Writer’s Workshops: An Introduction

 

“My son hates writing.”

The mother almost whispers these words to me. Her statement is part confession, part apology. She knows I work with kid-writers; she knows that I love writing.  In four wistful words she manages to convey her own sense of failure and a load of lost hope. She thinks she’s alone.

I wish I knew how many times I’ve had a parent confess a version of those four words to me. If I had book for every one, you’d beg to visit my library. Yet each of these parents seems to think that their situation is atypical. Classrooms of kids write hour after hour, day after day, but their kid doesn’t want to.

So I tell them: Lots of kids dislike writing. Lots of kids. Maybe even most kids, at some point in their childhoods. At one time my oldest was a writing-hater too.

And then I ask: Why does your child dislike writing? Is it the physical task of writing, and the spelling, the grammar, the punctuation that the child dreads? If the physical writing is a hurdle for the child, then I recommend parents explore taking dictation from him or her. You can read a brief introduction to dictation in Part Two of this guide.

Or is the child’s dislike of writing based in something else? Lots of kids, it seems, simply don’t see the point of writing. Why go to all that trouble just to put your words on a page or screen? Which leads me to this question for parents: does your child have an audience for his or her writing? Does your daughter have someone she’s writing for? Does your son have a reason to write—beyond the fact that Mom or Dad thinks it’s a good idea?

Many parents are so anxious to get their kids writing that they forget why we write. If we aren’t writing for a school or work assignment, we write because we have something we want to share with someone. Sure, some of us write for ourselves: in journals, on cardboard coasters, to work something out, to remember, for the pleasure of playing with words. But most of us, most of the time, write to communicate with others.

If we want kids to write, we don’t need to find them paper with perfectly spaced lines. We don’t need to search out penmanship worksheets or curricula with appealing writing prompts. What we need to find for our kids is an audience. We need to give kids a reason to write, so the desire to write can begin to bubble—and an audience is often what it takes.

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

Conjure is an apt word here because, in my experience, writer’s workshops are almost magical in their ability to motivate kids’ writing. I’ve facilitated a variety of groups in my home for over a dozen years, working with kids as young as four and as old as seventeen. Before that, I taught elementary school, and devoted a portion of each day to a writer’s workshop in my classroom. After all these years, 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 a few years back in the teenage boy who 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, my oldest, 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.

I like the writer’s workshop because it’s fun to share my stories and hear other stories. It helps motivate me to write more. –Cecilia, 10

The workshop has given me a fun and enjoyable reason to write whatever I like, and however I like. –Robin, 13

Being in the writers’ workshop was a turning point for me.  I began to see writing as fun, and not just work.  I had never seen myself as a writer before, but in the group I had fun and recognized my potential.  Feedback from the group gave me confidence.  I learned to get my ideas on the page without second-guessing myself. Now that I’m in my first year of high school (and very first year of school), I see that the writers’ workshop helped me develop my critical thinking skills in preparation for high school. I feel better prepared for the writing assignments I have at school. –Nathan, former participant and current high school student

I loved the writers workshop because it gave me an amazing outlet to express my creative impulses. Having an environment of open peers willing to hear my thoughts, stories, and ideas was always a powerful inspiration to keep me thinking and dreaming. –Hank, former participant and current college student

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. This guide will show you how to do that. Whether you’re a homeschooling parent trying to make writing more meaningful for your child, or the parent of a schooled child seeking a less standards-based, more creative writing experience for him or her, a writer’s workshop may be just what you’re looking for.

What, exactly, is a writer’s workshop?

A workshop is simply a gathering where writers share their writing and offer one another feedback.  Some groups have writers bring work from home; some do the writing during the workshop; some use a combination of both.

Historically, the workshop model of writing instruction began at the University of Iowa in the 1930s, when the English department developed the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a graduate program in which students earn a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. Part of the program requires students to participate in a weekly fiction or poetry workshop, in which they submit a piece of creative writing, and the class discusses, or “workshops” it. These days, anyone with even fleeting aspirations of grad school writing study has had heard of—and likely envisioned themselves as members of—the Iowa workshop.

This model spread to other graduate programs, and in the late 70s a modified form made its way to high school and elementary classrooms. In a classroom workshop, a teacher often begins the workshop session with a mini-lesson—ten or fifteen minutes in which he or she explicitly teaches a lesson on craft, often using the work of professional writers as example. This is followed by workshop time, in which students write independently, or confer about their work with peers or with the teacher. The workshop culminates with a whole-class sharing of student work.

I used this approach in my own third grade classroom. It was a highlight of the day for me—as well as for many of my students.

Later, I encountered the workshop approach again, when I began taking writing courses at my local adult school, and through a university extension program. The workshops I attended were more relaxed than the classroom approach: basically, classes began with brief instruction from the teacher on some writing technique, and perhaps a group writing exercise. The remainder of the class, the bulk of it, consisted of considering the previously submitted work of a few students, and discussing it in depth.

In those courses I met fellow writers, and in several cases we started our own informal writing groups, meeting in each other’s homes and again using the format of submitting our work to each other in advance for reading, and then meeting to discuss it.

At its most essential, the workshop approach involves gathering a group of writers to discuss one another’s work. It’s a fundamental part of the creative process for many adult writers, and it can be just as instructive and effective for kids.

A few benefits of a 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.
  • Discussions about writing help kids learn how literature works.
  • 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.
  • The workshop helps kids learn that all writers struggle, and that there are many ways to work through those difficulties.
  • 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.

My daughter enjoyed the workshop because she was with her friends and learning to write was not a painful process but was actually fun. The workshop helped her learn that what she wrote had value and people would listen to and respect whatever she wrote. –Bonnie, parent of former participant and current college student

Writer’s Workshop was where my daughter “found her voice.” Grammar and spelling came from her academic study, but her love of writing and her confident and oh-so-interesting style came from writing every month to share with her friends and peers in the writer’s workshop.  It was an invaluable ongoing experience which continues to be evidenced in her personal and academic compositions. –Judith, parent of former participant and current homeschooling high school student

The Writer’s Workshop format is fantastic for many reasons, and all three of my children have participated in it. The fact that my kids were free to write what interested them enabled each child to develop a “voice.”  I’ve seen how the development of my oldest son’s voice as a writer made his essays in college more interesting to his professors—which has translated to As. Basically, I believe that one may teach kids to follow a format or a structure, but no one can teach them how to write with style—and that’s what they learn to develop in the Writer’s Workshop. –Kristin, parent of current participant and former participants currently attending high school and college