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February 21, 2018

How to Engage Students with a Writer’s Workshop

What’s the deal with Writer’s Workshop? Why does this proven instructional framework have such a positive reputation, yet remain so challenging to implement? What are the obstacles to writer’s workshop that consistently cause teachers to struggle? How can we engage students in writing with a writer’s workshop?

After teaching writing for 25 years, evaluating Learners Edge teacher coursework on writing instruction, and recently creating a new course called Writer’s Workshop: Engaging Students Using Mentor Texts and Writer’s Notebooks, I have some informed ideas and (shall we say?) strong opinions on this very question!

I believe the biggest roadblocks for writer’s workshop are:

  1. instructional time
  2. teaching philosophy

Both of these are tricky because curriculum and assessment demands restrict teachers’ ability to create and deliver instruction based on their students’ developmental writing needs.

Lisa Norris, author of our course textbook,Awakening Brilliance In the Writer’s Workshop: Using Notebooks, Mentor Texts, and the Writing Process1, defines writer’s workshop as the following:

  • “Sustained, daily writing on topics that are mostly self-chosen because students’ comfort lies in what they know best.
  • Writing for purposes and audiences that the writer values and understands.
  • Playing around with language and learning how to craft writing.
  • Conferring with students and responding to their writing with explicit instruction.
  • Celebrating what students have done well, and teaching them the next steps for moving forward.
  • Modeling what real writers do to make a piece engaging for the reader.
  • Guiding students through the writing process, always focusing on the process instead of the product.
  • Publishing for real audiences.”

Every teacher I’ve ever known feels the heavy imbalance of limited time with unlimited standards and academic content expectations. When it comes to writing instruction, having enough time to implement a full writer’s workshop framework is nearly impossible given a typical school day schedule. Since no teachers have magical powers to create more instructional minutes within each school day, we must turn our focus to modifying the framework to fit our time constraints. There are many worthy components contained in writer’s workshop; we can identify those that support our students’ needs and curriculum demands the most.

According to Norris, writer’s workshop develops the writing process with a focus on these classroom design and curriculum components:

  • A writing environment
  • A predictable schedule
  • A writer’s notebook
  • Mini-lessons
  • A supportive community of writers
  • Student and teacher models
  • Mentor texts
  • Methods for conferencing
  • Strategies for sharing
  • Units of study

In Course 5015: Writer’s Workshop: Engaging Students Using Mentor Texts and Writer’s Notebooks you will review the writing process and investigate all these tools for implementing writer’s workshop. You will analyze your current writing instruction and identify workshop components you can realistically implement and improve upon. Writer’s workshop must be a realistic framework for your individual classroom, and you are the only one who determines what that will look like for you and your students. Once you prioritize the tools, you can connect your students with more opportunities to develop their writing through sustained daily practice and specifically-designed lessons.

A clear and intentional teaching philosophy is also critical to successful implementation of writer’s workshop. Teachers must own a commitment to writing instruction that is founded on research and best practices. Literacy and ELA teachers must value writing as a powerful academic and life skill and let this philosophy guide lesson planning and classroom curriculum design. As a 6th grade ELA teacher, I held firm on my literacy instruction foundation, with equal time dedicated to reading and writing – interwoven, yes – but distinct and explicit attention to each with specific skills to build. I’m positive that this led me to higher confidence and my students to successful writing outcomes. Every day we wrote, every day we engaged in the work that writers do, and in doing so we built skills that helped us become better writers.

I am inspired by this insight from revered writing instruction expert Donald Murray,

“Instead of teaching finished writing, we should teach unfinished writing, and glory in its unfinishedness. We work with language in action. We share with our students the continual excitement of choosing one word instead of another, of searching for the one true word. This is not a question of correct or incorrect, of etiquette or custom. This is a matter of far higher importance.”

Course 5015: Writer’s Workshop: Engaging Students Using Mentor Texts and Writer’s Notebooks offers you an important opportunity to focus on your current writing instruction and make some informed decisions about the best action steps you can take to improve writing outcomes for your students now and in the future. Creating a writer’s workshop that works for you and your students takes commitment and instructional planning. Course 5015 can be your guide to on the path to success using writer’s workshop!


Awakening Brilliance In the Writer’s Workshop: Using Notebooks, Mentor Texts, and the Writing Process. Larchmont, NY: Eye on Education, Inc.


Learners Edge is passionately committed to providing you with continuing education coursework, materials, and tools that will help you succeed in your classroom and in your career.

Offering more than 100 print-based or online courses for teachers, you can earn the graduate credit you need for salary advancement and meet your professional development needs. Contact us today to get started!


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