their respective students; this document created instructional ‘breadcrumbs’ for each of them to follow, should they take up the writing of a student who had previously conferenced with the other adult in the space. These same teachers would initiate their conferences with explicit reference to the previous one: “Last time we met, your goal was to x, y, z.” One member of the pilot created and shared a google spreadsheet for each of the students; they had direct access to each element/topic of feedback provided by their teacher. In addition, there was some discussion of basal levels of functioning per the various grade levels: What are the basic expectations for students’ writing that should be present before going through the conference process?

Overall, we feel the pilot has been a positive experience, both for us as well as the students. Our writing instruction is improving, as is student engagement in the process. However, each of us recognizes challenges still present and the potential evolution of our work. For example, one teacher found that topic generation is still difficult for some kids, particularly after a genre requirement. Another wished to make workshop a ‘holy’ time during the week—a protected block that did not get moved per the exigencies of a school week. Desire was expressed to foster more student risk in their writing—to experiment with genres outside of their comfort zone. In the group, there was healthy dissonance around chunking instruction and feedback and working to demonstrate more concrete, incremental progress. What about due dates? How should authentic composition be balanced against the need to move reluctant writers forward?

Nonetheless, our work continues … into the breach, my dear friends.


Erin James
Doug Forsman
Alexandria Tobasso
Cheryl Knight
John Worozbyt
Shannon Cruthirds
Shannon Wendling
Lars Holmstrom