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Writing Workshops: The Only Way to Go

The National Writing Project (NWP) has caught my attention again. In my last blog entry, “Writing to Learn Revisited…Again,” I expressed my concern (alarm?) about an Education Week article discussing a writing-to-learn workshop for teachers in Oakland, California. As I stated, writing to learn has been around forever, and I thought it was pretty much a standard teaching strategy known about and used by most teachers. I also called NWP’s effectiveness into question since they are still spreading the word about writing to learn, some 20 or 30 years after it was first introduced.

This week I got my NWP fix in an interview, “The Written Word,” that appeared on the Teacher Magazine Web site. In this interview, Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, NWP Director of National Programs, was asked about differentiation and writing instruction. She noted that the NWP programs “invest in the teachers, making sure that they understand writing inside out.” (I wonder if that includes writing to learn.)

Here’s her point: Once teachers truly understand the craft of writing, and write regularly themselves, then they will have the know-how to differentiate (scaffold) writing instruction in their classrooms. She also noted how NWP programs help build supportive networks of like-minded colleagues. Certainly, if you have groups of writers/teachers/researchers who all understand the power of writing, great things can happen in the classroom.

What Eidman-Aadahol doesn’t do is mention any specific classroom strategies that address differentiation. That was not the focus of her remarks. Even so, I was just waiting for her to say that turning a classroom into a writing workshop is the perfect strategy for dealing with differentiation.

You may…or you may not…already know about the writing workshop approach, but no form of instruction is more student centered. Students write at their own pace, read books that interest them, interact, take risks, decide what projects to work on next, and so on. Former students tell us (the Write Source authors) all the time how they really learned to read and write in our language arts classes. It’s because of the workshop approach that we develop our handbooks—Writers Express, Write on Track, etc. We wanted students to have a basic resource they could refer to on their own terms when writing, reading, and learning.

Conducting a writing workshop allows teachers to shift more of their attention to helping students explore their own interests and improve their emerging writing abilities. Instead of the assembly-line approach to teaching (everyone complete page 43 for tomorrow), a workshop naturally individualizes instruction; the students’ personal needs serve as the core of the curriculum. Workshop teachers become classroom managers, providing an atmosphere conducive to writing and learning. They write themselves, conduct personal conferences, implement minilessons, and offer support.

If the workshop approach is new to you, read In the Middle by Nancie Atwell and Seeking Diversity by Linda Rief for two thorough discussions of the process. You might also contact your local writing project to see if they conduct writing-workshop seminars. (If summer training in writing-to-learn strategies is still being offered, surely they’ll have something for implementing writing workshops in the classroom.)

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