How can a workshop approach help students meet the demands of the Common Core?

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When I first looked through the Writing Standards for the Common Core, I realized how the game had changed for English Language Arts instruction.  The standards lay out explicit expectations for the kinds of writing, the structure of writing and even the process that students should use to write.   In looking at Appendix C, I began to get a little nervous.  The exemplars that were contained in the appendix set the standard for acceptable writing much higher than what we were used to. 

                In our state, our students have not had a state writing assessment in years.  Ohio, like many other states, removed this assessment because of cost.  In turn, teachers naturally began to focus on the subjects that were tested, since these high stakes tests impacted much more than simply instructional decision making.  They impacted schools and districts and in some cases, even individual teachers, as their grades were made public.  So overall, the teaching of reading became infinitely more important than writing. 

                Now, as our standards have changed and our testing is changing as well, many teachers have felt that is time to re-focus on writing.  To do this, we must look at how our instructional practices must change before we can hope to meet the new expectations.  As I began to research best practices for the teaching of writing, I came across this research brief from the National Council of the Teachers of English.  This highly respected professional organization has long espoused the need for explicit writing instruction and maintained that there is a direct link between reading and writing- that improvement in one area leads to improvement in the other.  But as I read this brief, I was struck as to how closely the research aligns with a workshop format for instruction.

                Below are some of the findings from that brief.  I have tried to lay out how each piece is consistent with a workshop approach.

What the Research says:

Students need to write extensively (especially less experienced writers) if they are to become good writers.

                In the writing workshop, students spend the bulk of their time actually writing, rather than hearing about good writing from their teacher or doing worksheets on specific grammar skills or spelling drills.  Although explicit instruction, grammar and spelling are valuable, none are meaningful by themselves.  Students need to actually spend time practicing their writing.  You don’t get better at playing the piano by hearing about what good piano players do, or filling out worksheets on notes.  The more students write the better writers they will become.

When students are given explicit instruction in writing, it improves the quality and quantity of their writing.

                The workshop time starts off with a mini-lesson each day.  This mini-lesson, although not long, is a time when the teacher can share specific skills and strategies that will make them better writers.  Explicit instruction is key.  It is not enough to simply say that writing occurs naturally across the curriculum.  Although that is hopefully true, writing deserves its own time during the day.  Students need instruction on what makes for good writing independent of content area.  We would never say that we don’t have a math time, that we just teach it embedded in science.  Writing, like math, should have its own time carved out each day.

Quality feedback that asks students to develop their writing and expand their ideas results in improvement.

                During the writing workshop, teachers have time built in to confer with individual and small groups of children in order to offer feedback on their writing and give them specific instruction that will make them better writers, not just for that piece they are working on, but for all future work as well.  Writing workshop gives teachers time necessary to offer this feedback within the moment of writing.  It allows the teacher to coach the student into the behaviors of good writers.

Opportunities to work with peers in pre-writing, drafting and revising enables students to develop a strong sense of audience as well as a more fully developed understanding of voice in writing.

                Learning is social.  Students learn best when they are allowed to discuss, share, and create with others.  As literature circles are used to help students think more deeply about text, writing partners and group shares within a writing workshop can help students think more deeply and critically about their writing.  In this way, students learn very early that writing is a form of communication between the writer and his audience.  Writing is not just something we do for a teacher.

Writing needs to be authentic; students need to write for real world purposes, in answer to assignments that connect with their lived experiences.

                Students need to write about what they know and have choice and voice in their writing.  It is important that they are not always writing to prompts.  They need to have time to write things that are meaningful to them, and have practice coming up with topics on their own.  While in testing situations students will have to write to a prompt, this is not the only writing students will have to do in their life.  If we are preparing them for a successful future, we need to make sure that they have experiences with many types of writing.  Writing workshop allows for this. 

 While the Common Core Standards give us a map for where students need to go, they do not tell us how to get there.  That is up to the individual teacher and their own expertise.  It is not about the materials a teachers uses.  It is about the knowledge and skill that a teacher possesses.  Writing workshop is simply a format for teachers to be able to meet the needs of their individual learners in a way that will make them successful as readers and writers.

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