Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Launching the Writer’s Workshop: My Plans

So, blogging again last week was a little ambitious for me. I went to two district days on the Common Core Curriculum, and by the end of those two days, my brain was done. For those of you who live in states that have opted into the Common Core for math and literacy, it looks very exciting. For NC teachers, the Essential Standards for other content areas also look awesome…I’ll blog on NC Essential Standards later.

The Essence of “Launching the Writing Workshop”
In 17 sessions, the unit moves through the writing process in a spiraling manner. . If you have read the Lucy Calkins units, you know that she also includes mid-workshop teaching points (MWTP), and conferring snapshots to give you an idea of how she helps students with different abilities be successful as writers.  Here’s a quick overview of the unit as she sets it out in Launching the Writing Workshop:

*Setting Up Writing Community *Generating/Brainstorming Strategies
*Identifying Focus/Planning *Drafting *Revising *Editing

Session 1: Starting the Writing Workshop
            MWTP: Writing More                     
Session 2: Generating More Writing
            MWTP: Generating More Personal Narrative Writing
Session 3: Qualities of Good Writing: Focus, Detail, Structure
            MWTP: Telling a Story Instead of All about a Topic
Session 4: The Writer’s Job in a Conference
            MWTP: Writing Stories Step-By-Step
Session 5: Building Stories Step-By-Step
            MWTP: Spelling High-Frequency Words with Automaticity
Session 6: Choosing a Seed Idea
            MWTP: Rehearsing for Writing by Storytelling
Session 7: Revising Leads: Learning from Published Writing
            MWTP: Using Quotation Marks
Session 8: Writing Discovery Drafts
            MWTP: Rereading to Build Writing Stamina
Session 9: Revising Endings: Learning from Published Writing
            MWTP: Checking for Sense
Session 10: Taking Charge of Our Writing Work: Starting a Second Piece
            MWTP: Solving our Own Problems
Session 11: Timelines as Tools for Planning Stories
            MWTP: Resetting the Tone
Session 12: Timelines as Tools for Developing Stories
            MWTP: Choosing a Starting Moment
Session 13: Writing from Inside a Memory
            MWTP: Paragraphing (Importance of)
Session 14: Writing in Passages of Thought: Paragraphing to Support Elaboration
            MWTP: Answering Readers’ Questions
Session 15: Developing the Heart of a Story
            MWTP: Inserting Paper to Help Revision
Session 16: Using Editing Checklists
            MWTP: Reading with Writing Partners
Session 17: Publishing: A Writing Community Celebrates

By the end of the unit, students will have drafted 2-3 personal narratives.

Mentor Texts for Personal Narrative

So I guess in retrospect, my changes to the unit as written are minor, and are perhaps the changes that any writing teacher would make—mostly based on my previous experiences as a writing teacher and based on the mode of teaching that seemed meaningful and effective for my students in the past, but I am excited about the depth my planning is able to take on when I am not worried about the scope and sequence of the unit (Lucy's already given me a skeleton for that), but can add my special touches. 

First things first, any writing unit I teach must be deeply rooted in mentor texts that model what it is I am hoping students will be able to do. Cynthia Rylant is usually my go to author for writing techniques, but because I rely heavily on When I was Young in the Mountains and The Relatives Came for my memoir unit AND since I am trying to change my approach to teaching writing in a dramatic way, I didn’t want to fall back on my old favorites and risk the chance that I would also fall into teaching writing with “business as usual” lesson plans. So, I spent a few hours at the library. Here are the gems I came up with as foundational books for first writing unit.

Bigmama’s and Shortcut by Donald Crews: (Lucy mentions these in some of her commentary). In the unit, students learn to decipher writing topics from WATERMELON topics (too much to really be a focused narrative) and SEED topics (those that are small and focused enough-like a seed-to be turned into a personal narrative). When I read Bigmama’s, I thought “This is a watermelon book. I can see a hundred seed stories that Donald Crews could tell about his summers spent at Bigmamas house.” Then I opened Shortcut, and there it was! A seed story about a summer at Bigmama’s house when Donald and his cousins took the shortcut by the train tracks—which the children had been told time and again not to do—and the revelation that it wasn’t a good idea to walk close to the tracks. I plan to use these two stories to demonstrate the difference between a watermelon piece of writing that contains lots of ideas (Bigmama’s) and a seed idea that turns into a personal narrative (Shortcut).

When Lightning Comes in a Jar by Patricia Polacco: Nearly every Patricia Polacco book is a great example of personal narrative, but I chose When Lightning Comes in a Jar because of the story’s structure. It tells of a family reunion when Trisha’s grandmother and aunts tell the children a story of “when lightning comes in a jar” and end up teaching them how to catch lighting. The story has two potential leads to consider, as the book starts with “Today is my family reunion. I can hardly wait.” but in the next paragraph, it begins “How I remember that day. Gramma and I stood in her front window waiting for my relatives to come.” And this leads into the story of the day Gramma taught Trish to catch lighting in a jar. The beginning of the book contains great description of the beginning of the reunion, reuniting with family members and feasting on all the great dishes, playing baseball and crochet, and pulling out family albums. Towards the middle of the book, the kids start asking for stories. This leads into pages of small personal narratives from Gramma and the aunts, any of which are great models for the personal narratives that students will write. The end of the story has really good reflection in it. Just like the beginning, you can use quite a few of the ending paragraphs as examples of how Patricia Polacco could have ended her piece of writing.  I actually can’t wait to return to this book again during our memoir unit later in the year. Basically, I see the structure of this book as:

descriptive lead (for pages and like a WATERMELON piece of writing)-->personal narrative from Aunt Ivah (seed)-->personal narrative from Aunt Adah (seed)-->personal narrative from Gramma (seed)-->descriptive and reflective conclusion/powerful ending

One thing I took into consideration as I scanned through books at the library was tapping into “boy” experiences. In doing so, I found two great mentor texts with male narrators.

Touch the Sky Summer by Jean Van Leeuwen: Luke and his brother Peter spend a week at their Grandparents cabin by the lake. This story has a great descriptive beginning with minimal use of dialogue that will allow me to demonstrate for students why writers sometimes choose to use dialogue. In the middle, the author includes a number of scenes that could be examples of personal narratives. I see the author’s seed list as:
                -the day we hiked up Tongue Mountain
                -the day it rained and what we did
                -the day I went fishing
                -the morning we got up early and went out in Mr. Parkinson’s boat
                -the night we camped out in our tent
                -the last day when I was able to swim out all the way to the raft
All of these ideas may be more than most our students are capable of in one draft given the limited amount of time in the unit, but I will be happy if they are able to focus their energies into at least two seed ideas that turn into a whole story with a beginning, middle, and end.

Where the Big Fish Are by Jonathan London: (although only one of the books at my library fit what I was looking for in this unit, I was excited to find Jonathan London and see myself using lots of his books this year for writing). This book is a more focused narrative. Two boys go fishing (like they do every day of summer) and get inspired to build a raft. When the raft is completed and gets destroyed by a storm, they build again, and achieve their goal of getting to fish farther out on the water “where the big fish are.” I thought this story was a good example because it is one narrative and will hopefully speak to the experiences of boys in my classroom. (It’s not that I think only boys go fishing, but I realize that many of the stories I choose to use as mentors for writing tend to have girls as the main characters, and since I am planning my mentors ahead of time for this unit, I also wanted to target diversity in the examples I share with students.)

As I begin my year, I will read these stories before I plan to use them in a writing lesson. This will help students understand the writing lesson more clearly because they won’t be as focused on what is happening in the story and predicting what will happen next. It’s always a good idea to pull a book from reader’s workshop into writer’s workshop (and how proud am I that for once, I am actually planning this ahead of time!!!)

Watermelon VS Seed Writing
The unit has a huge focus on getting students to understand the difference between a watermelon topic (this summer at the beach) and a seed idea (the day I caught a wave at the beach). A watermelon topic is much too large and general for students to do a good job with. A seed topic is just right and allows students to learn how to focus their writing topics, elaborate and "make a movie in the readers' minds" (aka "show-don't-tell"),  revise beginning and endings, and edit. It also allows them the opportunity to write many small drafts instead of one draft that goes on and on (you know, the kind of student writing that you dread reading because you don't know what the point is and you don't know when it is going to end, nor does the writer).

This is an area where I disagree somewhat with Lucy, or at least feel that I can use the watermelon kind of writing to lift the level of my students' writing right away. One reason why I plan to modify this aspect of the unit is because of the narrative mentors I found. Nearly all of them started off with the watermelon list of descriptions (like Bigmama's could have been the watermelon beginning to Shortcut). I actually want to teach them to take all that stuff they want to write about the person, time, and/or place and get it out descriptively for the beginning of their story, then transition into the specific narrative, ending it off with another descriptive or reflective ending. I guess I am wanting students to start out broad, focus in, and then go broad again in their draft.

More on my changes to come.....


  1. I have found that with the common core more writing needs to be informative as in explanatory, critiques, arguments, etc. How do you plan on putting that in your writing workshop?


    Have you seen this appendix doc from Common Core? It might give some ideas. I will post more about this later to share some things that have worked in the past. Thanks for the question!



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