Facilitate, step back and watch

Change is MandatoryResults feel good.

Everyone loves to win!

..and this week, my students all won!

My school district began the year with its implementation of writers’ workshop, and like most teachers who have been around a while echoed “I have done that before.” Yes, I taught writing the basic format of a five-paragraph essay and scolded those who wished to stray away from the traditional format. However, there was something missing in this process. Only some of the students were being successful. The instruction was embedded in its old ways of mimicking the teacher; it was entirely teacher led.

Yes, there were students producing some stellar writing artifacts, but many were lost in lackluster vocabulary and weak sentence structure. The spiral effect continued and as they moved on high school teachers were speaking negatively about how my future ninth graders were prepared for high school. Like many, I take student data and student comments personally. I feel they’re a reflection of my work or lack of work towards mastery with a student.

Kicking Off Writers Workshop #2

Fortunately, I had already trudged through the initial challenge of setting up my writers workshop during the end of term one. Regrettably, nothing in education seems to work perfectly the first time around and it was no different for me. I spent a lot of time on the setting up the notebook and preaching to students how this was going to improve their “process of writing” and make them more “independent writers.”

Utilizing many of the same strategies, I was determined to stay multiple days ahead of the students to make sure my mini-lessons were better thought out. Plus, I wanted to make sure I offered a lot of opportunity for student choice and brainstorming because finding a topic is often problematic for your writers especially with their narrative task ahead of them. Coming off the break, I needed to be as purposeful as possible to keep them engaged because they had been home over two weeks on Christmas vacation.

Story Starters

After reviewing the rules of Writers Workshop, I started with making an anchor page of all the elements of what students thought needed to be in an engaging story. To simplify it, I asked students what keeps them up at night when reading a good book or watching a movie. My initial class got the ball rolling, but throughout the day each class brought their own perspective into this idea based on their personal preferences.

The list included:

  • Exposition (consider tone and mood)
  • Characters (possible considerations include, love, hate, and family)
  • Dialogue
  • Rising action (suspense, action packed)
  • Climax (internal or external)
  • Falling action
  • Resolution (consider a twist at the end)
  • Comedy
  • Personal connections
  • Romance
  • Imagery/description

To move their minds into writing and build some suspense, I offered story starter and gave them some 20 minutes to continue each story. I purposefully did not allow them to finish the story because I knew one of these writings may be chosen to go further in depth later down the road. The stopping and starting was good for students because it made them want to finish their story more. Since my creativity lacked, I had my colleague snag a story starters Power Point from the web (sorry for not giving credit).

Open ended prompts challenge students’ ways of thinking! I love some of the creativity which came from the prompts. One strategy I like to do during this prompt is have students draw a line across their page after 10 minutes. They don’t know it, but I am measuring how much they write in that specific time frame. For longer time frames of writing, you can do the same trick; this strategy helps me prepare students for our district’s timed writing tasks.


Shown is a student example taken from a story starter.


Shown is page two of a students story starter.











Lift a Line

John M. Ford once stated, “Observe, don’t imitate” and I want my students to do the same. I attempt to blend independent reading together with Writers Workshop thanks to an idea stolen from Kasey Kiehl (follow her blog for ideas). It’s a very simple trick. I model how I took one line from a text and explain to students how I take it an entirely different direction than it was used during the actual book.

To show how easy it worked I took a line from A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier and used it as my model.

  • “One of the unsettling things about my journey, mentally, physically, and emotionally, was that I wasn’t sure when or where it was going to end.”— Opening sentence of Chapter 10

Next, I walked around my class library and randomly picked up books and modeled how to find the right line to lift. Afterwards, I did the same model with a couple of the student’s independent reading books.

Shown is a student example from the novel Love is Grand by Annalisa Daughety.

Shown is a student example from the novel Love is Grand by Annalisa Daughety.


Here is a snap shot of another example of lifting a line from the popular novel Twilight.

Here is a snap shot of another example of lifting a line from the popular novel Twilight (teacher model).

Mini-Lessons: Dialogue and Word Choice

I found student dialogue and word choice was limited and decided to use a story starter written by a student to display great dialogue. Without telling the student, I used a paragraph from her previous day of writing. I love the tactic because when moans and groans come about “not being able” it’s great to inform students it came from one of their peers. Plus, the student who got her paragraph modeled after was smiling ear-to-ear and showing classmates at her group it was her writing; a win-win for both the teacher and student.


Student example used in word choice.

Student example used in word choice.


Focusing more on the word choice, I implemented the “Words to Work On” strategy where students got to post their words that needed amped up on the board. After my initial model (shown below), students got to assist one another in finding better word choices or making the word choice into a simile or metaphor to show a more mature writing style.

Peer Conferencing with Student Ambassador

Student ambassador just sounds like a fancy name and it build up great self-confidence in one child every period during this mini-lesson. Often time students’ conference with one another by reading another students writing and say it’s “very good” and give minimal feedback. That won’t cut it if I want students to improve their entire process of writing. I share with students everyone has an editor, even their teacher.

Now how to fix this conundrum of students not knowing how to peer conference – the peer conference checklist? I’ll admit my colleague is the epitome of a teacher; she steals everything good teachers use that she can find off the web and adapts it to our students. The peer conferencing checklist is a combination of many other good teachers (me included). The one shown is not the exact one we used (this has more) because I adapted to my objective/skill; you should do the same in case you don’t want it all. However, one major takeaway from this sheet is it forces students to look for particular items and mark on their paper. At the end it looks similar to a rainbow, but that means your peer conferenced closely with you about your writing.

Revise, Edit, and Publish

The next step I tell students is going back and doing all the things your peer marked on your sheet to improve your paper. Whether it is find stronger word choices, sentence structure, descriptive imagery, etc. this allows the students to revise and edit. After this is done, I required my students to show me they were ready to go onto publishing; in the publishing stage all writing is typed.

Walking a student through the last step of publishing in the proper format.

Walking a student through the last step of publishing in the proper format. Sometimes finalizing a piece of writing can be one of the most difficult steps for a student.

Monitoring it all

Throughout the writers workshop process I constantly conference with students daily for about 2-minutes a clip to ensure they are moving along in the process, but it’s difficult to keep track of in any one person’s mind. As a result, I snagged an idea off Pinterest (shown below) on how to consistently assess where students are in the process. I have found the visual very good too because it keeps students on track. Some students can be moving too slowly and some can be writing too much. This constant visual assessment piece allows them to work smoothly in the time frame set forth by the teacher.

Students can self monitor themselves during Writers Workshop. Each student has their name on a sticky note and moves it across each step indicated by the teacher in that specific Writers Workshop.

Students can self monitor themselves during Writers Workshop. Each student has their name on a sticky note and moves it across each step indicated by the teacher in that specific Writers Workshop.

 Build a greater audience

Now that you are finished where does it go? Hidden in your writer’s notebook for no one to enjoy? “The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story” said author Ursula K. LeGuin. Publicize great works via a class blog and social media. In my class, I ask students to go one step farther and consider whether they want their writing artifact reviewed for publication in the class blog.

At that point, my colleague and I will review artifacts and choose which ones get published. I attempt to publish as many as possible on the blog. In addition, I send a short parent email informing the parent their child’s work had been selected to be published. Next thing you know, it’s being shared with the parent and student’s social media accounts as well (increasing the audience of each piece of writing). Please, come back throughout the next few weeks as narrative stories are posted!


About briancookeducator

Husband, Daddy, teacher, #Mountaineer, coach, and aspiring school leader | Thoughts are my own.
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One Response to Facilitate, step back and watch

  1. Pingback: 2015 in review | Classroom and Leadership Reflections

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