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Aurora Institute

Whose Classroom Is This? The Importance of Students’ Voice in Creating a Writer’s Workshop

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Kaili Phillips

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Activate Student Agency


To reach as many students and skills as possible in a given Unit of Study, and to allow kids time to write and practice, Language Arts teachers at MAMS employ a mini-lesson model. By teaching one 10-12 minute mini-lesson each 50-minute block, students are allowed to dedicate much of their block to writing and teachers are able to confer with students individually or in small groups. The topic of the mini-lesson is determined by the needs of the students in the class, and individual work-time helps teachers work with students who may be working on the lesson topic.

Because this model is dependent upon students working very independently on their goals and targets, there has to be a very specific set of SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) that students can follow to keep organized and progressing forward. In The Art and Science of Teaching, Robert Marzano underscores that classroom rules and classroom procedures are two very different things. He writes, “Procedures describe those behaviors that will help realize the rules” (118). While reading this, I quickly internalized three things about this passage: one, that it is helpful for my pre-adolescents to concretely know the processes that will enable them to successfully follow the rules; two, that if I create the rules for the classroom, they can certainly create the procedures by which to meet those expectations; and three… that I really should have thought of all of this before.

In each of my four classes, I charged the students with the task of creating the SOPs for our Writer’s Workshop time. As all middle-level educators know, adolescents often need frameworks for both developing their ideas and having a class discussion—especially when the discussion must end in consensus. I developed and facilitated a three-day process with each of my four classes to help my students think through what their Writer’s Workshop might look like and come up with one SOP that all twenty teenagers were excited about, could live with, and could live by.

Stage One: What is a Writer’s Workshop?

To get students thinking of what a Writer’s Workshop may look like, I asked them to free-write for a few minutes about what they picture when they hear the word “Workshop”. Students wrote about auto mechanic shops, construction sites, sheds in their backyards…even Santa’s Workshop. Some such descriptions were: “Many tools to do many jobs”, “People working on different projects”, “Elves buzzing around busily”, and “Peace and quiet—all I can hear is a saw and a hammer”. When every student who wanted to share had shared, I asked them to think about how this might apply to a classroom. Obviously, I told them they would not have saws and hammers, but what types of tools would they have access to? They would not be building an engine for a car, so what would they be building? As they shared, I added their thoughts to my ever-growing list. Students from four classes came up with forty-four ideas of what a Writer’s Workshop could, and perhaps would, look like.

Stage Two: Categorizing

When students came into class the following day, I had printed off this list of forty-four “Qualities of a Writer’s Workshop”. I asked them to put each of these items into categories.  There were three rules of the game: they had to use all of the items but could reword them to fit, they had to have more than two categories total, and each category had to have more than two items.

As usual, some students preferred to work individually for this activity and some in pairs. As I walked around the room, I was careful not to do or say anything that would influence their choice of categorization, but instead simply observed. Some groups decided on five categories, some two, some six. Students were revising their category names as they decided that certain qualities probably should be included. For example, one category was modified from “Focus” to “Behaviors” to be more inclusive of other positive workshop behaviors that were also on the list.

When all students completed the activity, no two individuals or pairs had the same categories, but many were on the same track.

Stage Three: “Wondering” and Decision Time

So, how do you go from twenty teenage students all having different ideas to one cohesive group coming to a consensus? It almost sounds like the beginning to a bad joke. In the summer of 2008, I had participated in the Maine Writing Project Institute. I learned at the institute that one of the best discussion tactics a person can utilize is to “wonder”—as in, you are not judging, you are not criticizing, you are not saying your idea is “better”. You are simply wondering, clarifying, and asking questions.

I began by asking students if anyone had created a category for our Writer’s Workshop that they were particularly proud of or that they thought to be important. After each thought was volunteered, others were invited to “wonder”. Some comments included, “I wonder if we can add (x quality) to that category?” and, “I wonder if we could rename that category to (new name) to include (another important characteristic)?” Students could name and rename categories or add ideas to existing ideas, but they weren’t allowed to judge an idea that another student gave. This “wondering” allowed all students to have their voices heard and for them to come to a consensus relatively quickly about what their procedures would be in their classroom workshop.

Students not only came to agreement of these procedures, but were excited about the categories they decided upon. Some groups had come up with categories such as, “What students do”, “What the teachers do”, “What everyone does together”, and “What to do when you feel stuck”. Another group came up with, “Tools to help yourself”, “Behaviors”, and “Work Habits”. On and on it went until each group had created their own unique set of procedures that their group would abide by and use to work.

The Aftermath: Where did we go from there?

After helping to create the classroom procedures, students seemed to get the message that this was their classroom as much as it was mine. Some students began asking for certain mini-lessons based on what they perceived their needs to be after assessing themselves on the writing continuum (“Can we have a mini-lesson tomorrow about figurative language, Mrs. Phillips?”). They were researching on their own questions like, “How to create tension in a narrative”. They were handing in rough draft after rough draft with questions like, “Is my lesson foreshadowed in my lead? If it is, can you underline what you think is the foreshadow? If it’s not clear, can you help me think of where I might put in some foreshadowing?” Because we had put these procedures in place, they knew I was supportive of this self-directed learning and I knew they could handle independent work and learning.

These kids were twelve and thirteen years old—the beginning of 7th grade—and they were asking these types of questions instead of, “Is this good enough?” They still wanted to know if it “Was good enough”, but I wouldn’t give them that answer.  This shift in thinking and ownership is proof that a workshop model classroom can and does work, but it takes hard work, consistency, and a framework of procedures in which the student feels valued and in control.

This brings me to my last thought. As with anything in middle school, no procedure becomes a habit and a routine without a constant emphasis. I am constantly reminding myself, and the students, that this is our classroom not just mine. What we learn and study has to not only make sense to the students, but must come from them, at least to an extent. They need a voice in decisions and they need time, space, and my trust that they will and can work independently on lessons and goals. When I think of lessons, I cannot think of what skills and strategies I think they need. I need to first think about how I can get that information from them. Student-centered teaching is messy work. There is no neat planning or “unit package” to find or buy, and there is no one-way to find out what kids know or what they can do. The key is having a goal or target in mind, and having the students help decide how to get there and how to show what they know. It is about having the students in mind first. In education shouldn’t that always be the case?

Kaili Phillips is a 7th/8th grade Language Arts teacher at Mt. Ararat Middle School in Topsham, Maine where she works to meet the needs of 80 students in a standards-based system. A former high school teacher, Kaili made the move to middle school to be able to teach students rather than the curriculum. This is her first year at MAMS and seventh in education.