Writer’s Workshop: Inform and Explain

RS typingWe’ve spent the last few weeks running through our second full-press writer’s workshop.  I’ve based most of our writing curriculum around Kelly Gallagher‘s book Write Like This, and all credit goes to him for this prompt and focus.

(Buy this book.  Right now.)

We first looked at Inform and Explain writing with our work around Joshua Dickerson’s poem and #Iwishmyteacherknew.

We talked about how “inform and explain” writing is different than research; it’s all about showing and telling your experience and your own knowledge.

(And it’s the kind of writing that I use the most when complaining and complimenting companies via email and Facebook.)

I was a witness.
From there, I asked my students to brainstorm things that they had seen before.  It couldn’t be something they’d done; it had to be something that they could report on as a bystander.

I shared a list of my own experiences with them, and together, we started to draft a piece around the focus:  I was a witness…

We were going to tell pieces of our own histories.

We spent two periods working on brainstorming and sloppy, “worst drafts ever.”
Some students typed and others were more comfortable with a pencil.  Whatever works for them, works for me.  

Some wrote and finished the first day, spending the next day with their choice book.  Some spaced for the first day and wrote a draft the second.  Some didn’t do much at all…and sat out during our first few days of workshop, finishing their work.

Just like last time, it was hard for me to stand back and let them think, space out, and work at their own pace.  I’m getting better, but it feels absolutely torturous to me.

(Working on my own piece of writing helps with this…a  little.)

Just like last time, somehow it all came together.

Among our topics:  

  • a dog pulling a dishwasher down the stairs
  • a child deliberately peeing in  grocery store
  • a cat sitting on a bed
  • a car accident on a snowy day
  • a drunk aunt using a box of wine as a purse
  • a sister’s suicide attempt
  • a heroin overdose at a party

We stay anonymous to the very end.
As you can gather from the above list, many of these stories were  pretty tough to put out into the universe.  Because of this, my number one rule during workshop is to keep yourself and others anonymous.  We may have guesses, but we’re not guessing.  Names aren’t added to pieces until the very last second.

workshop circle

My view on workshop days.

On our first workshop day, we all brought our (anonymous) drafts to the group.
This time, all pieces were read aloud to the class.

We passed the pieces around the circle, mixing them up until we’d lost track of where ours had landed.

We corrected grammatical and mechanical errors.  Just like last time, we began by sharing out the lines we loved from the pieces.

DetroitAs we listened to the pieces read aloud, students wrote questions for the author on Post-Its.  Afterwards, we passed our notes down to the reader of the piece.

(These Post-Its were anonymous, but won’t be next time.  Students became a little too comfortable with their anonymity, and some questions teetered on the edge of disrespect.)

This was the longest, but most engaging, method of workshopping for my classes.  My students really loved listening to each other’s stories, and definitely took the more serious essays to heart.

What about the students who didn’t want to read out loud?
I read it for them.  No big deal:  We’re assessing writing, not reading or speaking.   Who cares if they don’t read it themselves?

(I altered and stole this read-aloud model from Liz Ahl,  who was my poetry and creative writing professor at Plymouth State University…and  is also a great human and friend.)

JD typing
After our read-aloud workshop, we paused to edit against our feedback.  Students weren’t required to answer every question asked, but they were required to answer all that they felt were relevant to their topic.

This went quickly.  After one period, we were ready to look at a new, still anonymous, draft.

We gathered together in a circle again and looked at the pieces against the rubric.  

This time, I’d learned my lesson from the anonymous Post-Its and required my students to put their names on the work they were assessing.

Together, we went through every category of the rubric, and the editors reflected on each section in a sentence.

Written feedbackThis workshop-generated feedback was more detailed and focused than I could reasonably give on 96 essays, and because of that, their final products were extremely polished.

We took one more day to edit, and then students passed in clean copies (finally, with names).

writing collage
So far, this process has produced Magical Exemplary Drafts.

After two runs through a full-press, whole-class workshop, I can safely say that this method has produced the Best Writing I’d Ever Graded.

Sitting together in a circle, modeling, and talking together has worked better than any other method I’ve ever used to teach writing, including peer and teacher one:one conferencing.  

My students were engaged throughout the whole process because they were able to choose their topic, write from experience, and listen to the stories of others.

I’m not sure I’ll ever give a focused essay question ever again.




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