First Grade Writing Conferences, Part 3, Management Tips for Writing Workshop

I'm back with Part 3, my final post for Effective Writing Conferences. If you'd like to see the first two posts, click below:

Today I'm sharing some ideas inspired by my reading of One to One, The Art of Conferring with Young Writers that will help you manage your writing workshop so well that you can focus on holding valuable conferences with your students, and improve the overall productivity of your writing workshop.

Creating a Thoughtful Classroom, Management Tips for Writing Workshop

OK, so what's the first tip? It's something we all know well... establish routines and procedures!

Creating a Thoughtful Classroom, Management Tips for Writing Workshop
Since orchestrating a classroom of writers all working at various levels on different pieces is complex (to say the least!), you must go over your routines and procedures with a fine-toothed comb. This means envisioning how the workshop will proceed (what both you AND the students will be doing) from start to finish. This includes movement transitions, seating arrangements, the lesson/writing itself and everything thing in between.

The rationale behind micro planning your writing workshop is that it will establish a sound logistical structure that will allow you to maximize your time for teaching and learning for the whole school year. Once the proper procedures are put into place, reinforced and learned, students will be able to function with independence allowing the teacher to spend more time conferring with writers.

Things to consider:
  • How will my classroom be arranged to accommodate a gathering space for mini-lessons as well as places for independent writing?
  • How will they transition between these areas for the mini-lesson and independent writing, and then again for sharing?
  • How will students sit? Will they have partners?
  • What signals will I use to get students' attention?
  • How will I manage supplies? Where will students store their writing folders? How will they access them?
A lot to think about, right? Here are some ideas to help:
  • think out how your workshop will function in your actual classroom space so that you can anticipate potential problems. For example, you will get a sense of traffic patterns in the room if you look around your room and think about how best to dismiss students from the rug to their seats.
  • consider assigning seats on the gathering rug to accommodate students’ learning needs (some kids should be close to you, or have their "own space" on the rug), pair up writing partners for sharing and streamline the time it takes your students to get settled (because they do not need to think about where to sit.)
  • after the mini-lesson is over,  dismiss students by rows on the rug to their tables or desks to start writing because this usually creates less traffic in the room than dismissing them by table seating assignments.
  • use songs during transition times, or to reinforce behaviors and keep kids focused. For example, you can sing "This is the way walk to our seats, walk to our seats....(Skip to My Lou tune).
  • model, model, model. Take lots of time to teach procedures through mini-lessons. Have students model for their peers and have "refresher" sessions whenever management becomes more difficult.

Creating a Thoughtful Classroom, Management Tips for Writing Workshop
In order for a workshop structure to function at all, students must be able to think critically and creatively to solve their own problems and work with independence. If you are familiar with Lucy Calkins' writing units, you already know she encourages teachers to expect this in their students. Some ideas to help:
  • teach your students the expression, “When you’re done, you’ve only just begun” and frequently remind them that authors add on to their writing or continue on by starting a new piece. If they raise their hand or come up to you to tell you they’re done, recite the line and ask them if they’ll be adding on or beginning a new piece- they have no choice but to pick one of the two! Pretty soon, students will be reminding one another and you won't have to say it often.
  • value effort more highly than correctness. Another writing workshop slogan we use in my classroom is, “Try your best and forget the rest,” meaning that students should do what they are able to do at that moment and accept what they cannot do, only because they haven't learned it yet. This helps to discourage anxious writers from stopping when they get stuck or feel challenged. Teaching children to have a growth mindset is one of the best ways to cultivate lifelong learners!
  • encourage self-starting by preparing them right after the mini-lesson while they are still on the gathering rug. You could have them review their writing from the previous session (they'll need their folders with them on the rug) and make a plan for that day's work, or you could simply ask them to give you "thumbs up" when they have a writing idea to start on. Once they've got that plan, send them back to their seats to get started.
  • be consistent! Do not give in to needy students who approach you while you are engaged in a conference and let them interrupt you- hold fast to your expectations. 
Creating a Thoughtful Classroom, Management Tips for Writing Workshop

Chapter 3 of One to One was extremely helpful because record keeping has always been a struggle for me. The following quote hits the nail on the head, 

“We haven’t figured out how the records can fit into the big picture of our teaching. If our notes aren’t useful, then why take them?” 

My notes were not useful. I didn’t really know what to write, so I would write things like, "Johnny: small moment story- going to park".  Making a note about what the student wrote about wasn’t helpful at all because it didn’t tell me what the student was actually doing as a writer. I was not even thinking about the learning goals! Moreover, writing a comment isn’t the most efficient way to assess students when you have around 20 (or more) in your class to attend to. 

This year I will be using a conference checklist modelled after the ones Lucy shares in her units of writing. I really like how she uses symbols to record progress towards writing goalsI kept the same symbols on my checklist because they make sense to me, but lessened the number of goals to make it more manageable. 

"T" means that you taught/reviewed that skill or strategy during a conference.
"O" means that the child needs instruction in this area soon, but they may not be ready for it yet.
"/" means you saw evidence of the student demonstrating this skill or strategy.
"X" means you saw more evidence of it.

Creating a Thoughtful Classroom, Management Tips for Writing Workshop
Click on the checklist to get a copy

I highlighted columns to group students' names by their table seats to help me remind myself to spread out the conferences around the room. For example, meet with a student at table 1, then table 4, and so on, making my presence known around the room, not just in one area. I also thought about conferring with a group at one table- I'm not sure if sorting students' names like this will make a difference, so I will just have to try out this checklist to see if it is helpful. 

I included skills and behaviors that I thought were important for students to acquire for independence in the workshop. I will use this checklist during the launching phase at the beginning of the year, and then create others depending on other units.

Suggestions for record-keeping:

  • create a checklist of unit goals for each writing unit and use that to guide your conferences. It helps to collaborate with other teachers at your grade level when doing this. 
  • start using a new checklist each week and compare weeks to monitor students' progress and how you are balancing your conferring time among the class.
  • use a "status for the class" record sheet to keep track of how students are progressing through the writing process. You'll quickly notice if certain students seem to be stuck in the brainstorming or drafting stage; pinpointing their area of difficulty will help you to determine a teaching point that could move them forward. Here's a sample from Orange County Public Schools:

What tips do you have for managing procedures, promoting independence and keeping records during writing workshop? I'd love you hear your ideas!

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