the magical, motivating writer’s workshop

February 7, 2012

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It’s very satisfying to write a post that brings so many of you out for a tea party in the comments! If you haven’t been back to the discussion for the How Do Kids REALLY Learn to Write? post, hop on over. You’ll find fantastic insights and experiences shared there.

One of my most essential suggestions in that post was the final one: Help your kids find meaningful, authentic reasons to write. And what was my first example of how you can help make meaningful, authentic writing opportunities for kids? Start a writer’s workshop. If you’ve been reading along here for any length of time, you could have predicted that one. You know that I mention writer’s workshops often, you know that I’m a great fan–yet suddenly I realize that I’ve only written about them at length here once.

So, let’s talk about writer’s workshops.

I’m so convinced of the effectiveness of writer’s workshops and writing clubs that I’m writing an e-book on the topic. (Still cranking away on that! It should be finished in the next few months.) From the introduction of my project:

One of the easiest ways I know to conjure an audience for a child’s writing is to start a writer’s workshop.

Conjure is an apt word here because, in my experience, writer’s workshops can be almost magical in their ability to motivate kids’ writing. I’ve facilitated a variety of groups over a dozen years, working with kids as young as four and as old as seventeen.  Twelve years in, I’m still surprised at how a workshop can inspire a child’s desire to write. I see it in the kids from my current group, overheard at the park, asking each other, “What are you reading at the workshop tomorrow?” I see it in the ten-year-old who emails, begging me to hold our bi-monthly workshops every week, “Please!!!!!!!!!” I saw it last year in the teenage boy who dutifully cranked out regular installments of a Twilight series spoof, because the other workshop kids cheered and whined for them. In the kids who arrive at my house on workshop day, and scurry off to a corner to scratch out the unfinished ending to a story—because they don’t want to miss the party. In my own son, who hollered about how much he hated writing at seven, but months later, after we’d started our first workshop, could be found at the kitchen table, scribbling away at his own Captain Underpants comics before he’d even finished his morning glass of orange juice.

A writer’s workshop may not have such an effect on every child, but I’ll make the audacious claim that it will have such an effect on most kids. It’s a powerful motivator, and it’s hard not to use magic as its metaphor. I’m not the only one to think so; I’ve heard facilitators of other workshops and writing clubs for kids make similar claims.

Yet, for all it offers, a workshop is a fairly simple gathering to facilitate. We’re talking big payoff with minimal effort. Really, all you need to provide is a place for kids to share their writing. And a little help in cultivating a nurturing atmosphere.

There are many ways to format a workshop. In classrooms, teachers typically present a short lesson on craft, often using professional writings as inspiration, and then there’s a longer session of writing time, with sharing at the end. Many home-based workshops follow a similar pattern: the facilitator offers a fun prompt, and kids write, and share what they’ve written.

We do things a bit differently in my workshops. Kids write whatever they want: on any topic, in any genre. They do the actual writing at home. Then they read their work aloud at the workshop, and the group offers feedback. We generally do a quick, fun writing exercise together midway, but bulk of our time together goes to offering feedback on those written-at-home projects. I like this format because it allows kids to take time on their writing, and it offers more freedom in how kids write. Many still dictate their work to parents, which they can easily do at home; some like to write at computers; some enjoy writing bit by bit over the two weeks between our meetings; some prefer dashing off something by hand on their way to our gathering. Many choose to write longer pieces, and offer their latest installment at each meeting.

When kids write at home, it leaves more workshop time for feedback. And that, I think, is where the magic lies. As I mentioned in that last post, people (generally) write for connection and response. A writer’s workshop fulfills that in bucket loads: A child sits at the front of the group and reads his or her writing. And the other kids listen! And offer positive feedback!

That, my friends, is gold to a writer. I know I never tire of getting feedback on my own writing.

You’ll notice that I specify positive feedback. I’m a big believer in positive feedback. I think that hearing what we do well is more instructive than some folks realize. Getting feedback on our strengths teaches us what our strengths are–and many of us don’t recognize our strengths. Positive feedback teaches us what we do well, and encourages us to keep doing it.

A big chunk of my e-book focuses on offering feedback, because it’s such an essential part of a workshop–and it’s also the place where a workshop can go wrong, and turn unproductive. We do, eventually, begin offering constructive, building feedback in our workshop, but we delve into it slowly and with care. But truthfully, you could host a workshop that allows only positive feedback, and the kids would develop as writers.

What never fails to amaze me is the insight that kids can offer about writing. They really begin thinking like writers. At our last workshop, one ten-year-old said, “I like how you took the comedy of somebody messing up a newscast and made it real.” Another said, “I found it interesting that the snatchers couldn’t get the kids, which made me want to hear more of the story.” They comment on everything from specific words to character motivation to plotting. Once, a teen responded to a girl’s Christmas memoir by saying that all the details made him feel like he was looking into a snow globe. (I practically welled up at that one.)

You can get a glimpse into how a feedback session can blossom into a full-blown writerly discussion in my post Still Talking Literature.

A Few Benefits of a Writer’s Workshop:

  • Workshoppers experience one of writing’s essential purposes—the opportunity to convey ideas in words to an audience.
  • Having an audience to write for can be highly motivating.
  • A workshop audience provides feedback on one’s writing. Feedback isn’t always easy to come by.
  • The workshop setting encourages kids to write with an audience in mind. Writing for a particular audience can help writers develop clarity in their work.
  • The workshop exposes kids to a variety of writing genres and styles. Very often the kids influence one another’s writing.
  • The workshop provides authentic deadlines for writing, which can be helpful for writers of all ages.
  • A positive workshop environment can help kids recognize their personal strengths as writers.
  • A workshop setting values creativity over formula, content over correctness, practice over theory—all qualities essential to developing writers.
  • The workshop helps kids understand that writing is a process, that the work is malleable. Writing can always be changed and improved, if the writer chooses to.
  • Discussion about one another’s writing helps kids learn how literature works, in an authentic, meaningful, interesting way.
  • For homeschooled kids, the workshop provides the audience often missing in a homeschool setting. For schooled kids, the workshop allows for opportunities that may not happen in a classroom: more freedom to write creatively, and in-depth dialogue about kid-generated writing.
  • And a benefit not to be underestimated: the workshop shows kids that writing can be fun.

I’d love to keep the tea party going. A few questions to get the chitchat started: Have your kids ever participated in a writer’s workshop or other sort of writing club–or have you hosted one yourself? Was the experience useful? Have you participated in a workshop yourself? Or, have you ever considered hosting a writer’s workshop? What’s kept you from doing so?

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Kristin February 9, 2012 at 7:54 am

I found what you wrote below to be true the two years I facilitated a workshop in my home.

“Yet, for all it offers, a workshop is a fairly simple gathering to facilitate. We’re talking big payoff with minimal effort. Really, all you need to provide is a place for kids to share their writing. And a little help in cultivating a nurturing atmosphere.”

There were so many varying abilities in our group and I was impressed how everyone was very courteous and respectful to each other. My role was to:

Provide a regular meeting with comfortable seating for people to share their writing.
Make sure the writing group was a “safe” place to share one’s creative efforts.
Help the participants learn how to give constructive feedback.
Pay attention to the reader and jot down sections of their writing that really worked and share them after the rest of the kids gave their feedback.
Pay attention to the reader and note an area where I had a question.
Assure the writer that any changes that were suggested were entirely up to them (very empowering for the writer).
Ask the participants to bring in examples from their favorite author(s) and discuss the what they liked about the writing style. (if they didn’t want to bring in their own writing)
Provide a fun writing activity that helped participants become aware of various elements of writing.

The challenge was coming up with a writing activity for every meeting–and that wasn’t too hard because there are so many books with good ideas in them.

It’s definitely doable and very constructive and I should also note that I tailored my writing group using the format of yours.

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patricia February 10, 2012 at 9:14 am

It is doable, isn’t it? And didn’t you find that the workshop was motivating for the kids?

Sounds like we facilitate our workshops very much the same. One small difference (and it’s a tiny thing) is that I don’t save my feedback until after the kids have given theirs. I give them a chance raise their hands and offer some initial feedback, and then I raise my hand and wait for the reader to call on me, just like any other kid. My reasoning is that I want them to view my feedback as one voice among many, and I don’t want them to elevate mine as something better or more authoritative. Because, quite honestly, they may value what a kid says more than they value a particular opinion of mine, and I think that’s great. In workshops I’ve attended as an adult, I’ve often found feedback from particular students to be more helpful than feedback from the instructor.

It’s important for writers to be able to listen to feedback and to figure out which is useful to them. As you say, deciding to apply feedback to their writing and make changes is completely up to them. And you’re right: that’s so empowering!

Thanks for sharing, Kristin.

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Gwyn February 9, 2012 at 4:33 pm

We love writers’ workshops! I work at the public library, and my husband teaches English at the university here, so a couple of years ago we teamed up to provide a year-long program of writing workshops. The regularity of the group helped the kids be comfortable with each other; a lot of friendships were made that year! That group was upper elementary and middle school kids.

My husband enjoyed that experience so much, he began another group – this time for high school kids. They meet every other week at a downtown location. He offers it for free (we don’t even have high school aged kids of our own) just because he loves working with them and watching them grow. It’s so much fun!

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patricia February 10, 2012 at 9:22 am

Love hearing how much your family has enjoyed workshops, Gwyn! How generous that your husband set up a workshop for high school kids. I’ve absolutely enjoyed working with teens in the past; it feels like such a privilege to be allowed into their writing worlds. (I wonder if your husband is familiar with figment.com? It’s a fantastic social sharing site for teen-ish writers, and might be a neat extension of his workshop, if he and the kids haven’t explored it already. I know that teachers can even set up private figment groups for their classes, which might be useful to your husband and his group. My teen daughter loves designing “covers” for her writing on figment, and sharing it and getting feedback.)

Thanks for sharing!

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Gwyn February 10, 2012 at 10:03 am

Thanks for the link Patricia! I sent it on to my husband. And I think it’s not so much generosity (though he is a generous person) as it is like you say: he feels it to be privilege to be allowed into their writing worlds. It’s why he became an English teacher!

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Carrie Pomeroy February 11, 2012 at 7:50 pm

Writing workshops were my gateway drug into homeschooling; at the request of some homeschooling parents, I started doing workshops for homeschooled writers as an extension of a summer writing program, way back before I had kids. It was my experiences in those workshops that made me want to homeschool! The kids were so supportive of one another and seemed so comfortable being their quirky, passionate selves, and their writing was unbelievably good compared to what I was reading in my day job as a college composition instructor.

My kids are six and nine, and in January I started facilitating a small workshop for kids in our homeschool support group, ages 6 to 12, the first I’ve done since becoming a homeschooler myself. We have a real range of writing skills and experience levels, and many of the kids either aren’t writing independently yet (i.e., they’re pretty much always dictating to an adult), or else they have had very little experience with writing even though they’re at an age when school kids would already have written a lot. Many of them come from a more Waldorf background in which their parents have intentionally delayed introducing writing and reading. Others are unschooled and again, they haven’t had a lot of traditional instruction.

Because of the range of experience levels, to start with I have been offering both in-class prompts and some take-home writing activities. I’ve also encouraged kids to bring work in that they’ve done independent of the prompts or work that they’d started long ago but would like help completing. I would like to gradually transition to a format more like yours, Patricia, where we’re mostly workshopping the kids’ own chosen projects.

By the way, I requested the book Would You Rather. . . by John Burningham from our library, upon your recommendation. We didn’t get it until after our last meeting, but I hope to try it out on the kids soon. My daughter has been fascinated with it and has wanted to read it multiple times. This last week the kids had a lot of fun writing odes to their favorite foods and apology poems inspired by “This Is Just to Say” by William Carlos Williams. I think the naughtiness of writing apologies for things you actually really enjoyed doing inspired them a lot, and kids who hadn’t written much in previous workshops wrote a lot and were eager to share out loud for the first time. Exciting!

So far I’ve found that my 6-year-old daughter has been much more interested in writing than she was before we started our group. She draws her ideas in class, which has been a great brainstorming tool for her, then dictates ideas to me at home. She has even allowed me to read her work out loud to the class. She’s also started keeping a daily journal, which she dictates to me, and it’s become a nightly ritual for us both to note the highlights of our days in writing. I see her practicing skills of synthesis, summary, and even developing a topic sentence (as when she gave concrete examples to develop how a friend’s young brother was annoying the other day). But I haven’t used any of that kind of terminology with her yet, but she’ll have the skills in place when the time comes to use them.

My nine-year-old son has opted not to participate. Since we’re meeting in the basement meeting space at a library, he goes up to the library and reads instead. Allowing him to NOT attend has been a learning experience for me, too. I am realizing that he usually only likes to learn in a group situation after he has achieved a certain degree of comfort and mastery on his own, so it makes sense that the group is not for him, at least not for now. I’ve tried to bring the group to him by including him in conversations about what we’ve done and leaving the invitation wide open for him to join when he’s ready.

In our group, the kids have been pretty shy about offering feedback to each other, other than appreciative laughter at funny stuff–many of them are still just getting used to reading their work out loud, let alone giving feedback. That’s another skill I’d like to introduce and develop as they get more confident and experienced.

For now, what I notice is that we laugh–A LOT. And though these kids have known each other for years, I think they’re all getting to know each other in a new way and to develop a new kind of trust toward one another, as well as a new comfort level with writing. And like others who’ve spoken here, I feel truly privileged to get to know the kids better through their writing and to witness their growth as writers. The writing group has made our play group feel even more like a community. One mom commented, “THIS is more like what I hoped homeschooling would be like!” I agree with her.

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patricia February 13, 2012 at 9:10 am

I’m thrilled to hear that your workshop is going so well, Carrie. This is fantastic: “The writing group has made our play group feel even more like a community. One mom commented, ‘THIS is more like what I hoped homeschooling would be like!’ I agree with her.” Hooray! Sharing yourself with others via writing is bound to bring people closer together.

It’s especially neat to see how much the workshop is encouraging your daughter. And the fact that she’s applying advanced writing skills–even though she’s still dictating, and you haven’t formally introduced this stuff to her? Wonderful. That’s how it works, if we start with the kids and their interests, and help them get the words down. Learning to write can be a very natural, organic process.

One of my favorite insights: how the homeschooled writers you originally worked with wrote better than the students in your college composition classes. Doesn’t surprise me!

Thank you for taking the time to write such a thoughtful response, Carrie. Keep me posted on how your workshop progresses!

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patricia February 13, 2012 at 9:28 am

P.S. Regarding moving into offering feedback in your workshops: you might want to start with simply having kids respond to others’ work with the prompt, “I remember…” They simply state something they remember from the piece, which isn’t a tough thing to do. It doesn’t require them to offer any deep insight. But what you’ll begin to notice is that kids will remember salient details and places where the writing was particularly effective. You can comment and help them recognize this. I always tell kids that if they remembered the same detail as someone else did, they should mention that. If several kids note the same thing in a piece, the writing is probably working well there.

Starting with “I remember” often leads kids quite naturally into saying more, and pointing out what they like in fellow writers’ work. At least eventually!

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Carrie Pomeroy February 14, 2012 at 1:00 pm

Hey, thanks for the “I remember” suggestion. I tried that at our last writing group and it worked well. Nice way to gently, casually segue into critiquing.

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Tracy February 13, 2012 at 11:34 am

(I started a post already but lost it somehow, so sorry if this ends up being a double post)

I can’t wait for your ebook to come out! I really want to start a writer’s workshop but I’m not really a writer… especially creative writing. So for me I feel like I need to have all of my ducks in a row before starting one.

My newly 10yo daughter used to write stories all the time, but then I feel like cyberschool ruined that in her (we are not doing cyber this year). She’s a very advanced reader, so she was a grade ahead in language arts. The curriculum itself is on the advanced side to begin with (K12) and so she was being asked to do assignments that physically were difficult for her (cramping hands etc). And then the rewrites were demoralizing so she got to the point where she was trying to write as little as possible so she wouldn’t have as much to rewrite. The last straw was having to do a 5 paragraph essay on her favorite season, in cursive, with rewrites, at 8/9 yo. She just shut off. She did it, but it was like pulling teeth and now she is so resistant that it’s frustrating. She did learn to type and has a little blog with short book reviews but she still needs prodded to do even that. And she said she wants to write a story, but she’s reluctant to do it and doesn’t want to share anything she might write. She’s very reluctant to actually PRODUCE anything about what she’s been learning about… even if it’s something she’s interested in, she only wants to receive the input (reading/absorbing/researching the information). And we’ll be having to have portfolios evaluated at the end of the year and I’m afraid she wont have anything to show besides science lab sheets and book lists. I feel like I need to require her to do these things, but if I do, it’s a battle. And I really feel like this is something that she used to LIKE to do and could like to do again. When she was writing she really put a lot of her own voice into it. Just not sure how to get her over this hump.

I’m open to any advice/suggestions. I think maybe the part about kids bringing in examples of writing of authors they like and talking about why they like it could be a good start. She would have lots to say about that. We also have the RIP The Page book, as well as a story writing book (guides you through the process of writing in different genres… mysteries, etc) which is very kid friendly. She just says ‘eh’ and doesn’t even look at them. Or if she does, she might read it a little but not actually DO anything with it.

For grammar – she’s a great editor… she’s always finding errors in books, signs, etc. But of course the regular grammar programs are boring and don’t interest her (they don’t interest me either). I just ordered Story Grammar for Elementary thinking that might be helpful for her to see how the authors she likes constructed their sentences. I also ordered the Giggly Grammar book (she loves humor). And we have Editor In Chief software which allows her to be the editor. She likes that, but it can be frustrating because you can’t just type in what the change should be, you have to determine what type of grammar error it is and the menu can be difficult to navigate, plus the grammar terminology isn’t necessarily something she’s familiar with.

Whew, that’s a long one. I really like the ideas here, including the comments. A great source of information and inspiration! And did I mention I can’t wait for the ebook?

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patricia February 14, 2012 at 6:55 am

So nice to meet you, Tracy!

I’m really trying to write the e-book for people like you: people who want to facilitate a workshop, but feel a little overwhelmed at the notion. It has lots of detail, including a section called “A Crash Course in What Makes Literature Work”, which is a little brush-up on what to look for in the kids’ writing!

I’m sorry to hear about your daughter’s experiences with writing and her cyberschool. It’s a perfect example of the dangers of formulaic writing instruction. Not only does it teach bad writing, but it can undermine kids’ enthusiasm and natural writing instincts. I saw this happen with my oldest when he decided to go to high school. Formulaic instruction made him begin to doubt what he knew–and he’d been an avid, talented writer! It took some effort to help him find his writing voice again. Made me crazy!

I think that unwillingness to produce after being pushed too hard is pretty typical. Have you read my posts about taking dictation from kids? http://patriciazaballos.com/the-dictation-project/ Maybe that would be a way to ease her back in, even though you know she can do it herself. Whatever it takes to make writing easy and enjoyable! This post might give you some ideas about how to get her to “produce” or dictate something, based on what she’s already excited about: http://patriciazaballos.com/2010/09/16/they-dont-all-want-to-tell-a-story/ Since she seems like an eager reader, you might get some ideas from this post about writing Ultimate Guides–which originated with my kid, who balks at big projects as well. http://patriciazaballos.com/2011/01/28/writing-ideas-the-ultimate-guide/

Would she be willing to do activities from Rip the Page if she chose them, and you did them along with her?

Regarding grammar programs, if your daughter likes them and wants to do them, great. Otherwise, I’m a big fan of kids learning grammar in the context of their own reading and writing. I’ve never done formal grammar programs or lessons with my kids, and I’ve been amazed at what they’ve picked up, simply by being eager readers and writers. Kids who enjoy writing–as your daughter did before the cyberschool program got in the way–often naturally take an interest in grammar, so long as they aren’t pushed into revisions that they don’t want to do. When revisions are left up to the child, they begin to see grammar as an interesting tool that allows them to express their thoughts just as they want to. Maybe just leave those grammar books lying around, so your daughter can pick them up if she wants to. (I know Giggly Grammar is supposed to be fun, and she’d probably find it interesting if it weren’t pushed on her.) If your daughter is a great editor, I’m guessing that she’s doing fine, grammar-wise.

I suppose my main advice to you would be to try and have fun with your daughter, and do lots of talking about what she’s reading about and excited about. Go easy on *producing* for the time being, and see if you can reintroduce it slowly, in ways that appeal to her. Even if you’re writing for her, you can always transfer her words on to the computer eventually, to put in that portfolio.

Thanks for sharing, Tracy. I learn a little more with each family I get to know here!

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Tracy February 14, 2012 at 4:32 pm

Thank you Patricia 🙂 I will try those suggestions. I’m actually feeling a bit more optimistic right now.

I also have a 6yo boy that I’m using the dictation for.
~He’ll make these books with a picture on each page (nowadays he adds text that I scribe for him) and he always staples the book from the opposite side for some reason… I don’t mind. He’ll get it eventually and in the meantime I’ll have all of these sweet little books to look back on.
~He’s very into superheroes, esp spiderman, and we’re making a short little movie with him starring as spidey of course. We talked about characters, setting and plot, and he and his Dad worked out a little script. We’re hoping to have it done in time to show at a talent show at a co-op we attend.
~He also loves animals and the Wild Kratts show (PBS) (He loves that show so much in fact that he’ll tell people his name is Martin who is one of the characters in the show) and has a ‘safari book’ binder with page protectors that has a drawing of each animal and I scribe whatever he wants to say about it for him. We’ve expanded that now to do classification (mammals, reptiles, etc) and now habitats. I’m thinking that one thing he might do in the future is to write to the show with an idea of an animal to include on the show.

He was the main push to get out of the cyberschool… it was stressful trying to get him to do ‘their’ lesson when that isn’t the way he wanted to learn the information, or at all. He does like to learn and gets very excited about it when it’s something he’s found and wants to share, but it has to be on his terms many times. I wanted to be able to start from where THEY are and not worry about someone else over my shoulder. I just have to be careful about how I introduce things to him or he resists.

Maybe *I* just need to relax more! That might help them relax.

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patricia February 14, 2012 at 5:52 pm

What great things you’re doing with your son! How lucky for all of you that he didn’t go along with the program and demanded something more appropriate for himself! And good for you for making the changes he needed.

I’m sure that if you take it slow with your daughter, you’ll find ideas like these that will work for her too.

I always feel like I made lots of mistakes with my oldest. But thankfully, he rebelled and taught me what he really needed. Starting where THEY are, as you say, always works out best.

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