Writing workshop is a model of instruction that focuses on process rather than product. In a writing workshop model, students write often and for long stretches of time. Generally, writing instruction is divided into specific units of study (narrative, persuasive essay, literary response essay, etc), always beginning with idea generating and moving through drafting and revision to publication. The writing workshop classroom is a student-centered classroom with the teacher acting as coach, guide, and facilitator rather than assigner.
One of the most powerful outcomes of writing workshop is building a community of writers who come to know (and understand) themselves and each other through shared stories. Students have choice in a workshop classroom; they learn to develop and craft pieces that matter by thinking deeply about the issues that matter most to them. They learn that they have important things to say.
I have been a writing teacher for more than thirty years and I have always taught through a workshop model of instruction because initially, that’s what made sense to me. As a graduate student in the late 1970’s, I was introduced to the work of Donald Murray, Donald Graves, and Peter Elbow. Their research supported the idea that writing is a process of discovery through which we learn about the world and ourselves. It is through writing that these discoveries take shape; we don’t come to the writing with ideas fully formed, rather we discover what we think as we put the words on the page. Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and teacher William Kennedy summed it up this way: “Inch by inch, the words surprise me.” I have found this to be true and have seen it borne out year after year in classroom after classroom, in student after student.
When I wrote my Master’s, “The Effect of Writing Workshop in a Continuation High School Classroom,” (Moore, 2007), I saw this played out quite effectively with previously disengaged students. Over the course of several months, they moved from a place of empty notebooks and empty stares to become a group of adolescents sharing the stories of their lives. In a just published book on teaching writing, The Essential Don Murray: Lessons from America’s Greatest Writing Teacher (2009), Thomas Newkirk states, “To write like this is to take your life seriously.”
I find it interesting to note that this most effective method of instruction is least employed with students who are struggling. Instead of giving them tools for reflection and active participation in the world, they are given drill and kill exercises which do little to promote literacy, critical thinking and taking ones’ life seriously. It’s time for a change.