Monday, May 24, 2010

Writers' Workshop

I was so hoping to post my Considering Homeschooling? article on science curriculum this week since the boys are completing projects for a local science fair.  (I am planning a post on that topic as well.  Lord willing, it will make its way from the recesses of my mind to the computer screen soon.)   However, I promised you Writers' Workshop next, so....

Including a Writers' Workshop in the school day is something I learned to do during my years as a public school teacher.  It is not a specific instructional model and does not require the use of a particular curriculum.  It is more of a way to approach the organization of writing instruction and practice and to keep active writing included in your school day.

Each workshop should last for 1 hour, though I am very flexible with this.  There are three components of the workshop to be taught/completed in a specific order with a specified amount of time dedicated to each element.  Again, I am very flexible and will spend a little longer on certain elements some days, less on others, swap sections, or drop an element or two if needed.  So, please keep that in mind as I describe what a Writers' Workshop should look like.

The first 15 minutes are dedicated to mini-lessons on grammar or writing skills.  I usually alternate between the two.  For instance, I will spend one or two weeks teaching nouns (recognizing the part of speech, functions w/in a sentence, plurals, irregulars, possessives, etc.) then I will spend one or two weeks teaching a specific writing skill or style (organizing an outline or using a variety of sentences, for example). 

Two things guide my decisions on what to teach and when to teach it:
  1. the writing and grammar scope and sequence for the year (found within the curriculum I use)
  2. student strengths and weaknesses
I follow the scope and sequence because that keeps me on track.  I think it is important, particularly in the elementary years, to lay a proper foundation.  I don't want to create huge gaps in my sons' education that could cause them frustrations in years to come.  (Notice I said "huge" gaps.  Educating a child and leaving no gaps is, in my opinion, impossible.) 

The first 15 minutes of Writers' Workshop provide the time in the day to address the basics through any methods or curriculum that work best for teacher and student.  I do try to keep to this time limit as best as I can.  Learning and teaching feel less taxing for all involved parties when done in small, effective chunks.  We do some workbook activities, some authentic work (i.e. writing original sentences and identifying the nouns), and fun, hands-on lessons (i.e. playing Simon says to learn action verbs- imagine "Simon says 'jump'" verses "Simon says 'apple'"). 

I also consider my children's strengths and weaknesses when deciding what to teach and from time to time break away from the sequence of the curriculum.  Sometimes a curriculum can provide too much practice and run the skill into the ground.  Sometimes my child wants to use grammar that is not within the scope of that particular school year either.  I remember Orville wanting to use quotation marks in his writing at a young age so I taught him how to insert them in his written work.  He has used them properly ever since.  Should I have made him wait until his grammar program said it was time to learn this important skill?  In my opinion, no.  Conversely, there have been times that the practice provided in the curriculum was not enough.  I consider the freedom to stop, backtrack, and reteach as needed a joy and one of the best aspects of homeschooling.  I encourage you to enjoy the freedom homeschooling affords you.

The second component of the workshop is journaling or notebooking and it is to last for 10 minutes.  I have used this component for a number of activities.  Some weeks, I allow the boys to free write in a spiral notebook.  I will give them a story starter or show them a picture and have them write something brief about it.  Other times, they write about a recent event, like a birthday party.  When they were young, I had them draw pictures for the letter of the week or an illustration that demonstrated their comprehension of a story or poem.

Sometimes, I have them complete the notebooking assignment for another subject, like their Apologia science notebooking.   They cannot always complete those type of assignments in 10 minutes.  With some activities, I offer more time and shorten the third component of WW or I have them stop after 10 minutes and finish the assignment the next day. 

The final 35 minutes are to be dedicated to the writing process.  During this time, students can work on their writing assignments in other subjects, like a paper for history class, or they can write creatively.  We do a little of both and take about 6 weeks to complete each assignment.  This means they complete fewer writing assignments per year than our core curriculum typically assigns; however, they take the time to complete a solid writing project by carefully following the steps of the process.  At the end of the year, I usually have two or three illustrated books for their portfolios and for my personal treasure box!  When it comes to writing, especially in the early years, I would rather stress quality over quantity.

During the writing process time, each student begins each new assignment by brainstorming.  The younger my child is, the more involved I am in this step.  I usually offer a variety of graphic organizers, too.  During The Early Years, they dictated while I wrote, but now, they work more independently.  My boys are both in late elementary school, and I find that I have to be more involved with some assignments while my help is not needed with others.  Just like I encounter the occasional writer's block when I blog, young writers can get stuck and need guidance.  WW is a collaborative time between students and teacher where the teacher models good writing and then gives more and more responsibility to the student a little at a time.  Though independence is the goal, collaboration is encouraged at first.

Another consideration for successful brainstorming is knowing how your child processes information.  One of my sons is very logical and sequential in his thinking.  He is the kind of person who can take the pieces and fit them together.  When considering what to write, he is more likely to start at the beginning of the story and then work in an orderly fashion to the ending.  My other son is more of a big-picture person.  He thinks conceptually and sometimes struggles with the details.  Often, I allow him to brainstorm backwards.  He knows how he wants the story to end but has to think about the steps needed to get to that ending.  If I am rigid about having him follow a graphic organizer or an outline, he can shut down and not want to write. 

After the rough draft is written, the boys edit each others' work.  When they were very young, I read the work aloud and asked one of the boys to tell his brother what he liked about the story.  Now that they are older, they are able to look for spelling and some punctuation mistakes.  This step can be very fun and build teamwork among your children.  I call them "editors" and let them wear special badges when completing this work.  I try to keep the mood light and communicate that it is fun and a privilege to have someone you love read and review your work or to read and review the work of loved ones.  My boys have had many resulting conversations about how they would like to work together to write and illustrate books when they are grown.

However, this stage also has the potential for disaster and must be handled with wisdom.  Firm rules, e.g. constructive criticism is allowed but not unkindness, must be in place and enforced without exception.  It is not advisable to allow two siblings who are struggling in their relationship to edit each others' work, either.  If we are experiencing a rough patch, I do not allow them to edit each others' work.  Strengthening their relationship as brothers is of first importance.  Sometimes, we include editing in a family meeting where the author reads his draft to all of us and we all offer suggestions.  This allows Michael and/or I to do the editing during those rocky times and to model good editing practices. 

Next, the author revises per his editor's suggestions and brings the revised work to me for final editing and approval.  Then, I allow the author to publish the completed work in one of several formats.  Sometimes, I allow them to blog their work.  Other works are typed, printed, laminated, and spiral bound.  Some are simply typed or printed nicely.  They can make shape books, newspapers, photo journals, or any other nice presentation of their work.  It is then read at a family meeting and celebrated.

A quick side note on children and blogging:  When or if to allow a minor to blog is a difficult decision that should be made carefully.  Michael and I launched The Write Brothers for the boys.  I am the owner and listed "author" of the blog.  They are only allowed to type their written work into a word document and save it.  I copy, paste, and publish on blogger.  I also use pseudonyms.  Orville and Wilbur are not their birth names, and I do my best not to mention their real names online or link to websites that could reveal our true identities and location (i.e. our church website).  I just wanted to include that word of caution.  Thanks, I feel better now.  Okay, back to our regularly scheduled programming.....

The resources I have used for the mini lesson are numerous.  I will list them and link to different websites where you can purchase them for yourself if interested.  Please note that I am an Amazon affiliate and will receive a commission for any purchases made through links from this blog to their site.

For the writing process time, I have "done my own thing" or used Writing Aids from Lampstand Press.  I am also a LP affiliate and will receive a commission if you purchase after following any link to their site provided on this blog.  I am not an affiliate for any other companies listed below and will not receive a commission for any purchases you make from them.  I have not received any compensation for this post and have offered suggestions for products that have worked for me, solely because I want to.  :)

Return soon for Science Choices.

Happy Curriculum Hunting!


  • Grammar All-Stars (a collection of sports-themed books on grammar topics; there are several books in this series and each makes a great "text" for the mini-lesson component)

  • Daily Paragraph Editing (I assign the boys to the book one grade below their current grade level and have them complete it during the writing process time.)

  • Graphic Organizers:

  • I like a number of resources from Lakeshore Learning (One of my favorite companies for all things learning.  If you browse their site, I am sure you will love it.  I often cannot afford to buy their product but brainstorm homemade versions as I peruse the catalogue.)

  • I have used a number of the resources listed in the Veritas Press catalogue (this link is for the 4th grade resources so follow it and then click to the appropriate grade level).  The exception is Shurley Grammar.  We used it one year, and I did not like it at all.  Many homeschool families have used Shurley very successfully, though.

  • Writing Aids- This is a great resource for explaining writing elements and style.  It also includes grading rubrics.

Any questions?  Please feel free to email or comment.


argsmommy said...

I'm impressed! I really struggle with teaching writing, even though I'm convinced it is of utmost importance. I was blessed with great English teachers in public high school, but was so shocked to find that most kids in college could not write a decent paper. So I'm not sure why I struggle so much with writing in our homeschool, but I hope to come up with a better plan this summer and your post is a great start. : )

jjmertens said...


Thank you for such a wonderful and inspiring post. We've been using Daily Grammar Practice based on your recommendation, and we all love it because it is quick, yet effective.

How many days a week do you have Writers' Workshop? Do you have any suggestions for older children - jr. high and high school age?

Susan in La

Homeschool Dawn said...

Thanks, Kellie and Susan!

Susan, we do the workshop 3 days per week, Tu-Th. How often you do it is completely up to you. I don't always do the 3 components back-to-back either.

Most everyone I know says that IEW is the best. We are starting with the Student Writing Intensive next year bc Orville starts jr high. That is my only suggestion though since I am just getting to that stage of homeschooling myself.