Writer’s Workshop: A Foundation of Story Workshop
The structure of Story Workshop is built on the foundation of strong research around literacy and the structure of Writer’s Workshop. The research of authors such as Donald Graves, Lucy Calkins, and Katie Wood Ray have informed and continue to inform this work.
Because our research around Story Workshop began with this foundation, I think it is critical to have some understanding of this approach to developing literacy.
First I’d like to share my own story as a new teacher grappling with the idea of supporting young children as writers.
As a pre-service teacher, my first classroom experience in college was with a group of kindergarteners. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to be working with kids. During my time in the classroom, I had the opportunity to begin to get to know these kindergarteners, to hear about the things they loved and cared about, to read with them every day, and to observe the classroom teacher and the typical flow of a day.
Right away, there were many things I observed that I knew I wanted to hold on to, to try out, and to incorporate into my own practice – but one section of the day stood out to me because it felt lacking. Although these kindergarteners read rich literature, explored interesting math problems, and had time to play and build community, when it came time to write, it felt like something was missing. Each day there was time for handwriting, time to sing an alphabet song intended to support memory of letters and sounds, and time for writing where the teacher modeled a skill through writing a sentence and drawing a picture. Afterward, the children each received their own piece of paper and were given time to do the same.
It was this time of the day where I noticed things felt different. Children who typically seemed interested, curious, and engaged seem to shut down. All of a sudden, these intelligent, capable, funny kids with plenty to say during other parts of the day had nothing to write about. There was a lack of motivation that was palpable. There were a handful of children happy and willing to do what the teacher asked, but as many or more who pushed back, sat and stared at a blank page, made excuses, became visibly bored or distracted, and cried.
Although I wasn’t sure why it was happening at first, over time I began to notice that during this time of the day writing and play seemed to be completely separate. The focus was on writing to practice skills, but I hadn’t observed connections to what children were interested in, what they were playing, or what they cared about. I wondered if the lack of motivation I observed was because writing wasn’t meaningful to them yet. In this particular context, it seemed the children hadn’t found a reason or purpose for writing. I wondered: What else might inspire these children? What could be done to show these children what they were capable of? Although my own imagination for different possibilities was lacking, I felt there had to be a different way of approaching teaching writing with young children.
WRITER’S WORKSHOP: A FOUNDATION
Later, in my education program, I was introduced to Writer’s Workshop and authors Donald Graves and Lucy Calkins. I remember feeling like I had found the something that had been missing from my experience with writing in classrooms so far.
In the beginning of Writing: Teachers and Children at Work, Donald Graves writes:
“Children want to write. They want to write the first day they attend school. This is no accident. Before they went to school they marked up walls, pavements, newspapers with crayons, chalk, pens or pencils…anything that makes a mark. The child’s mark says, “I am.”
“No you aren’t,” say most school approaches to the teaching of writing. We ignore the child’s urge to show what he knows. We underestimate the urge because of a lack of understanding of the writing process and what children do in order to control it. Instead, we take the control away from children and place unnecessary road blocks in the way of their intentions. Then we say, “They don’t want to write. How can we motivate them?””
What Donald Graves describes in that first paragraph matched the image I had of young children as writers. It was through reading about Writer’s Workshop through the voices of Graves and other teacher-researchers that I began to imagine greater possibilities for the classroom.
This research is strongly tied to the beliefs and practices held at Opal School about literacy. Writer’s Workshop is the foundation of this work and guides our practice. Before Story Workshop, Writer’s Workshop was the structure used at Opal School to support language and literacy. Our intentions for Story Workshop match the intentions of Writer’s Workshop: to nurture strong writers who are passionate about the work they do.
I’d like to invite you to spend some time reading this first chapter from Donald Graves’ book Writing: Teachers and Children at Work to give you a sneak peek into some of the early principles guiding Writer’s Workshop:
Reflection Questions: As you read, I hope you’ll take notes and pay close attention to what stands out to you.
At Opal School, our development of Story Workshop began when we asked, What might be the relationship between literacy and the arts? What might happen if we make more room for the arts in Writer’s Workshop? From that seed of a wondering, Story Workshop has developed into the structure that we’ll explore together over the next few weeks. We expect it will continue to evolve as we observe and reflect on the relationships between language, literacy, materials, time, play, imagination, and story. We’re excited to welcome you into this research with us, as we continue to observe, reflect, and share.
For more research and resources about Writer’s Workshop check out this blog about the fundamentals of Writer’s Workshop and these books!
- Writing Workshop Fundamentals Blog Series on the Two Writing Teachers blog
- Writing: Teachers and Children at Work by Donald Graves
- The Art of Teaching Writing and Living Between the Lines by Lucy Calkins
- About the Authors: Writing Workshop with Our Youngest Writers by Katie Wood Ray